Copyright 2015 by Civil Beat – all rights reserved – reprinted with permission
There are many institutions and organizations that make up the Hawaiian community. But its heart may be harder to define.
It is not uncommon for Hawaiian political leaders, when engaged in arguing hot topic issues such as nationhood or the Thirty Meter Telescope, to have their views publicly challenged by self-appointed leaders laying claim to speaking for the vast majority of the Hawaiian community.
So, I gave pause to really think about it. Who do we mean when we say the Hawaiian community? How does one qualify and quantify the sprawling constituencies that make up the Hawaiian community?
This column attempts to put a face on what is meant by the Hawaiian community by defining its boundaries and assembling a framework of Hawaiian organizations, geo-cultural communities, their economic capacity, and leadership structure. It’s also an opportunity to see just how far along we are as a community in our recovery from near extinction and transgenerational cultural trauma.
My first observation is that there exists a deep and abiding national consciousness among Hawaiians. It is a palpable consciousness such that in spite of the political divide between those Hawaiians advocating separating from the United States and those who support federal recognition, I sense they share a strong emotional bond rooted in the common desire for a full measure of self-determination in shaping a Hawaiian future.
This sense of a national consciousness shared by so many Hawaiians suggests perhaps a mental push back when defined as beneficiaries of a number of major private and publicly funded Hawaiian organizations. Many think of themselves more as citizens of a Hawaiian nation waiting to be restored.
“Beneficiary” suggests being a social statistic and dependent on a third party for one’s well-being. “Citizen” is the language of dignity, pride, and political standing. This is an important mental distinction of how the community wants to see itself.
The Big 5
There is a pantheon of Hawaiian institutions that form a sort of socio-cultural-economic umbrella that hovers over the Hawaiian population as primary dispensers of beneficiary services. The five are the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools, Queen Lili‘uokalani Trust, and the Queen Emma Foundation (Queen’s Hospital systems).
These five institutions have an enormous combined economic capacity. They also hold title to vast acreages of land that provide an impressive portfolio of a Hawaiian-controlled land base around the state.
While these five organizations are separately governed, each with a different mission and legal operating authority, all are perceived by Hawaiians as “their” institutions. In terms of nationhood, it’s hard to conceive of a Hawaiian nation that would not somehow include these institutions. Any nationhood model would seem unlikely to occur without them although there is little dialogue about how any of it might work.
An important part of the institutional community is a phalanx of royal societies, ceremonial in function, regal in stature, serving as powerful reminders of days of the monarchy. Adorned in their royal colors, their processional entrances to important public functions lift hearts and put an exclamation point on the sense of nationhood without having to say a word.
I call attention to a network of Hawaiian organizations that form a tier of federally supported entitlement programs providing beneficiary services in health care, education, jobs, and other services. This network is a critical institutional layer of organizations making strategic contributions to the economic capacity to deliver important services to Hawaiians. Examples of these programs are Papa Ola Lōkahi for health care and Alu Like for job training and placement.
The state is blanketed by grassroots community-based organizations embedded throughout the islands that exude an impressive presence and real sense of community. Some of the higher profile organizations are the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, Hawaiian Homestead Associations, and the Sovereign Councils of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly, just to name a few.
These organizations are politically very active and good sounding boards for the pulse of the community. If one were to embed pin lights on a map of the islands of these organizations and their chapters, the map would light up like a Christmas tree.
Then there is the loose network of Hawaiian-centered education programs in a vertical ladder that start with early education/family learning centers, Department of Education Hawaiian language immersion schools, Hawaiian charter schools, community college-based Hawaiian education initiatives, and degree granting programs at University of Hawai‘i Mānoa and UH Hilo.
There is also an incredibly rich assemblage across the state of the Hawaiian cultural organizations which include a plethora of distinguished hula schools, visual arts organizations, literary organizations, martial arts, the voyaging community, canoe associations, and a host of culturally based initiatives in every discipline. This sector, more than any other, has produced an inspiring vision of a Cultural Nation of Hawai‘i. The cultural soul of the nation resides in these institutions.
Finally, there are the geo-cultural residential communities spread across the state. Waimanalo, Molokai, Hāna, Wai‘anae-Nānākuli, Kekaha, Ka‘ū, and Miloli‘i just to name a few. These places have long community memories as Hawaiian places with an unbroken cultural behavior system and a sense of celebration of who they are and what it means to be a Hawaiian.
In ancient Hawai‘i, where you were from was more important than your name because your community of origin said everything one needed to know about you. That basically has not changed with these places.
The Mainland Hawaiians
One of the most interesting aspects of defining the Hawaiian community is that the federal census data places half of the Hawaiians (250,000) on the mainland. As I’ve had the opportunity to engage them I find them feeling very vested in what’s happening at “home.”
Over the years, many left in search of a more affordable quality of life. But they stay connected through friends and relatives and have institutions of their own that help them perpetuate Hawaiian culture and a sense of belonging to the “nation.”
They are politically engaged – even from a distance – in the dialogue on nationhood. In fact, the delegate candidate field for the anticipated Hawaiian election known as Na‘i Aupuni includes seats assigned to the mainland.
The most difficult community condition to describe is that of Hawaiian leadership. There seems absent any center of gravity or go-to leadership structure for the broader Hawaiian community. There’s no one set of names that would pop up. It depends on who you ask.
I observe one interesting phenomenon that Hawaiians are not necessarily attracted to their leaders because of political or business credentials. Although there are exceptions Hawaiians seem more prone to emotionally connect to cultural leaders.
In fact, sometimes, political and business credentials can be a negative. To be sure, there are many Hawaiians who hold leadership titles in government and business who perform well and some have outstanding records of achievement.
A Hawaiian leadership discussion has to include the matter of gender equity with respect to discrimination against females and access to leadership opportunities. It is a distinguishing characteristic of Hawaiian society that gender equity was never an issue from pre-contact through post-colonization when it came to females assuming the highest mantle of leadership. In fact, if there were a Hawaiian hall of fame that cited Hawaiian leaders who have risen to greatness it’s likely that there would be more women than men.
The other observation I would share is that I often wonder whether Hawaiians are suited to democracy. We seem to struggle in making the adjustment from a chief system of rule and the centuries-old tradition of deferring to the ali‘i to make the decisions for us.
I may be on shaky ground on this perspective but democratic processes and Western political tools such as Robert’s Rules of Order always seems to trigger frustration and uneasiness in our deliberations.
The Oxford American Dictionary defines nation as a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, and language. While this definition does not rise to the standard that would qualify Hawaiians for nation status by international political standards, it speaks directly to an inside-out view of what the word “nation” means to many Hawaiians.
I believe the national consciousness I speak of is a real condition. It is a condition that is important for its unwillingness to defer nationhood status as a political question and third party anointments. I believe Hawaiian nationhood to be a condition of the heart.