When Eren Nalani Martin-Beat moved to Las Vegas in the mid-2000s, she had no idea the city was known as Hawaii’s ninth island.
Martin-Beat is Native Hawaiian, but she was born and raised in Kansas. She didn’t grow up making trips to Vegas for vacations, sports tournaments or high school reunions, like so many people in Hawaii do.
But when work brought her to Las Vegas, it didn’t take long to spot signs of Hawaii in the desert.
There’s a magazine that caters to people from Hawaii. Scores of restaurants serving saimin and lau lau and Spam musubi. There are even a few of Waikiki’s ubiquitous ABC stores.
“We have (Hawaiian) festivals, music, food. We have everything,” Martin-Beat says. “But how do we sustain that and keep that going?”
Today, Martin-Beat is trying to start a Hawaiian-focused charter school to help kids stay connected to their heritage and culture. More than 900 students have been signed up on an interest list for the school.
Last summer, Martin-Beat stopped by a small public park near the airport to talk to families about the proposed school. It was blindingly hot — 103 degrees and climbing — but with the help of popup tents and water sprinklers, a few dozen Hawaiians were braving the heat to share a potluck picnic.
“We’re crazy. It’s going be 110 today, you know, and we’re out here in the sun,” said Cece Cullen. “Hawaiians gathering because it’s important to us … Making these connections, building these bridges, keeping our traditions alive.”
So how exactly did Las Vegas become such a hub for Hawaiians?
The answer involves a struggling casino, the power of local connections, and Coors beer.
Native Hawaiians have been in Las Vegas since the gambling mecca’s early years.
In fact, it was two Native Hawaiians who pioneered the lounge entertainment scene in Las Vegas in the 1950s.
But it wasn’t until the mid-70s that Hawaiians began moving to Las Vegas in sizable numbers. That’s when a man named Sam Boyd opened The California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
This story is part of a podcast series about the Hawaiian diaspora.
In Far From Home, host Kuʻu Kauanoe takes a hard look at why Hawaiians are leaving the islands today and tells surprising stories from history about Hawaiians who left long ago.
This is week five of the six-week series. The stories running on Civil Beat’s site accompany — but don’t mirror — the audio stories, so be sure to check out both.
The casino, better known as the Cal, is a big part of why so many Hawaiians live in Las Vegas now, says Caroline Sakaguchi Kunioka, curator of history and collections at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas.
The Cal was originally marketed to — you guessed it — people coming to Las Vegas from California. But it didn’t go very well.
“They weren’t getting any people because it’s off the beaten track,” Kunioka, says.
Boyd, the owner of the Cal, had lived in Hawaii for a while as a kid. So he decided to pivot and market his casino to people in the islands.
Boyd started marketing the casino in the islands, working with airlines to offer cheap fares. He’d offer free meals, even free rooms to people coming from Hawaii. And he tried to cater to people from Hawaii by offering Hawaii foods instead of Southwestern fare.
“And he pulled stunts,” Kunioka says. “Like he discovered that Hawaii didn’t have Coors beer so he would send back airplane bellies full of Coors beer to travel agents in the area in Hawaii all over the islands and send that as gifts.”
It worked. The Cal expanded from 350 rooms to 800 rooms — almost all of them filled with people from Hawaii.
Boyd started hiring people from Hawaii to work at the Cal. And as the cost of living continued to increase in Hawaii, more and more people who had vacationed at the Cal or had family working at the Cal — they started moving to Las Vegas.
People of all ethnicities from Hawaii moved — not just Native Hawaiians. But the connections have created a sense of comfort and ohana for many people making the long move. People from Hawaii can be found across the city.
“They live in Summerlin. They live in Henderson. They live in North Vegas. They live everywhere,” Kunioka says. “But they always come back to the Cal.”
Many Hawaiians are drawn to Vegas for job opportunities and the lower cost of living. Food is cheaper. Housing is cheaper.
Kunioka also sees a larger economic link: Both Hawaii and Las Vegas have economies that are dominated by tourism. It’s an easy jump, she says, to move from working in hospitality in one state to hospitality in another.
But connections between people in Hawaii and Las Vegas also contribute to the out-migration.
Wendell Staszkow, a Native Hawaiian from Palolo, vacationed in Vegas frequently as an adult — often staying at the Cal with friends.
“On one of our trips, we happened to go look at houses and we saw one that we thought was great,” Stastzow says. “And so when I retired in Hawaii, we said, ‘well, let’s leave the kids and run away and go live in Las Vegas.’”
Staszkow, who retired from the Hawaii Department of Education, got a job working at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the admissions office.
Until last year, when he retired for the second time, he was recruiting close to 200 students a year to attend UNLV. The school offers a scholarship program for students in Hawaii that drops tuition down to about the same price as in-state tuition at the University of Hawaii.
“Most of the students that came to UNLV, they’ve already been to Las Vegas two or three times,” Staszkow said. “Many of them have relatives who live here … So for their families and for the students, there was an automatic draw. They felt comfortable.”
Cece Cullen moved to Las Vegas with her family after her husband was offered a job there a few years ago. In Hawaii they had been struggling to make ends meet and they were both working long hours — which left little time to spend with her children.
She moved in the middle of winter, and that first year was hard.
“I cried every night,” Cullen says. “It was literally cold outside, cold inside. My heart was cold. I hated it.”
Things got better, though. Much better.
In Vegas, they could live on her husband’s single income. She could be a stay-at-home mom, spend time with her kids, and really focus her energy on creating the family life that she felt was missing in Hawaii.
“It comes with a lot of sacrifices as well because we’re not home in Hawaii,” Cullen says. “But we are allowed to be more united as an ohana.”
Cullen also has more time in Vegas to spend immersed in her culture — dancing hula, teaching her children Hawaiian. And she’s become active in the large community of Native Hawaiians in Vegas.
Cullen and her family have become what she calls “aloha ambassadors.”
“When people move up they’re calling us,” Cullen says. “Like where do we go for furniture? Where can I eat over here? Tell me, where is the good manapua?”
It’s hard to pin down exactly how many Native Hawaiians live in the area. The most recent census is now a decade old. School enrollment forms don’t have Native Hawaiian as an ethnicity — something that proved challenging for Martin-Beat with her first application to the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority.
“One of the difficulties that we are having is proving that there’s lots of Hawaiians here,” Martin-Beat told a prospective parent last July. “That’s one of the reasons we didn’t pass the first time, because they’re like, well, you have no data to support that you have a big Hawaiian population.”
Here’s one measure of the community’s size: When Cullen put a call out on social media in 2019 for Hawaiians to participate in a protest against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Hawaii, she got more than 500 cars driven by Native Hawaiians to cruise down the Las Vegas Strip waving flags and protest signs.
“We have such a huge community here,” Cullen says.
Dorinda Burnet is the president of the Las Vegas Hawaiian Civics Club. She’s been working to encourage participation in the 2020 census. She also testified to the charter commission for Martin-Beat about the size and vibrancy of the Hawaiian community in Vegas.
Because of COVID-19, planned community events for the census have been canceled, but Burnet and others are helping people fill out the census virtually.
“I tell people if more of us engage in the census, more money will be allocated to our communities for the resources we need,” Burnet says. “Tell your cousin, tell your aunty, tell your uncle, tell everybody to do this.”
There’s another measure of the community, though: All the ways Hawaiians have helped each other and their neighbors in Vegas get through the pandemic.
Burnet has been helping people file for unemployment, go grocery shopping. An organization called Ninth Island Aunties has been making masks and holding food drives.
The downturn in the economy in Las Vegas may slow down the growth of the Hawaiian community there for a bit. Staszkow says there’s been a slight decline in the number of applicants from Hawaii at UNLV this year, and the school isn’t sure yet how many students will actually enroll in the fall.
Staszkow says though that he’s in Las Vegas for good.
“We really love it here,” he says. “And so we’re going to stay.”
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