Eric Pape: This is a Civil Beat podcast and I’m Eric Pape.
As people in Hawaii know, you can only call yourself Hawaiian if you are native Hawaiian. Civil Beat columnist Peter Apo is Hawaiian and he feels like he finally understands what that means.
Peter Apo: What it means to be Hawaiian should largely be determined by your lifestyle and by your behavior.
At its deepest meaning, aloha is about the unconditional extension of friendship and trust to strangers. So now, that’s about as Hawaiian as you can get and you don’t need Hawaiian blood to practice aloha in its deepest meaning.
Pape: As simple as that sounds now, it took a life’s journey for the musician-turned-activist-turned elected official to figure it out.
He grew up in a very different Honolulu in the 1940s and ’50s, often playing on the banks of the Ala Wai canal in Waikiki.
Today’s Waikiki doesn’t have the same charms it did when Peter was still growing up. The bird chirps of his childhood are now often accompanied by police sirens in the tourist mecca .
Apo: My dad used to bring me here and we used to shovel clams. The canal was clean – I don’t know what kind of clams they were – it looked like the ones you’d get in the restaurants to me … so we’d come claming, throw it all in a bucket, wash it out, take it home and cook it.
It was a really fun memory for me.
It was not cool to be Hawaiian. The word was assimilation. My parents’ generation, most of them, worked really hard making sure that we grew up speaking English, that we got a good education, that we were able to assimilate to become good Americans. Consequently, when I left Hawaii to go to college in 1957, I had no clue — other than, you know, the normal stuff that I saw. Hawaiian was dancing the hula because the culture was so decimated.
It wasn’t until 1975 actually when I returned home from the mainland, I got off the plane and saw a Herb Kane poster, the first guy that actually began to document what Hawaiians did, what the culture was like. It was a wake-up call and I began to try to figure out what it was to be Hawaiian.
Pape: Herb Kane is an iconic illustrator, who produced hundreds of paintings portraying Hawaii, its traditional culture and the Pacific. He played a big role in the renaissance of Hawaiian culture in the 1970s.
But before that cultural renaissance, Peter got to experience how exotic it was to be Hawaiian on the 1950s American mainland.
Apo: I spent one year of high school in Portland, Oregon. First Hawaiian that they had ever seen … I played the ukulele, my popularity soared. I mean, I was invited to every party. It was wonderful. And that was the first time I ever thought, “It’s kind of cool to be Hawaiian, you know.”
Pape: Was Elvis helpful to you?
(Apo singing the opening of Heartbreak Hotel: “Since my baby left me…”).
Apo: Yeah, played all of his songs. The two big ones that the local people, the local kids liked, were Elvis and Harry Belafonte
Ukulele makes me cool … I’m in Portland, and from there I went home and finished school. Then I go to the University of Oregon, but I had a little better sense of what it means to be Hawaiian because parts of the culture that were buried were starting to rise up. So I was beginning to get a sense of that in college … But then I kind of went off for a number of years in Los Angeles and ended up in a music group.
My Hawaiianness at the time was really expressing itself by doing a little mix of Hawaiian songs.
We were a folk band, Peter Apo and Mary Kingston Trio, and we would mix some Hawaiian music in there, which was a unique signature twist for what our trio did.
Pape: Music was his life, but he discovered that the Hollywood music scene could lead to self-destruction. He had no idea his roots in Hawaii might save him.
Apo: When I returned in 1975, I was only going to be here three weeks for a vacation, I hadn’t been home for, I don’t know, four or five years.
You know, the music industry took its toll on me. It cost me family, I got very heavy into drugs.
And so between reconnecting with family here – that’s when I really began appreciating the sense of ohana — and the fact that I came out of my denial that I was a druggie, I kind of said to myself: “If I go back, I’ll probably die.”
Part of my reason for staying home, is seeing this Herb Kane poster. It’s the first time that I began seeing images of what we looked like as Hawaiians.
Seeing this Herb Kane poster, walking off the plane, of this huge double hull canoe, broaching a wave, with the Lei Hulu, the feather lei, blowing in the wind, warriors standing on deck. And I say, “My God, what is that?” I never seen anything like that before. That’s Hawaiian, that’s what I want to be, you know.
So that even more anchored my decision to stay home, because I got really interested. But then at the same time, the activism began to rise in a move to stop the bombing on an island called Kahoolawe. So I joined, I went in with both feet in all of these things.
Pape: These days, Peter is an elected trustee at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a consultant who advises outside businesses in the islands on cultural sensitivity.
Speaking of sensitivity, he hopes Hawaiians will soon get historic recognition that he thinks is their due.
Apo: It’s been 122 years since the Hawaiian kingdom and the sovereignty of Hawaii was lost. We became a territory of the United States. We are not recognized as Native Americans, as is pretty much every Indian tribe in the country and every native Alaskan tribe. Hawaiians who are Native Americans being natives of this place have never been afforded that dignity.
There is a sense of urgency largely because when Obama leaves office as president, it’s probably going to take another hundred years to bring it up again to the Federal government.
So that sense of urgency is now prevalent in the day-to-day life of a lot of Hawaiians. I can’t say all of them. There are a lot of Hawaiians who don’t care.
But having said that, I am also a very very strong, outspoken supporter of political justice. And that is that Hawaiians need to be recognized first as Native Americans and we deserve a shot at restoring some sense of nationhood. Not too much different.
We just want to be treated with the same respect that all of the other indigenous peoples of this country have been treated.
For many of us, that’s the issue. For many younger Hawaiians, they are a little more strident about being really angry.
There are movements to want to seek independence from the United States by going through appealing to the international community. I think that’s delusional, but then I’m not 19 years old, (laughs) I’m 76.”
Pape: Forty years ago, Peter Apo wrote a song called “Sovereignty,” after his restorative return to Hawaii. He recorded it a few years ago, on an album called “‘Aina.”
(“Sovereignty” from the album “’Aina” by Peter Apo)
This was a Civil Beat podcast produced by Chrystele Bossu-Ragis.
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Chrystèle Bossu-Ragis has been a radio reporter, editor and newscaster for 15 years in her native France for Virgin Radio, previously known as Europe 2. She has also worked as a Silicon Valley correspondent for Europe 1.