About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel has returned to regular journalism after being the primary parent for his son. In those 13 years, his child has only been to the ER five times (three due to animal attacks.)

Before parenting, Naka was known as an innovative journalist. He was part of the team that launched NYTimes.com in 1996 and he led a multimedia team that pioneered many new approaches to storytelling.

On 9/11, he filmed the second plane hitting the South Tower. His footage aired on the television networks and a sequence was the dominant image on NYTimes.com.

While based in Paris for The New York Times, he developed a style of mobile journalism that gave him the ability to report from anywhere on the planet. He covered the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was detained while working in Iran, Sudan, Gaza and China. He is one of a handful of Americans who has been in North Korea, but not South Korea. He worked in 60 countries and made The Times’s audience care about sex trafficking, climate change and the plight of women and children in the developing world.

Besides conflict, The Times also had Naka covering fashion shows, car shows and Olympics. He did all three of those events in the same week (Paris, Geneva and Turin) before going to Darfur to continue reporting on the genocide (it was the fifth of sixth trips to the region.)

Naka lives in Waimea on the Big Island and his writing for Civil Beat will initially focus on his reflections on moving home.


The difference between Hawaiians living on the mainland versus the islands was a key topic at the CNHA conference this week.

LAS VEGAS — Philip Swain vaulted forward from the audience when the kumu teaching the oli workshop needed to have “‘a’e a’e” demonstrated.

Swain adroitly leapt high off a chair demonstrating the motion of leaping upward and forward as one would do from a dock or shore onto a canoe, which is what “‘a’e a’e” means. It’s a move he learned growing up on Kauai.

Swain now lives in Colorado. He’s one of the 370,000 Native Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii. He’s also among those struggling to understand the new reality that he’s in a place where he’s rarely found himself: a majority. There are now 310,000 Native Hawaiians living in Hawaii. The fact that more live on the mainland is the reason the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement held its conference in Las Vegas this week

Swain has been president of the Hawaiian Civic Club of Colorado. After growing up on Kauai, he graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1975. However, his wife was from Utah and they left Hawaii when their children were ready to go to school. 

Swain’s voice is filled with emotion when he speaks about Hawaii. He acknowledges the tension that exists between the communities.

“I do feel there’s an undercurrent that Hawaiians in Hawaii think that Hawaiians on the mainland are not equal to them in their love for Hawaii, or are not the same because they really don’t live there and therefore experience the problems that Hawaii experiences,” he said.

He added that sometimes Hawaiians living on the mainland “have this far deeper aloha because they’re not there. I mean, it is deep. It’s deep for all of us. I was born, raised, and went to Kamehameha Schools, so I am attached in many ways to Hawaii, but for me not to be considered part of Hawaii is wrong.” 

On Wednesday morning, a panel at the conference directly addressed the division between those who left and those who stayed.

Las Vegas Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CNHA conference panel
CNHA’s Chief Executive Officer Kuhio Lewis moderated a panel titled “Should Mainland Hawaiians Be Part of the Lahui?” on Wednesday. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

CNHA’s Chief Executive Officer Kuhio Lewis moderated a panel titled “Should Mainland Hawaiians Be Part of the Lahui?” that steered directly into the divide. He started the panel by saying: “I put this discussion on the agenda because I thought it’s an important conversation that we need to have. There’s certain perspectives back home that I feel need to be addressed and I decided to moderate this panel myself.”

There was debate about the words used in the title of the panel. First, many Native Hawaiians eschew using the word “mainland” to refer to the continental U.S.; Hawaii, their ancestral home, is their “mainland.” The word “Lahui” as a term for nation, tribe or race in regard to Native Hawaiians was also questioned. I’m glad “Is” wasn’t in the title so at least one Clintonian rabbit hole was avoided. In another iteration, the panel could have been titled “Continent vs. Mainland.”

After the four Native Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii told their stories, Kehau Watson of Aina Momona was the only panelist still living in Hawaii.

“I would rather be houseless in Hawaii than ever moving from my homeland. It’s not happening. And I know you moved,” Watson said to the other panelists. “To me, our first obligation is to keep our ohana at home.”

The language can be difficult, but it’s an honesty most Native Hawaiians have heard from their aunties and uncles. 

Cece Cullen was in the audience for the panel discussion. She was raised in Kahaluu and has become the go-to person for the media for what life is like for Native Hawaiians in Las Vegas. She and her husband were the first homeowners in their families when they closed on a house in June 2020.

She referred to Kumu Hina Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, the CNHA’s cultural ambassador, who was omnipresent at the conference.

“Yesterday, Kumu Hina made me feel like a coward for leaving our island home, but at the same time, she can build me up so quick to be empowered to make sure I know what my role is here,” Cullen said. “I was crying yesterday because she said, ‘If you know for you, who you are and what your intentions are, it’s okay.’ Right now my intention, no doubt, is to move home. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Las Vegas Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CNHA conference
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement held its conference in Las Vegas this year due to the large number of Native Hawaiians on the mainland. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

Tasha Kama, a Maui County Council member in the audience, appreciated that the tough conversation was being had.

“I don’t feel offended by this conversation and I don’t feel offended by people from the mainland saying: ‘Well, you guys shouldn’t be mad at me cause I had to leave, right? Cause economically I couldn’t make it. So you want me to stay home and suffer, right? Or you want to suffer, you stay home, but I need to do the best I can for my family.’ So they move, right? So having these conversations helps us understand and be compassionate.”

Kama has several children living in Hawaii along with Manhattan, Oregon and Washington.

“The majority are living in Hawaii, but they should all be home,” she said.

That repeated kahea, or call, at the conference was for Native Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii to return to the islands. However, for artists like Patrick Makuakane, there are simply too many opportunities keeping him from returning.

“One of the great things about living in San Francisco and having a halau is that we’re funded by the city, by the state, by corporations. I wish halaus in Hawaii had that opportunity but obviously it’s difficult cause there’s so many of them.”

Still there’s a sense among many Native Hawaiians that they are not rooted and they’re living on land taken from someone else (the conference opened with a ceremony acknowledging that the Paiute tribe are the Indigenous people of Las Vegas.)

“We know we are temporary here, I feel I’m temporary,” said Tieri Pa’ahana Bissen, a 20-year Las Vegas resident who left Hawaii in 1968. “I myself want to go home and I have plans to go home as soon as I can, but I want to go not to drain Hawaii, I want to bring things back with me to enhance Hawaii.”

And what happens upon a return is the concern for Native Hawaiians like Cullen.

“What I’m struggling with as a kanaka maoli who does all these things in (Las Vegas) is, will it be valued if I go back home, truly valued and validated?” asked Cullen. “Because (in Las Vegas) I walk around and they’re like, oh, here’s CeCe. She’s going to oli, she’s going to dance hula, she’s going to do all these things. But when I go home, everyone’s doing these things.”

Cullen was at continental speed and I feel bad that I didn’t let her off the hook. Less than a year ago, I was also a Native Hawaiian living outside of Hawaii. I don’t think she shouldn’t be worried. She’ll fit in. That’s the rare privilege for a Native Hawaiian. From personal and familial experience, I’m sure she’ll be accepted. Just as Swain would be. 

Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement Las Vegas convention
Philip Swain demonstrates how to jump onto a canoe to show the meaning of “‘a’e a’e” at the CNHA conference. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

Swain demonstrated an inherent sense that is called ma’a. Besides two of Hawaii’s specialities, hula and paddling, the greatest requirements for its participants is to harmonize.

They want to know that they can go home. That’s the repeated message from Native Hawaiians in Hawaii to Native Hawaiians living away from Hawaii: “Come home. There’s a place for you, because we need you.”


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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel has returned to regular journalism after being the primary parent for his son. In those 13 years, his child has only been to the ER five times (three due to animal attacks.)

Before parenting, Naka was known as an innovative journalist. He was part of the team that launched NYTimes.com in 1996 and he led a multimedia team that pioneered many new approaches to storytelling.

On 9/11, he filmed the second plane hitting the South Tower. His footage aired on the television networks and a sequence was the dominant image on NYTimes.com.

While based in Paris for The New York Times, he developed a style of mobile journalism that gave him the ability to report from anywhere on the planet. He covered the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was detained while working in Iran, Sudan, Gaza and China. He is one of a handful of Americans who has been in North Korea, but not South Korea. He worked in 60 countries and made The Times’s audience care about sex trafficking, climate change and the plight of women and children in the developing world.

Besides conflict, The Times also had Naka covering fashion shows, car shows and Olympics. He did all three of those events in the same week (Paris, Geneva and Turin) before going to Darfur to continue reporting on the genocide (it was the fifth of sixth trips to the region.)

Naka lives in Waimea on the Big Island and his writing for Civil Beat will initially focus on his reflections on moving home.


Latest Comments (0)

I long to return home... and I would like to share this with you:Where your treasure is,there your heart will be also.- Matthew 6;21

Sun_Duck · 7 months ago

Everyone's ancestors came from somewhere else.

Nikita808 · 7 months ago

Hawaiians are at a crossroads. In Scandanavia you have the Sami people, those same Sami people make up modern Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns. They also genetically made up the Vikings of old that settled in England, Scotland and Ireland. Yet, there are still many that choose to live the nomadic life following the reindeer, and modern Scandanavians encourage it. The difference between the Sami and Hawaiians? They were allowed to modernize as a group, able to make choices as a people free from invasion. They also don't look at their culture as a "blood quotient" society. Like many native American tribes, cultural values are more important than blood levels. I have lived in Seattle and the Hawaiian diaspora is huge, all love their heritage, many come back in pilgrimages, but would never live here. Are they less Hawaiian? I have lived in San Francisco, and in SF the Hawaiian diaspora is large, but not as large as Oakland or Los Angeles. Same thing. You are all Hawaiians, plurality is strength, refuse to be Pidgeon holed! The Pilot, Architect, Laborer, Journalist, Hula practitioner...Rejoice!

TheMotherShip · 7 months ago

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