Naka Nathaniel: Iam Tongi Shared An Important Message About Life In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

The inconvenient truth of how hard it is for people to make ends meet in the islands isn’t part of the normal sun and surf narrative.

Iam Tongi made Hawaii proud by winning “American Idol,” but more importantly, he helped a large audience understand one of Hawaii’s most difficult challenges in a quick rhetorical exchange with Lionel Richie.

Richie asked Tongi the question too many of us with roots in Hawaii, living outside of Hawaii, have had to answer: “Why on Earth would you leave Hawaii?” 

Tongi gave the perfectly precise answer: “Priced out of paradise.”

The inconvenient truth of how hard it is for people from here to make ends meet isn’t part of the normal sun and surf narrative. Sometimes it sneaks into the American cultural mainstream, like the opening monologue of “The Descendants.”

The problem has been the subject of articles for decades, including a front-page story in The New York Times on Sunday, the same day that Tongi was named the winner of the popular national song contest.

It’s not a new story for us, but it’s a surprise to many on the mainland. I’m glad to see a wider audience being exposed to the difficulties of affording life in “paradise.”

Hopefully, Tongi’s win paves his path back to the islands from Washington state, but he would be the exception to the rule. There are 300,000 other Polynesians from Hawaii who won’t have the Cinderella story millions of people saw Tongi grasp. They’re living away from their homeland and an easy return is unlikely.

For my ohana it took a generation or more: My dad was one of those priced out of paradise 55 years ago.

Lionel Ritchie American Idol Iam Tongi
Lionel Richie asks Iam Tongi why he would leave Hawaii. Tongi responds that his family had been “priced out of paradise.” (Screenshot/”American Idol” on ABC/2023)

Just before Tongi won on Sunday, my ohana gathered to celebrate my dad’s 84th birthday and my parents’ 53rd anniversary. 

We should have all been here in Hawaii surrounding him with aloha. Instead we were on FaceTime from six different places. My parents were in Texas with photos of Mauna Kea on the walls behind him while I could look out the window at the real Mauna Kea.

I think of the photos hanging in my parents’ dining room as “Windows to Hawaii.” I’ve seen them in every Native Hawaiian home on the mainland that I have been in. Before moving here, mine was a framed piece of kapa, or barkcloth, from my dad, a photo my mom took of my son’s shoes tucked into mine at Kalapana and a happy snap of my wife at the Waipio Valley Lookout. 

These “Windows to Hawaii” are the bittersweet connections of a people trying to stay rooted to their homeland. 

That’s why I’m saddened to hear news about one person after another making the choice to move to Las Vegas and other points on the mainland. I sympathize with the situation and I know they’re not “giving up” like the last governor said of people leaving Hawaii. Once you leave for places like Las Vegas, the odds are heavily stacked against a return. 

Once they get settled, I know they’ll hang their “Windows to Hawaii” and hopefully begin a journey on the mainland that may allow them to eventually afford a return to Hawaii.

In the meantime, a connection from Hawaii is trying to be made next month in Las Vegas: the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is choosing to hold its conference in Nevada.

A convention in Las Vegas is not novel, but the practical reasoning from the CNHA is: “For two decades, the Native Hawaiian Convention has served as the largest gathering of Native Hawaiians to discuss issues facing our community. It’s only fitting that we take the convention to the continental United States now that the amount of Native Hawaiians living there has surpassed the number residing in our ancestral homeland.”

Tropicana Overpass Las Vegas at night with New New York Hotel/Las Vegas Boulevard.
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement says it chose Las Vegas as the location for its convention this year because the number of Native Hawaiians living on the mainland “has surpassed the number residing in our ancestral homeland.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

The relationship between the Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and the diaspora hasn’t always been harmonious and the CNHA is trying to build bridges and align groups separated by geography. 

However, a gathering of Hawaiians outside of Hawaii is like showering with socks on. There will be no rainbows, trade winds or salt water. I’ve been to more luau outside of Hawaii than in Hawaii and while it’s always a wonderful time, it’s still an unrooted experience that doesn’t quite feel like the real thing. 

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil. “A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.”

It is a tragedy that half of the Native Hawaiian population has been uprooted from Hawaii. I hate to think of all those households with those “Windows to Hawaii” hanging on their walls in California, the state with almost the same exact number of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the 2020 census as Hawaii (157,000) to Vermont, the state with the fewest Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (181).

That Native Hawaiians have to gather in Las Vegas to discuss the state of Hawaiians is a reflection on the inequality, loss and lack of leadership Hawaii has suffered through decade after decade. It’s long past time for the face of leadership to change here in Hawaii in favor of people and processes that help Hawaiians maintain and grow their roots. 

The outmigration will continue until that change comes. 

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

People are being priced out of their personal paradises all over the country. Shelter is not considered a human right in America; it’s been turned into a mere commodity with attendant price gouging by bloodthirsty corporations. In 13 years, my fixed income afforded me a house, then an apartment and now a room. I feel invaded too. And if I leave my community, I become part of the problem wherever I go. So do the expatriates from Hawaii and everywhere else. Population is exploding!

Mauna2Moana · 6 days ago

Aloha- there’s a forgotten reality here- NYC and San Francisco, plus "luxury " locations such as Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Carmel California and various NY locations such as The Hampton, NY, are equally if not more expensive than Hawaii. The difference? One can ‘get out of dodge’ to shop with the expenditure of gas rather than an airfare. The other difference? Wages. Mainland wages are much higher (unless you’re ex military and can work for a Mainland defense contractor) than Hawaii even though the minimum is higher here. And why is that? I guess owners are greedier here. It’s not tax or rent- NYC is priced the same. It’s not groceries- NYC and San Francisco are equally if not more expensive. But profits - and perks- seem to be higher here for those lucky enough to own successful businesses

Peggy_Hill_WBA · 6 days ago

Money. The only ones enjoying the materialistic world are the rich who made it so by pricing every thing out of reach for you and me. So, I remain happy with what I have and don't have.

kealoha1938 · 6 days ago

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