About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at ben.lowenthal@civilbeat.org.

The Unity March in Lahaina was a reflection of both Native Hawaiian values and the unique culture of the Valley Isle.

When I was in law school in Kansas, I quickly realized that my classmates didn’t know much about Hawaii. Not long into my first year at a bar on Massachusetts Street a classmate called me “Hawaiian” because, you know, I’m from Hawaii.

I corrected him. No, I told him. I’m not Hawaiian and said it would be highly inappropriate to call me Hawaiian. That’s not the right word.

I told them about Native Hawaiians, their culture and their activism in the 20th century. People who live in Kansas can call themselves Kansans, but Hawaiian refers to Native Hawaiians, the Indigenous people who settled into the islands before Western contact.

Mainlanders get this wrong all the time. Long after that conversation in the bar, I still see the word “Hawaiian” used to describe a “Hawaiian lawyer” or “Hawaiian courts.”

My classmate reflected on this and posed a fair question: what do you call people from Hawaii?

There’s a difference — a big and obvious one at that — between Native Hawaiian and local culture. One is the culture, language, and ethnicity of Kanaka Maoli, the first inhabitants of these islands. Their history, experience with other cultures, and their way of life is what is rightly called Native Hawaiian.

It is the culture that the Hawaii Tourism Authority wants visitors to see and experience. Celebrating Native Hawaiian culture is a hefty part of its strategic plan. And as part of its plan, the HTA set out branding and marketing guidelines to ensure that Native Hawaiian culture is “shared in a way that accurately reflects its dignity, sacredness and centrality to our ways of life.”

State archive photo of paniolo wearing the palaka shirt that became a symbol of worker power in the 1970s in Hawaii.
The palaka weave of the paniolo shirt became a symbol of the power of workers during the 1978 Constitutional Convention in Hawaii. “Like the Palaka cloth that protected our people against the wind, sun, dust, and the luna’s whips, Palaka Power will protect the people’s interests at the Convention,” the manifesto reads. (Hawaii State Archives)

It’s important that Hawaii take control over the way it wants to be seen by the rest of the world. And let me be clear about this: presenting authentic Native Hawaiian culture needs to happen. Marketers and advertisers should be mindful of the culture when promoting anything relating to Hawaii.

But at the same time, there’s local culture that is noticeably absent in the strategy. Local culture is much harder to pin down. It’s broader and incorporates the diverse ethnic groups that have settled in the islands after the Native Hawaiians.

This is the culture that came out of the plantation era. When sugar and pineapple industries dominated the islands, ran the economy and controlled the political agenda, immigrants from Asia, Oceania, the United States and parts of Europe settled in the islands to work.

Some groups came and went — like the Norwegians who left nearly as quickly as they came to work on the sugar plantations in the 1880s. Others stayed and started families. Workers from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, Portugal, the United States and England settled on Maui after their contracts on the plantation ended.

And so alongside Hawaiians they became part of the community on each island. They shared their stories, language, jokes, foods and lives together. By the middle of the 20th century, most folks in the islands were a hodgepodge of these ethnic groups.

Most people in the islands were of mixed race and ethnicity working, eating and living together.

By the 1940s and ‘50s people with mixed ancestry were known as cosmopolitan. Unlike the horrors of Jim Crow and cities sharply divided by ethnicity, most people in the islands were of mixed race and ethnicity working, eating and living together. Out of this mix came “local” culture. It’s the culture that gave us pidgin, plate lunches, organized labor and the modern Democratic Party.

And while it’s part Hawaiian in many ways, it’s distinct from Native Hawaiian culture. This distinction was apparent in the lead-up to the 1978 Constitutional Convention. While Native Hawaiian activists pushed their agenda, they teamed up with another faction wanting to represent the broader local community.

They called themselves “Palaka Power” and chose the plaid material associated with Hawaii workers as their symbol. Before the convention, they published a manifesto and explained their symbolism:

Palaka is a cloth that has a fascinating, weaving pattern of lines and colors. Its criss-cross pattern represents the interlocking strength of all our peoples to make one people and one culture. United, we can meet any challenge. “Like the Palaka cloth that protected our people against the wind, sun, dust, and the luna’s whips, Palaka Power will protect the people’s interests at the Convention.

A lot has happened since the 1978. Local culture has changed. Different groups have come to the islands and become part of the fabric of the community. Maui is a prime example.

Last weekend when thousands of people gathered for the Unity Walk in Lahaina, hundreds of local people wore red — the color for Lahainaluna and now a color for Lahaina itself. They walked with flags representing unity for West Maui. You can easily see the flag of Mexico among the flags for Hawaii, the Philippines, Tonga and other nations.

A small burned tree lines the path of the Hoʻūlu Lahaina Unity Walk Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024, in Lahaina. Uncle Archie Kalepa organized the Lele Aloha group to bring the diverse people of Lahaina together after the devastating Aug. 8 fire destroyed the historic West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Thousands of people gathered for the Unity Walk in Lahaina, hundreds of local people wore red and walked with flags representing unity for West Maui. You can easily see the flag of Mexico among the flags for Hawaii, the Philippines, Tonga and other nations. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

It’s not a surprise to people from Maui. In the decades after statehood, the Valley Isle has become home to immigrants from Latin America. Mexican workers came to harvest pineapple in the 1990s. Many settled on the west side.

Not only that, but people from Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina have called Maui home for some time now. Like the groups before them, they settled into the community, intermarrying and sending their children to school.

Their contribution to the ever-changing local culture is vibrant on Maui but hardly seen by those outside of Maui. You certainly won’t find that among the HTA’s brand guidelines.

So how did I answer my classmate’s question? Saying I was “local” didn’t feel quite right when home was so far away. In the end, I shrugged and told him when you want to say a person is from Hawaii, just say they’re from Hawaii.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.


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About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at ben.lowenthal@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Maybe we Native Hawaiians should call ourselves slaves. Slave to tourism. Slaves to the white overlords who overthrew a legitimate sovereign government that they still benefit from to this very day, this very second. I cant speak for all Native Hawaiians, but the anger and frustration that I have is 100% directed at the deflect not allowing Hawaiians to own the right to be Hawaiians, and the ones to claim that title because the generations those original overlords left behind managed to live here a long time? Nope. Still Invaders. Always will be. That is my opinion and I will take it to the grave.

Pamusubi · 4 weeks ago

I'm a Hawaii resident. I'm not Hawaiian. It's that simple.

elrod · 4 weeks ago

Who thinks up these "right names" for people?

Kai · 4 weeks ago

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