A Native Hawaiian Returns Home

Thirty Years After My Family Left for Prosperity in California, I Moved Back to the Islands I Thought I Knew

A recent photo of Stephanie Launiu’s family at the Haili Congregational Church, founded in 1824, in Hilo. The white-haired woman (center) is Launiu’s mother, who moved to California in 1961 and returned home in the 1980s. Courtesy of Stephanie Launiu.

The land sparkled like glitter. It was 1961 and my mother let my brothers and me take turns sitting by the airplane window, but I was lucky enough to commandeer the seat as the plane made its final approach to Los Angeles International Airport. More than 50 years later, I can still recall my awe at seeing all of those buildings and houses lit up in L.A.’s suburbs. For a little Hawaiian girl who was used to kerosene lanterns, it was sheer magic. We had flown beyond the horizon.

Sociologists refer to that period as the Hawaiian diaspora of the 1960s—a wave of out-migration of Hawaiians to the mainland in the decade after Hawai‛i became a state in 1959.

Diaspora or not, my father had just wanted a better job. So, for the next 30 years, California was our home. At first, I disliked the strangeness of it—crowds of people pressing into each other to get on city buses, languages I had never heard before, smells of unfamiliar foods. The city was full of grime. A blinking neon sign on the building across the street lit up my bedroom at night. The man next door yelled at his kids. The police sirens blared through the streets. It was completely unlike the life we had left behind.

But then, slowly, I embraced the strangeness and it became my new reality. The memories of swimming in the ocean every day, smelling the salt air and seeing the rainbows began to fade. The years passed and my Native Hawaiian family did what other transplanted Hawaiians do—we listened to Hawaiian music, ate Hawaiian food, and looked for other Hawaiian faces in crowds.

My father achieved his better life. Each house we moved into was a little bigger than the one before it. Each neighborhood a little cleaner. Until we finally landed in the suburbs of Southern California where public buses never ran. We had made it. We had left the poverty behind.

And a funny thing happened in California. I found out that being “Hawaiian” was special. Sometimes someone would begin speaking Spanish to me assuming that I was Mexican, but I would point to myself and say “Hawaiiana.” And their eyes would slowly light up and they would smile. Or a stranger hearing that I was Hawaiian would say “I’ve always wanted to go there. You are so lucky”. And then the inevitable silly questions would start—“Can I drive there?” “Why do you speak English so well?” “Do people live in houses?”

Of course, Hawai‛i is much more mainstream today. Americans are accustomed to having Hawaiians as fellow citizens (I think). More than 9 million tourists land on Hawai‛i’s shores each year and most of them are from the other 49 U.S. states.

Back then, I felt that being Hawaiian was the best part about being me. It gave me self-confidence. I wasn’t an ordinary brown person, or just from Hawai‘i. I was Hawaiian. I excelled in school and was thankful that my mother never allowed us to speak “pidgin English”, the island dialect that often identifies Hawai‛i’s locals. I made lifelong friends in high school and became known as the “Hawaiian girl.” California was where I fell in love with my husbands—both of them. It was where I got married twice and divorced once. And it was where I had all six of my children before the spring of 1990 arrived.

April 1990 was when Grandma died, a few months shy of her 90th birthday. She was my father’s mother. She would visit from Hawai‛i almost every year while I was growing up. Our family never made enough money to go back to Hawai‛i to visit. So Grandma remained our link to Hawai‛i, our homeland, culture, and roots.

I was married with six kids and a full-time job by then. I don’t remember how we scraped together the money or even who babysat our kids, but my husband and I, along with my brother and sister, flew home to Hawai‛i for Grandma’s funeral. And when the airplane landed on the Big Island, I felt like Dorothy entering the Land of Oz. I walked from black-and-white into a technicolor world.

The islands scooped me up as if I had never left, and I knew that I wanted to return to live there. Fortunately, my husband felt the islands’ call too, and within a year we had sold everything we owned, packed up the six kids, and moved to Hilo on the Big Island.

Once again, I had flown beyond the horizon. This time, I was re-entering a world I thought I knew. I would be the Hawaiian girl coming home again. I could raise my kids to be steeped in their heritage. They would learn to speak Hawaiian, and all of their friends would be Hawaiian too. Surely, if a Hawaiian was seen as special in California, wouldn’t it be even better to be a Hawaiian living in Hawai‛i?

Where I had been a little girl in a strange land when we first moved to California, now I was a grown woman returning to an unfamiliar homeland and stark reality.

First off, everything cost twice as much as in California. We could only afford rent for the bottom half of a house where the landlord had rented the top half to an unemployed white couple from Maui. We drove an old beat-up station wagon for a couple of years before we had saved the down payment to buy a newer car. Our electricity bill was sky-high even though we didn’t have air conditioning, didn’t own a computer, only had one TV and everybody was at school and work all day. I realized that this cost of living was why so many Hawaiians had moved away.

My husband secured a permanent job sooner than I did. I found two part-time jobs. I signed up with a temporary agency for clerical assignments, and during nights and weekends I worked in the Woolworth Restaurant kitchen washing dishes and filling the waitress’s orders. It was Aunty Elizabeth, an old Hawaiian woman and the regular dishwasher, who taught me my first truth about the Hawai‛i I had returned to: “Nobody care if you one Hawaiian born here. You gotta bide your time. Nobody gonna give you good job until they know somebody who knows you too. Hawaiians from the mainland just like haole.”

And there it was. I wasn’t special anymore. I was just another Hawaiian. Employers would consider me the same as somebody who had just flown over from Nebraska. It didn’t matter that my ancestors lay in Homelani Cemetery, or in unmarked graves out in the countryside somewhere. Being a Hawaiian from the mainland meant I needed to toughen myself up and get to the business of becoming a ‘local Hawaiian,’ Nobody’s eyes were going to light up when I pointed to myself and said ‘Hawaiiana.’

Another thing I noticed was that no one who interviewed me for a job was Hawaiian. They weren’t the bosses and they didn’t own the companies. Things have improved over the past 28 years since we moved home, but back in the early ‘90s it was rare to see a Hawaiian in a position of authority. Most Hawaiians who were highly-educated left the islands to earn a better salary.

I saw many Hawaiians in dead-end jobs: tour bus drivers, restaurant workers, hotel clerks, low-paid clerical workers, receptionists, laborers, and janitors. And some Hawaiians just weren’t working at all. Illegal drugs had infiltrated many island homes. Poverty and low wages couldn’t keep up with the rising cost of living, and many just gave up trying to compete. Like other indigenous people who have been colonialized and whose homelands are overrun by foreigners, Native Hawaiians were winning the race to the bottom.

I questioned everything around me. Why did Hawaiians have the worst socioeconomic statistics of any other group in Hawai‛i? Why were our rates of diabetes, cancer, and mortality abysmal compared to non-Hawaiians? Why were there so few Hawaiians in leadership positions in business and government? Why were Hawaiians satisfied with other people making the rules in their homeland? It seemed to me that during the first 30-plus years of statehood, Hawaiians had lost a lot of ground that would be difficult to make up.

I wasn’t special anymore. I was just another Hawaiian. Employers would consider me the same as somebody who had just flown over from Nebraska. It didn’t matter that my ancestors lay in Homelani Cemetery, or in unmarked graves out in the countryside somewhere.

I joined Ka Lāhui Hawai‛i, the earliest native movement for sovereignty and self-governance of the Native Hawaiian people. I voraciously studied Hawaiian history and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy—subjects that I never learned in California. I went to meetings, testified publicly, wrote opinion pieces, indoctrinated my kids and husband, and debated my family on the mainland about why it mattered. Then I tried to convince the local Hawaiians that it mattered to them.

During the years since I moved back home in 1991, a lot has changed and not all of it for the better. Time has weathered both California and Hawai‛i, albeit in different ways.

California is almost as expensive as Hawai‛i is now. When I visited the Golden State this summer, the gas prices there were higher than Hawai‘i’s. The traffic jams on the freeways are horrendous, even on the long stretches between Orange County and San Diego. But I still miss some of the racial diversity of California—Latinos, African Americans, Middle Eastern immigrants —that you can’t find in Hawai‛i.

Hawai‛i, my island parent, has also changed. It used to be enough to identify myself as Hawaiian. Now I have to say that I’m ‘Native Hawaiian’ or ‘Kanaka Maoli’ or some other identifier to clarify who I am. Some Hawaiians are richer than ever, while more are poorer than ever before. I’ve lived on the Wai‛anae Coast on O‛ahu for the past decade. It has the largest concentration of Native Hawaiians anywhere, and coastline beaches are full of homeless Hawaiians. As I write this, there are tents at the beach across the street with Hawaiian families living in them. Home prices are unaffordable for most locals, and generational homelessness affects many native families.

Hawai‛i is not an inch closer to being declared a sovereign nation than when I eagerly attended those Ka Lāhui meetings two decades ago. It now seems impossible that the most powerful nation on earth would ever relinquish power over these islands. Ka Lāhui Hawai‛i slowly disbanded as activists found that they had to make a living and that activism didn’t pay. And I’m disappointed to say that 60 years after Hawai‛i became a state, there is no one of Hawaiian descent representing Hawai‛i in the U.S. Congress.

There has been a shift in thinking among many Native Hawaiians as to what would be best for our people. Some advocate for total independence from the United States. They believe that the overthrow and annexation of Hawai‛i was an illegal act of war that broke the norms of international law and should be reversed.

Others are resigned to being American citizens but feel a responsibility to see that their children are educated about native history and culture. We have the brightest bunch of Kanaka Maoli coming up in the next generation: speakers of ‘Ōlelo Hawai‛i, the Hawaiian language; doctors, lawyers, and business owners; entertainers and clothing designers; teachers and firefighters; social workers and cultural specialists. And most important of all, parents who are devoting their lives to raising good and kind children.

Not all Kanaka Maoli live in Hawai‛i. My children are all grown now; some live here in Hawai‛i, but others reside in California, Washington, and Georgia. But wherever a Kanaka Maoli lives, a piece of Hawai‛i is there with them. Between horizons.

Stephanie Launiu is a freelance writer. She learned to speak the Hawaiian language at the age of 64 when she earned her bachelor’s degree in Native Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‛i–West O‛ahu.
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