The Cost of Being Hawaiian: Defending Our Identity

Meet the author: Christopher Ikaika Molina


A beautiful Polynesian woman sways her hips from side to side, a flower adorning her ear as her hands glide across her body in harmony with the music.  She looks like a photograph come to life.  Kneeling beside her is a brawny, dark, and handsome man smiling and playing the ukulele.  He sings through his gigantic smile a beautiful love song to the dancing girl.  After a time, the man stops playing and the woman stops dancing.  The two stare lovingly into each other’s eyes, drape one other in plumeria leis and jump into their canoe, paddling off into the sunset.

This misconception about the Hawaiian culture has always been around, and although I do not profess to be an expert in Hawaiian studies by any means, I know that these ideas are only cheap imitations and generic stereotypes created more to appeal to tourists than to perpetuate and preserve the Hawaiian way of life.   The more people are exposed to these misconceptions, the less they understand the true beauty of the Hawaiian people and the richness of their culture steeped in politics, agriculture, aquaculture, dance, storytelling, and an oral tradition that include both extensive genealogies and mythology.  Imagine the reaction of our Hawaiian forefathers if they were to view one of the many dinner/cocktail shows that litter the pages of our tourist guides.  What would they think?  Would they proudly applaud our efforts to preserve their contributions to history, or would they laugh at its absurdity?  Is the need to be an economically viable state causing us to compromise our true identity as Hawaiians in exchange for the luxuries that come with being a tourist destination?

As a boy, I took trips to the Big Island.  It had all the natural wonders a boy could ever wish to explore: waterfalls, volcanoes, a lava tube, swimming holes, and black sand beaches.  My favorite place to visit was The City of Refuge.  Visiting there reminded me that Hawaiians had their own place in history and a thriving culture complete with its own form of government, its own form of religion, its own legal system, and its form of celestial navigation that helped ancient Hawaiians to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean.  These discoveries about my heritage filled me with equal portions of pride and wonderment.  Growing up I had read in books the stories of Kamehameha the Great and found myself experiencing all these places that I had only read about.  As we drove around the island, we made a stop at one of the public libraries to stare in amazement at the legendary Naha stone.

Later I found myself entranced as a teacher retold the story of how the law of the splintered paddle (the Geneva Convention of its day) had come about.  I couldn’t believe I was standing in the place where the story had occurred.  This experience reinforced my identity as a Hawaiian; it filled me with pride and gave me a way of connecting with the ancients of the islands.  This was an experience I know the forefathers would have been proud to share with all the people of the world.  However, this is a far cry from the experience that is offered to tourist who are lured year round to these islands with the promise of hula skirts and aloha shirts.

The most concerning thing to me as a Hawaiian is the growing commercialization of our culture and its possible consequences. Simplifying the culture merely for financial gain may actually cost Hawaiians more than they think.  I do not dispute the fact that the tourism industry brings in much needed revenue to the state, but how long can we tolerate the integrity of our culture being violated simply to earn money?  How much longer can we sell these fabricated ideas of the islands before they imbue themselves upon the cultural consciousness of all Hawaiians?

I am not suggesting that we shut down every hula show that makes a profit off of reinforcing stereotypes but that Hawaiians as a people with a rich heritage and a long cultural history need to be more active in understanding our cultural identity.  Hawaiians need to educate ourselves about where we come from and who we are and understand the responsibility we have to keep that culture alive.  As western influence grows, we need to take steps to preserve our culture so that our children don’t grow up believing the stereotypes that are so readily conditioned into the mind of every tourist.  Tourism and the peddling of plastic Hawaii will not go away, but we need to take steps as Hawaiians to ensure our traditions are not swallowed up by these superficial shadows.

In the unseen cultural-economic battle facing Hawaiians today we need to be proactive and educate ourselves, we need to learn our history, we need to educate the public, and we need to encourage more intelligent and integral ways to share our culture with those who come to visit these wonderful islands.  Knowledge must be our highest pursuit.  If we succeed, then our forefathers’ legacy will live on.  If we fail, our culture and our identity as a people will be dismantled and sold off in parts to the highest bidders, who will leave the parts they can’t sell to perish and those ideals will eventually relegate themselves to the graveyard of forgotten history.  In the battle between culture and profit and ignorance and knowledge, it is time that the Hawaiian people draw the battle lines and fight back against the immense amount of misinformation that threatens to reduce our forefathers’ impact to a mere whisper drowned out by the sounds of progress.

4 thoughts on “The Cost of Being Hawaiian: Defending Our Identity

  1. Beautifully written! Thank you for capturing the ideas and heart of this issue so well. I have this conversation often with friends over here in California. Your words are so well stated. Mahalo nui loa. Best to you in your work at Pepperdine!

    1. I visited Hawaii last year and was disappointed with the commercial display of your culture. I couldn’t believe how cheesy the staged performances were and how these almost perfectly beautiful Hawaiians seemed to be. Thank you for clearing this up for me. You see I come from a similar world where our values for the land, mountains, water and higher beings and our associations to them and each other are vitally important to staying grounded to our true selves. I want to return to Hawaii to find some real hawaiians…who are not so perfect just like me. I think the hula shows should shut down, they are fake and perhaps the tourist is getting ripped off anyway.I would happily pay to experience the real Hawaii identity…..warts and all. Kia kaha, be strong in your fight, it is worth it!

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