Updated: Nov 3, 2021
The American practice of marking identity according to place of residence (Californians, Bostonians, Arizonians, etc.) often validates the misconception that anyone who resides in Hawaiʻi can refer to themselves as “Hawaiian” regardless of whether they have Indigenous Hawaiian ancestors. Hawaiian people have always used specific terminology to refer to themselves and to acknowledge their ancestral and genealogical connection to this place long before our Nation was occupied by America.
Today, most people refer to the Indigenous or Native people of Hawaiʻi as “Hawaiians,” but what did we use to call ourselves? Kanaka, or Kānaka (pl.), refers to Hawaiian people specifically but also applies to humankind in general. Before foreign contact, all Hawaiian people were referred to generally as “Kānaka.”
Following foreign contact, Kānaka had to apply identifying terms to distinguish themselves from other racial groups. They were no longer the only kind of kānaka that resided in these islands and they made point to distinguish themselves as the original inhabitants of this place. Kānaka referred to the foreign settlers that first came to Hawaiʻi as “Haole” instead of just “kānaka,” indicating that they recognized this group of people being different than themselves. Haole settlers, including missionairies, often referred to Hawaiian people as “Natives” in their early writings.
The first Hawaiian language newspaper, Ka Lama Hawaii, was published on February 14, 1834. Ka Lama Hawaii was a newspress that came out of Lahainaluna Seminary and marked the beginning of what would be Hawaiʻi’s biggest literacy legacy. Ka Lama Hawaii was edited by school Principal and missionairy Lorrin Andrews and many of the articles published were written by Kānaka students attending Lahainaluna. Within a few years, several independent nūpepa were founded and published entirely in Hawaiian. These early publications provide insight into what terms Kānaka decided to apply to themselves upon foreign contact.
Maoli, meaning native, indigenous, genuine, true, or real, was applied to create the term “Kanaka Maoli” or “Native Person.” Another way to define “Kanaka Maoli” is “Real Hawaiian.” “Kanaka Hawaiʻi,” meaning “Hawaiian Person,” was another commonly used term following foreign contact. This practice was applied to other racial groups in Hawaiʻi, for example: Kanaka Haole = White Person, Kanaka Kepanī = Japanese Person. The first use of “Kanaka Maoli” in Hawaiian language newspapers was on April 18, 1834, in the first nūpepa, Ka Lama Hawaii. “Kanaka Hawaii” was first used on December 24, 1834, in the same publication. ʻŌiwi, meaning native, was later used as an identifying term for Kānaka. The terms “Oiwi” or “Poʻe Oiwi” were recorded in nūpepa throughout the 1860s, and in 1875 the term “Kanaka Oiwi” became popular. Another common term applied to Hawaiian people was “na Hawaii” (nā Hawaiʻi) also meaning “Hawaiian.”
Kānaka, Kānaka Maoli, Kānaka Hawaiʻi, Kānaka ʻŌiwi, and Hawaiʻi, are all terms that Hawaiian people used to refer to themselves. Following the 1896 language ban came the decline of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian language speakers. The English term “Hawaiian” became more widespread with English language use in Hawaiʻi and is still used today to refer to the Indigenous people of this place. It is important to note that while “Hawaiian” is an English word, the term carries its own etymology that has removed it from the American practice of marking identity according to place of residence. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “Hawaiian” as:
A native or resident of Hawaii, especially: one of Polynesian ancestry
The Polynesian language of the Hawaiians.
NOTE: In Hawaii, the word Hawaiian is understood as an ethnic designation for a native person of Polynesian descent, and its use in the more general sense "a resident of Hawaii" is considered an error.
As the note in the English dictionary explains, it is highly problematic to assign the term “Hawaiian” to yourself based on your place of residence. One of the reasons why Kānaka Maoli reject the use of the term “Hawaiian” for non-Indigenous residents of Hawaiʻi is that it leads to our erasure as a people and attempts to throw us in the “melting pot” that is American colonialism and assimilation. In reality, Kānaka Maoli refuse to be “melted” away in our own homeland. This form of American assimilation has been rejected by our people time and time again. Indigenous people in America are the only racial groups that are expected to prove who we are to the systems that seek to eradicate us based on the false science of blood quantum. The fact that residents of Hawaiʻi would then have the audacity to call themselves “Hawaiian” when they have no Hawaiian ancestry further leads to our erasure in our own home. We live in a time where real Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) must prove they are Hawaiian using systems not our own, while residents think it is ok to take on that title for themselves.
Those who feel confident calling themselves “Hawaiian” when they are in fact not Kānaka Maoli should be reminded of the famous words of the late Haunani-Kay Trask:
“Say it in your heart. Say it when you sleep. We are not American. We will die as Hawaiians. We will never be Americans!”
To many of us, being Hawaiian means that we are not Americans and we will never be Americans. To all of us, being Hawaiian means you have Indigenous Hawaiian ancestors. Being born and raised in Hawaiʻi does not make you Hawaiian. Living in Hawaiʻi for most of your life does not make you Hawaiian. Loving the culture and respecting the land and resources does not make you Hawaiian (this does make you a good ally). Unless you have Indigenous Hawaiian ancestors, you are not Hawaiian. If you truly love and respect Hawaiʻi and consider this your home, you have the kuleana to learn the history of the Kānaka Maoli of this place. Respecting Hawaiʻi means respecting Hawaiians and listening to our voices. You can live here and love this land alongside us, but please do not attempt to erase us by taking on titles that do not belong to you.
Brown, Marie Alohalani. Facing The Spears Of Change: The Life and Legacy of John Papa ʻĪʻī. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2016.
Chapin, Helen Geracimos. “Newspapers of Hawaii 1834-1903: From ʻHe Liona’ to the Pacific Cable.” Hawaiian Journal of History 18 (1984): 47-86.
Mookini, Esther K. The Hawaiian Newspapers. Honolulu: Topgallant Publishing Company, 1974.