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Pacific Islander Americans and Native Hawaiians

The islands of the Pacific stretch across thousands of miles of ocean in both the northern and southern hemisphere. Although the peoples of the Pacific Islands have unique histories, cultures, traditions, and languages, they all developed the skills necessary to survive in relative isolation and through ingenious methods of farming and fishing used their limited natural resources to thrive.

Pacific Islander Americans who live in New Mexico have ancestries including Polynesian, Samoan, Micronesian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Tahitian, Hawaiian, and many others.

In addition to having its own unique native culture, Hawaii has played and continues to play a major role in Asian immigration to the United States. Many in New Mexico’s Asian-American community were born in or lived in Hawaii and consider their Hawaiian background to be just as much a part of them as their Asian background. 

Native Hawaiians 

It is believed that Polynesian explorers from the Marquesas Islands were the first settlers of the islands of Hawaii and landed there between 300 and 500 AD. A second wave of migration to the “Big Island” occurred around the 9th and 10th centuries when Tahitian settlers arrived on Hawaii. For hundreds of years, the population flourished by living off the land, learning to farm, and using highly skilled fishing techniques for food. Nearly every aspect of life for these early inhabitants was governed by living harmoniously with nature, including their religion, culture, and governing systems. The most important arrangement for the early Hawaiians was the Kapu system, or a set of laws, that governed every aspect of life. By the time Europeans arrived in Hawaii in 1798, the population was anywhere between 300,000 to 800,000. (1)

The Hawaiian Islands would become known to the world when Captain James Cook of England landed the H.M.S Revolution and H.M.S. Discovery on the island of Kauai. They were welcomed by the Hawaiians, and the Hawaiians and Europeans had celebrations and traded with one another. The Europeans remained for several weeks, and Cook named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” after his benefactor, the Earl of Sandwich. While their initial contact was peaceful, Cook returned to the island a year later and was stabbed by a Hawaiian in a skirmish. The arrival of the Europeans would change Hawaiian society forever.

In addition to Captain Cook, other foreigners would arrive on Hawaii and bring with them great changes. Christian missionaries from the United States and England began arriving on the islands in the early 1800s. A Hawaiian king, Kamehameha II, converted to Christianity and abolished the ancient kapu system. As a result, many ancient temples and structures of the Hawaiian religion were destroyed. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, Hawaiian culture was passed down through word of mouth. The missionaries instituted a written language which they taught to the Hawaiians. However, the importance of storytelling and maintaining culture through word-of-mouth continues today among native Hawaiians.

Prior to Cook’s arrival, the Hawaiian Islands were never unified. There were many different tribes and chiefs that were often at war with one another. However, a young chief named Kamehameha I, after acquiring Western weapons, decided to change this. He set out to unite all of the islands on the Hawaiian chain. By 1810, Kamehameha I became the first King of Hawaii.

Kamehameha I and his successors significantly altered Hawaiian society. The most dramatic change was the Great Mahele (land division) of 1848. Prior to this there was no concept of private property, but the Great Mahele divided up the land between commoners and noblemen, and soon foreigners were able to purchase enormous tracts of land. Sugar, coffee, and pineapple plantations popped up all over Hawaii within a few short years. Thus began Asian immigration to Hawaii.

The presence of westerners had greatly reduced the native Hawaiian population, mostly because of diseases. It is estimated that sixty years after the first arrival of Europeans, the population had been reduced by as much as 90 percent. To fill the labor shortage, plantation owners encouraged Asians to immigrate to Hawaii by promising employment opportunities, religious freedom, and overall better lives. Beginning in the 1850s and over the next century, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and immigrants from many other countries would arrive in Hawaii to work on the plantations. Each group brought with them their own unique heritage making Hawaii one of the most culturally diverse places in the United States.

The Role of the United States
In 1891, Queen Liliuokalani inherited the throne after her brother, King Kalakaua, died. She followed in her brother’s footsteps and tried to return to the traditional religion and customs of Hawaii and restore the power of the monarchy. She was opposed to the influence and presence of the United States in Hawaii. However, a coup d’état backed by U.S. forces overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. In 1898 the United States officially annexed Hawaii and made it a U.S. territory.

An important event in Hawaiian history is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which would prompt the U.S. to enter World War II. Hawaii was placed under martial law immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and bases continued to be used there throughout the war. In 1959, Hawaii officially became the fiftieth state in the Union.

Native Hawaiians on the U.S. Mainland

Beginning in the 18th century, Native Hawaiians began moving to the U.S. mainland, largely as a result of the arrival of Europeans in Hawaii. Once Hawaii was opened up to trade, a group of young Hawaiian males left and became workers on whaling ships or worked in the fur trade. (2) In addition, some ventured to California in the 1850s to take part in the Gold Rush. Native Hawaiians established small villages in California and Washington, which were called “Kanaka Villages.”

However, the first large wave of Hawaiians moving to the U.S. mainland occurred in the 1950s, as a result of the changing Hawaiian economy. As Hawaii increasingly became a tourist destination, the rising cost of living and limited economic opportunities encouraged many Hawaiians to seek out jobs elsewhere. Many Hawaiian men joined the U.S. military and were trained and stationed in the U.S. mainland. Some of them chose to stay.

The most recent wave of Hawaiians moving to the mainland occurred in the 1990s. The cost of living was rising dramatically, as were the prices of homes. In search of better employment and educational opportunities, thousands of Hawaiians moved to the U.S. mainland. (3) Today, there are more native Hawaiians living on the U.S. mainland than in Hawaii.

Hawaiian Culture in New Mexico 

According to the most recent census information, there are approximately 400 Hawaiians living in Albuquerque. Many moved here for better educational opportunities, to find work, and because of the Air Force Bases. Some Hawaiians were drawn to New Mexico because of the presence of Native American Indian communities as well.

The art, dance, culture, and celebrations of Hawaii are present throughout the state of New Mexico. The following are some examples of a few of the most essential terms in Hawaiian culture, many of which are present in Albuquerque.

For Hawaiians, aloha means much more than “hello” and “goodbye.” For many Hawaiians aloha is a way of life. Aloha literally means to “share the breath of life.” When people greet one another by saying aloha, they are saying that they belong to each other in a common humanity, with mutual love and respect for one another. To live “aloha” is to live joyously and in spiritual harmony with your fellow human beings. Aloha can be used in many phrases, such as aloha aina, which means to love the land, or aloha kakahiaka, which means good morning.

The ideas of aloha also apply to a person’s physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being. Practitioners of Hawaiian Healing techniques that emphasize this idea can be found in Albuquerque.

Since ancient times, the hula has been one of the most important traditions in Hawaii. Hula was a way of life in Hawaii, and when missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the 19th century, they encouraged the newly converted Christian King and Queen, Kamehameha II and Queen Ka`ahumanu, to outlaw the hula dance. However, in the last forty years there has been a revival of the ancient, traditional hula dance on the U.S. mainland.

Hula is actually a form of worship and prayer to the ancient Hawaiian goddess Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. (4) To some Hawaiians, hula is the physical expression of aloha. King Kalakaua, who is also known as the “Merry Monarch” for his love of having large feasts and celebrations, led a revival of Hawaiian culture in the late 1800s. He stated that "Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people."

Today there are two forms of hula. The first is the ancient, traditional form of hula, or hula kahiko. This is performed in the more traditional, indigenous style and the tunes are chanted by the dancers. The second form is hula ‘auana, which is the more modern, westernized performance style. While the hula ‘auana is more common in the mainland, there has been a revival hula kahiko in recent years. (5)

There are two hula groups that keep the unique dance active in Albuquerque. Hula classes are taught by Cindi Heffner, a Native Hawaiian, in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. She stresses learning to dance with aloha, “which makes hula come to life.” She and her students have performed at many venues all throughout New Mexico. Another hula group in Albuquerque is called “Hawaiian Pride” and is taught by Rod Kaulapai.

The history of the first luau in Hawaii goes back to the ancient system of laws, kapu. Under kapu, men and women were forbidden from eating meals together. When Kamehameha II abolished kapu, the first feast in which the King and other men dined with women was called a luau after the main dish served at the feast.

Traditionally, food at a luau is eaten on the floor without the use of utensils. Luaus were often held in honor of a special occasion, such as the end of a victorious war, a successful harvest, or the birth of a child. Today, luaus celebrate a graduation or wedding, or other memorable events in life. To ancient Hawaiians, all food eaten at a luau had a specific meaning and symbolized a trait, such as courage and love.

The luau is a popular celebration, and the Hawaiian community in Albuquerque holds a luau annually. This luau includes hula dancing, feasting, and music. The luau is just one of the many ways Hawaiians preserve their unique cultural traditions.

One of the most important concepts and words in the Hawaiian culture is ohana. Ohana literally means family in Hawaiian, but the word often carries an even larger meaning. Ohana refers to family by blood, but also people who are not actually related to one another, but share a common bond and purpose. The ohana is the unit that provides love, shelter, food, education, and support to each individual. The ohana foster honesty, compassion, and the spirit of aloha in one another.



1. Peter M. Stearns, “The Pacific Islands in Pre-European Times,” The Encyclopedia of World History, 2001 ed.
2. Rona Tamiko Halualani, Ph.D, “Hawaiians at ‘Home’ on the Mainland” (2003).
3. Halualani.
4. Dr. Amy Ku’uleialoha Stillman, “More About Hula,” (2003).
5. Stillman.

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