Neal Milner: It's OK To Move To Vegas. Just Carry Your Culture With You - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Being true to Hawaii means being open to adaptation and innovation.

Patrick Makuakane, the San Francisco kumu hula who was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius grant, describes himself as a “cultural preservationist.“  

What he means by preservationist is very different from what people in Hawaii usually mean by that.

They talk about maintaining. Makuakane talks about innovation.

Preserving the culture, Makuakane says, is all about innovation. “Our ancestors were highly innovative people. What I’m doing,” he says, talking about his dances, “is keeping that innovative spirit of our ancestors.”

That’s not the common way people here think about culture and change. It should be. 

We talk about aloha and ohana as if those are permanent values that never change and never should, as if Hawaii is still a pristine, isolated place in the middle of the ocean that needs to protect itself against those alien winds of change that come from somewhere else. 

High walls to maintain the differences between Them and Us. Fragility and threat.

That’s Hawaii’s version of what the historian William Cronon, in his amazing environmental history of Chicago, “Nature’s Metropolis,” calls the pastoral myth. 

That myth had been a part of American life since the country’s beginning and still lingers today.

The pastoral myth makes a clear distinction between urban and rural. Rural is good, urban is bad.

The countryside is the family farm — yeoman farmers, mom, pop, and the kinds living and working together self-sufficiently. Pristine, pure and isolated from the city. Splendid isolation. Keeping distance and keeping the faith

Urban life, on the other hand is noisy, crowded, corrupt and polluted morally, as well as industrially. The city is to be feared and to be avoided.

In Hawaii’s version of the pastoral myth, Hawaii is the pastoral, filled with unusually moral people living right while the outside world, particularly the mainland, is the equivalent of the wrong-living, morally questionable city. 

The outside? Go there, but beware, and don’t stay long because if you stay, you will lose yourself and what you stand for by becoming one of “them.” Your home is here forever.

Cronon shows how the urban-rural barriers disappeared as railroads blanketed the country, farms changed, farm kids sought better opportunities in the cities, and people from rural areas began to find the city an attractive if still frightening place.

Las Vegas Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement CNHA conference panel
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement held its annual conference in Las Vegas earlier this year. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

The watchwords became blurred boundaries and more complex understandings of morality.

Not only are we not in Kansas anymore, but Kansas is also not Kansas anymore.

Instead of clear boundaries and high walls, there are now, Cronon says, “elaborate and intimate linkages between city and country.”

Intimate and elaborate linkages — that’s exactly the way to describe where Hawaii stands in regard to the outside world. It has been that way for a long time, underappreciated and in the dust bin of Hawaii’s explanations about culture and change.

So, let’s look outward instead of looking in. Let’s consider these intimate relationships by looking at some examples. It shouldn’t surprise you that they all involve Vegas.

Why all the angst about Hawaii people moving to and living in Las Vegas?  It’s not like they’re being sent to debtors’ prison. (You can argue that they are leaving a debtors’ prison.)

The boundaries between there and here have been blurred and complex for years. Thousands of people from Hawaii vacation there regularly, go back regularly and talk about it all the time when they return. They have friends and relatives there.

You can think about outmigration to Las Vegas as losing our keiki or our best and brightest, or as a place people from Hawaii tearfully move to. You can see it as a loss or dilution of culture. All of those are pastoral ways of thinking. 

Moving there is cultural innovation whereby people make life for themselves by combining the old and the new, by not losing themselves but adjusting themselves when remaining in Hawaii has become as difficult and fraught as staying on the old, small Kansas family farm.

Thinking like Makuakane here, that’s not desertion or displacement. It’s deployment and with plenty of resources available to maintain some of the old and wonderful things about Hawaii as well as a chance to jettison things a person finds no longer important or relevant. 

And come on. If you were raised right in Hawaii, do you think that living with unfamiliar people will make you lose your aloha?

People coming and going back and forth, Hawaii parents sending their children to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas because aunty and uncle live there while their Las Vegas cousins come to UH — an immeasurable number of small things that add up to big things.

The front entrance to the Hawaii Pacific University HPU Aloha Tower Marketplace.
Hawaii Pacific University is starting a Las Vegas campus. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Speaking of higher education, Hawaii Pacific University is starting a Las Vegas campus, which will probably attract some people with no links to Hawaii, but there is also an interesting twist.

A central part of this HPU campus are two majors that the University of Hawaii does not offer, occupational therapy and physical therapy. The student mix is likely to include Nevada natives, Hawaii ex-pats, and former UH students.

That strong, specific Hawaii presence may sound familiar to those of you who went to Pacific University in Oregon or who have friends or family who went there.

Finally, a look at another significant but changing adaptive culture marker, Zippy’s, which just opened its first Las Vegas location and plans on opening more.  

“What we were surprised at was there were a lot of team members from Hawaii, former employees of Zippy’s, who had heard we were opening in Vegas and applied,” CEO Jason Higa said. “We have quite a bit of former employees we were able to rehire. Some had worked decades ago; some had been employed a few years ago.”

That’s the culinary equivalent of a performance by Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, Makuakane’s dance company.

The menu right now is a slightly trimmed down Hawaii version with more regular dishes to come.

At the same time, the menu is likely to adjust to the tastes of Las Vegas people. Some dishes that get created in Vegas will stay in Vegas. Others will show up at the Zippy’s nearest you.

And high school and college kids in both places will hang out at their Zippy’s.

In the very revealing epilogue to his book, Cronon, who is also a MacArthur Genius recipient, talks about how long it took him to understand the links between rural and urban. Thinking about their differences was easier, more comfortable, more in line with fully nested American myths.

The same can be said about the ways we look at the link between Hawaii and the world around us. Makuakane has taken heat about his choreography from traditionalists over the years, but he’s right.

Preservation is too valuable to leave in the hands of preservationists.

Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Hawaii Should Look To Other States When It Comes To Ethics Reform

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I think what most people would describe as Hawaiian culture is really a blending of the 2 or 3 generations of immigrant culture with Native Hawaiian themes and enhanced by geographic isolation. I don't believe anyone who would have stopped by the ethnically segregated plantation housing back in the 1920's or 30's would have described their culture as Hawaiian. Immigrants eventually intermarry with native populations (and other immigrants) and create their own blend of culture and traditions. This is what happened in Hawaii and that's what will happen with the diaspora in future generations on the mainland. Sad to say, but this is what history tells us.

Downhill_From_Here · 1 month ago

Thanks for the permission Sir. Vegas is just a proxy for anywhere but here. Frustration with declining standard of living, constant in-fighting and lack of opportunity is driving many people out of Hawaii. The other side of the coin: be careful where you go. The problems facing Hawaii are pressures felt more powerfully all around the world in cladding many other parts of the USA. We each choose to live in Hawaii . . . or not . . . for our own reasons. But Hawaii, collectively, can not afford to turn away friends or burn bridges. I would argue that is the take away of this article.

Plesmaktstop · 1 month ago

Have you ever lived in Las Vegas? It's 115 degrees 3 months out of the year. That's hot! No one goes outside. Not too mention it gets about 2 inches of rain a year. I have lived in San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas and all three of them have huge local and Hawaiian populations even Portland and LA. I'm not sure why Vegas is the cause celebre lately but the other places I mentioned have much better habitable weather. Not too mention the Seattle PD actively recruits in Hawaii. The question is not that Hawaiians or locals may choose to move. If they do, that's a good thing. I recently heard there is a Hawaiian diaspora in Paris, London. It is the ones that dont have a choice that concerns me. No one should ever be forced from there homes. No one. The State has failed a segment of society by there love affair with developers, international mobsters, snake oil salesmen and turning a blind eye to fraud. Not to mention a complete 40 year avoidance of addressing housing issues.

TheMotherShip · 1 month ago

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