Kealohi Minami was 17 years old the first time she went inside her grandfather’s house in Lahaina.
Minami was born and raised in California and grew up hearing stories about the historic home her grandfather grew up in with its beautiful wraparound porch, rocking chairs, and this huge welcoming door.
She also grew up hearing stories about how her family lost the house after years of financial hardships. To make ends meet, her grandfather joined the military and moved to the mainland, jumpstarting the diaspora for his descendants who would all be born and raised outside Hawaii.
One year during an annual trip to Hawaii, her dad took her to the house and asked the current owners if they could go inside. It was painful to walk around and see all the renovations they’d made.
Minami told me about the deep sense of loss she felt — the loss of a physical family home, but also losing a connection to her homeland — last August atop Mauna Kea as part of a reporting project for Civil Beat.
“There’s a lot of sadness and a lot of pain when we talk about home. For my grandpa, moving away definitely drew a line of disconnection between him and his culture,” Minami said.
Minami felt called to participate in the protest movement against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, but also saw the opportunity to be immersed in her culture and rediscover her connection to Hawaii.
I was at Mauna Kea to ask Hawaiians about their sense of identity and what it means to be Hawaiian –– in Hawaii and abroad.
Nearly half of all Native Hawaiians now live outside of Hawaii. We wanted to talk to people and understand why they were leaving, would they come back, and how they hold on to their culture abroad.
Over the course of a year reporting for Civil Beat’s Offshore podcast, I chatted with people from California to New York. We held weekly talk stories with people from all over the world, as far as Finland, and we found that a lot of Hawaiians struggle with questions of identity.
So many Hawaiians we talked to — in the diaspora but also here in the islands — have been on a painful journey to discovering who they are as Hawaiians. So many questions about identity and culture that weren’t being talked about.
“I feel like we’re all just going through our own journey, figuring out where we fit into this greater community,” Minami said.
I started working on this season of Offshore because I had a lot of questions about people leaving Hawaii. What will my community look like when I get older? Where are all the Hawaiians going and how do they hold on to their culture wherever they are?
These questions evolved into a greater theme for this season as we met so many other people wrestling with their identity. It made me question if I am Hawaiian enough and I wanted to know if other people felt this way.
I’m a digital producer at Civil Beat. I usually help reporters with their stories, taking photos and videos. But this season I stepped into a reporting role because this issue is very personal to me.
Hosting Offshore allowed me to really explore my own connection to Hawaiian culture and who I am as a Native Hawaiian. Words like kuleana, naʻau, and kulaiwi — responsibility, gut, and native land — were floating around me and it really made me think about our connection to Hawaii, as our ancestral homeland and the root of our culture and lifestyle.
Being born in Hawaii and raised on Hawaiian homesteads, even going to a Hawaiian charter school, did not make me feel confident in my Hawaiian identity. I always felt like I didn’t know enough. I wasn’t like my cousins who danced hula or went to Kamehameha Schools. This gut-wrenching feeling of being disconnected — I wondered if other people felt this and how they reconciled it.
I wasn’t prepared for just how many people grapple with this exact feeling.
We got a pretty broad — though informal — look at the diaspora this season through a questionnaire on the Civil Beat site.
Nearly 200 people responded — most were on the West Coast, but others were in Connecticut, Florida, South Korea and Abu Dhabi.
The reasons they left — and the reasons they stay away — varied. There was a Native Hawaiian who left for college, became a park ranger in Oregon and now finds it hard to leave a place where land is protected in ways he doesn’t see in Hawaii. A farmer who doesn’t think she’ll move back because of how expensive land is. A veteran who loves his community and lifestyle all the way in Arizona.
Most of the people who responded told us that they were connected to a Native Hawaiian community where they lived and had found ways to practice their culture.
There was a woman who started a Hawaiian reggae band in Salinas, California. A man in Colorado who cashes in on his flight benefits to come home often. A woman who teaches her kids their Hawaiian history in Virginia.
It was reassuring to find out how people stay connected in creative ways. But the more we talked to people, the more we also heard about their struggles to feel Hawaiian enough and how there is a lot of shame and guilt around this question.
Matthew Zwicker was born in Hawaii, but moved to Montana when he was 11 years old. One summer he was visiting his hometown of Kealakekua and his aunty joked that he was “haole-fied.”
“That moment in my life just got so ingrained into my memory and those memories affect our identities,” he said.
Eren Nalani Martin-Beat was born and raised in Kansas. She now lives in Las Vegas. When she tells people she’s Hawaiian, they usually question her because of her fair skin. Even her mother has commented that she looks so haole.
“It hurts me because I do want to fit in. I can’t help the way I look,” she said.
Martin-Beat tried to learn olelo Hawaii and be more involved in the community because she felt the need to prove she was just as Hawaiian as everyone else.
Kauʻi Baumhofer was raised with a strong sense of her Hawaiian identity growing up in Aiea. Even when she went away to college on the mainland, she still felt connected to her culture and her family. It actually wasn’t until she came back to Hawaii to start her career that other Hawaiians told her that she’d been away too long. That she was haole now.
“It took me like a few years to kind of get the confidence in my identity and myself as a Hawaiian and the way that my mother raised me, in the way that my grandparents raised me,” she said.
Baumhofer now teaches Native Hawaiian and Indigenous Health and Healing at University of Hawaii West Oahu. In one of her classes, she asked her students about their sense of Hawaiian identity and to her surprise, many of them felt like they weren’t Hawaiian enough.
Despite going to Hawaiian charter schools and speaking Hawaiian, Baumhofer thought they would have the most confidence in being Hawaiian – something she really had to grow into when she came back from college. Now, it’s her life’s purpose.
“Helping students to understand that, you know, we’re existing as indigenous people in a foreign environment, in our own homeland is part of that healing process,” Baumhofer said.
Noenoe Silva, who teaches Indigenous politics at the University of Hawaii Manoa, thinks a lot of this sense of disconnection comes back to language.
The loss of Hawaiian language over generations of Hawaiians, she says, was a cultural bomb that made people feel disconnected from their culture, history and identity.
Born and raised in Kailua, she moved to California in her childhood and spent most of her life abroad. She didn’t move back to Hawaii and learn Hawaiian language until she was in her 30s. Now she’s a recognized scholar from her work on discovering the Kuʻe petitions.
“The joy of my life is being able to spend my time learning Hawaiian, reading Hawaiian, teaching it and then being able to share my research with everybody else and be able to make a positive contribution to our knowledge about who our kupuna were,” she said.
Silva is inspired when she sees her young students embracing their language. She tells her students, “don’t wait for an invite.”
“Just go and join and do that thing, like go volunteer at a fish pond, go volunteer at a loʻi, go join a halau and learn hula,” Silva said.
Silva’s story of reclaiming her language is just one of the amazing journeys we’ve heard this season. So many Hawaiians have found their own ways to feel Hawaiian.
We met a group of Hawaiians in Las Vegas who learn olelo — speak Hawaiian — together at local restaurants. Other Hawaiians have found a connection to their culture by joining a hula halau.
“That’s one of the ironies of living here. I get to live my life as a hula teacher thousands of miles away from home. Live a comfortable life and preserve my culture, create a Hawaiian community,” said Patrick Makuakane, a choreographer and kumu hula who lives in San Francisco.
Minami says she felt it in her naʻau to come to Mauna Kea. She came up alone until her sister, Kaylilani Minami, joined her. Neither of them felt comfortable saying they were from California.
“Itʻs one of those things where you have to lay low, which kind of sucks because you want to feel like this is your community but there’s still that little barrier,” Minami said.
Because she had spent time in Lahaina and on the mauna, she finally got to feel what it was like to live in her homeland. Learning Hawaiian practices and being surrounded by other kanaka gave her a sense of comfort and reassurance in who she is as a Hawaiian.
“Now I know it’s time for me to return,” Minami said.
When I went to Mauna Kea, I was nervous about what people would think about me as a Hawaiian. No matter how you feel about the telescopes, the kiaʻi (guardians) seem as Hawaiian as you can get because it seems like most of them know the history, speak olelo Hawaii, or dance hula.
After having so many vulnerable conversations on the mauna, I realized that a lot of us were struggling with our identity. Everyone created their own standards of “Hawaiian-ness” and when they weren’t met, there was a lot of shame and self-doubt.
But talking through all of these insecurities brought me peace.
When I realized I wasn’t the only one, I felt much more confident in my own definition of being Hawaiian. Making all of these connections made me feel more comfortable in my identity, no matter what other people think.
All of these encouraging stories about how people discover their Hawaiian identity made me realize I was asking the wrong question.
Of course I am Hawaiian enough. I am a part of this lahui.
The real question is where we do we go from here? Where do Hawaiians go next on this journey?
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?