Native Hawaiian healing from white settler injustices and continued discrimination

This was a big week to focus on the racial divisions in our country and the steps we need to take to increase equity. On Monday, we recalled the life works of Martin Luther King Jr.; on Tuesday, the country celebrated the National Day of Racial Healing; and on Wednesday, President Joe Biden became the first president to call out white supremacy, and racism more broadly, and the need for change in his inauguration speech.

Although historical racism and the demand for restitution and reconciliation may have a different context here in Hawaiʻi, the continual discrimination and pain caused by colonization is similar to what is experienced on the continent. 

Colonization & Historical Trauma

Native Hawaiians or Kānaka Maoli or Kānaka ʻŌiwi are the indigenous people of Hawai‘i, whose ancient Polynesian ancestors discovered the islands through sophisticated scientific methods as early as 300 AD. By 1100 AD, the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands shared a common heritage, culture and language, which was distinct from those of other Polynesian peoples. In the centuries prior to European contact in 1778, Native Hawaiians developed a complex culture and stable land tenure system that supported a population estimated to be between 300,000 to 1 million people. [For a brief video on Hawaiian history watch Paʻa Ke Aupuni.]  

As they did with other indigenous peoples and people who were enslaved, Europeans and Americans systematically dismantled the population, culture, and sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people through disease, coercion, and violence. In Hawai‘i, foreign settlers:

  • Introduced infectious diseases that decimated the Native Hawaiian population;
  • Suppressed traditional religious and healing practices in the name of Christianity;
  • Privatized land and transferred ownership to foreigners;
  • Banned the use of ʻŌlelo Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian language) in schools, public venues and government; and
  • “Reformed” the government to disenfranchise Hawaiians and reduce the power of the monarch, which ultimately led to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and U.S. annexation in 1898. 

By 1893, when Americans and Europeans overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, fewer than 40,000  Native Hawaiians remained. Today, there are more than 600,000 full or part Native Hawaiians in the U.S. However, only half live in Hawai‘i, leaving 300,000 Native Hawaiians estranged from their homeland. 

The legacy of colonization still expresses itself today in social, health and economic indicators. Native Hawaiians face disproportionate rates of illness and economic insecurity, and a higher likelihood of becoming houseless or incarcerated. 

Solutions for Healing

The Native Hawaiian people are resilient and strong, achieving amazing feats like saving their language and traditional Polynesian voyaging practices from the edge of extinction. Native Hawaiian practitioners are sought after to share their knowledge with other indigenous peoples around the world who face similar consequences of colonialism. Obviously, Native Hawaiians already have the ideas and solutions for healing from the historical trauma, so their direction on issues is likely the best way forward. Here are some of their solutions:

Society at large can support the efforts of Native Hawaiians by providing resources that they identify as needed. It’s vital that the state and federal government not only fulfill their existing legal obligations, but also listen to and follow the lead of the Native Hawaiian people on healing injustices and discrimination. Some solutions put forward by Native Hawaiian communities, organizations and advocates include:

Racial healing is no less urgent in Hawaiʻ’i than it is across the nation. We must use this week and every week to advance the many solutions that support and restore Native Hawaiian self-determination. 

For more information on opportunities to support Native Hawaiians in the upcoming legislative session, visit the Office of Hawaiian Affairs legislative page.