10/08/2013 06:15 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hawaiian? What Is That?

In the summer of 1999, my family boarded a flight to Las Vegas, escaping the suffocating pressures of surviving in Paradise. I was 15 and thrilled about our new family adventure. The day after our arrival, I tried out for the Varsity Volleyball team and was accepted. Within the first few days, locker room conversation turned to me and my new team mates asking, "What are you?" "Hawaiian, Chinese, English and Spanish," I replied. To be met with, "What is Hawaiian? Like Asian or Chinese or something? Wait, how did you get here? Did you paddle on a canoe? Wait, do they have electricity? Do people still live in huts?" This proved to be the first of many encounters like this. I spent 9 years living and working in Las Vegas meeting people from all over the globe with the same curious questions. And don't think anything changed when I moved to New York, a seemingly educated, hot spot of enlightenment. Five years here and I find myself still explaining what a Native Hawaiian is while wondering why I'm explaining an evidently "forgotten" part of American history and how we can bring awareness to the oblivious friends and acquaintances we encounter daily. The following is my solution to fellow Hawaiians. Please forward this to those friends or acquaintances posing the same questions those teenage girls posed to me 14 years ago. So here we answer the question: What is a Native Hawaiian?

Well I can tell you that what those girls thought a Hawaiian was -- isn't. I can understand why a curious visitor would assume a Native Hawaiian to be Asian. According to the United States Census Bureau, 38.3 percent of the population identifies as "Asian alone" and 23 percent identifies as two or more races (just like myself). This is in large part due to Hawaii's historical sugar cane plantations. According to Ronald Takaki's Raising Cane: The World of Plantation Hawaii, the first imported plantation labor arrived from China in 1850. Between 1852-1930, over 300,000 Asians from China, Japan, Korea and Philippines arrived to tend the sugar cane fields owned by former missionary families. So now we know a large part of why there are so many Asians in Hawaii, and can infer that these people are not natives. And surprise -- the former missionary families who owned the plantations weren't natives either.

Native Hawaiians are the peoples inhabiting the islands of Hawaii before its "discovery" by English explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. Through archeological and linguistic evidence, it is believed that these people arrived from the Marquesas Islands, an archipelago 2,500 miles southeast of the Hawaiian Islands somewhere between the 3rd and 8th century A.D. So one could argue they had been around for a while. A long while. At the time of Captain Cook's arrival there were somewhere between 250,000- 800,000 Hawaiians (I'm aware this is a ridiculous range, blame the scientists). The natives had their own poetic language, which you can still hear on the Island of Ni'ihau where Hawaiian is still the primary language.

Interesting side note about Ni'ihau: The Island of Ni'ihau is privately owned by the Robinson family, purchased from the Kingdom of Hawaii (yes, there once lived a monarchy) in 1864 for $10,000 in gold. One can purchase a half-day tour to explore the island's treasures, except for the natives, absolutely no intermingling with the natives. The 130 natives camp on the island. I'm not sure what else to call it, being they live without power lines, phone service, cars, paved roads, plumbing, running water and general stores. Is this not the making of a National Geographic/ Discovery Channel/ BBC epic HD documentary? As a Hawaiian, it would be an intimate experience to take a peek into the everyday life that could have been mine before history wrote otherwise. As an American, I would wonder why my only options on educational channels are "Pawn Stars" or "Amish Mafia" instead of "Ni'ihau: Your own backyard."

I digress to the original topic before Ni'ihau led us astray... Native Hawaiians primarily spoke Hawaiian until a law in 1896 required English become the ONLY means of communication and instruction in all public and private schools. I mention this only to address those surprised to learn that the majority of people in Hawaii do not speak fluent Hawaiian. Usually the conversation goes something like this:

Stranger: "Oh, you're from Hawaii? Do you speak Hawaiian?"

Me: "Unfortunately I don't".

Stranger: "What do you mean? You're from Hawaii! Say something in Hawaiian!"

Me: "O wai kou inoa? That means what is your name? (Mahalo to Kupuna Replinger from Kahala Elementary for that one)."

And then I refer to a version of the explanation noted above describing why the majority of Hawaii does not speak Hawaiian.

Hawaiians employed a sacred code of laws and regulations known as the "Kapu System" that influenced every aspect of life. The purpose of these laws was to maintain what Hawaiians called "mana" or spiritual power, associated with anything related to the gods. They believed the gods created the Kapu System and if broken, posed a threat to the gods and their spiritual power. Ai' Kapu referred to "eating laws" that not only restricted men and women from eating together, but from having their food prepared together in the same "imu" (underground oven). Kapuhili referred to the laws prohibiting commoners from coming into contact with ali'i (royalty). Commoners were not allowed to touch an ali'i's hair or nails or shadow in fear that the commoner would steal an ali'i's mana. There were also kapu that promoted sustainable living such as the fishing regulations that prevented overfishing.

So, I've just described a native people whose history and circumstances can be closely likened to another group of natives every American kid will learn about in the following fall months. Soon, kids across the nation will learn about corn and stone soup and something lighthearted about American Indians. I've yet to encounter someone outside of Hawaii reminiscing about that time in school they learned about taro or building an imu or learning anything about Native Hawaiians. Why? I don't know. Why doesn't the majority of the population share the same rage, disgust, empathy, shame and sympathy for Native Hawaiians as they do for Native Americans? Because no one ever taught them. Why? I don't know. Please don't mistake me for an activist promoting Hawaiian sovereignty, because I'm not and that is not the purpose of this article. I am speaking as a proud Hawaiian living among Americans and citizens of the world totally ignorant to the history of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people. The purpose of this article is to not only enlighten those around us, but to simply acknowledge and commemorate a disregarded people. But mostly the purpose of this article is to settle those nasty rumors that I once lived in a grass shack with a coconut bra/ grass skirt ensemble endlessly hula-ing through life and paddled over the pacific to Las Vegas (note to all: those are inside thoughts and there IS such a thing as a dumb question).