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Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander Americans

This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Counting Is Not A Simple Matter

The racial/ethnic classification of the Pacific Islander population always seems to be changing. "Hawaiian" remained the only Pacific Islander group listed in Census questionnaires separately until 1980, when "Guamanian" and "Samoan" were added. That year, the Census counted about 260,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (NHPI). In 1990, the category "Other Asian or Pacific Islander" was added to the questionnaire along with a write-in area for all unspecified groups of Polynesian, Micronesian or Melanesian cultural backgrounds. The 1990 Census counted 365,000 NHPIs, a 41% increase over 1980.

Pacific Islander women © Remi Benali and Getty Images

In response to calls by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander activists, the Census Bureau split NHPIs off from Asians to become a sixth basic racial category, along with the existing white, black, American Indian, Asian, and Some Other Race (Latinos/Hispanics are treated as an ethnic, rather than racial, group). The 2000 Census further allowed respondents to pick more than one racial identity and as a result, divining what the exact NHPI population is became more difficult, especially since a huge proportion-more than half of all NHPIs-are of multiracial ancestry.

Examining the 2000 Census report on the NHPI population, we see an increase of 9.3%, from roughly 365,000 people in 1990 to 399,000 in 2000, using the NHPI-alone numbers. When including multiethnic and multiracial NHPIs, the increase jumps to 140%, to 874,000 total in 2000. Native Hawaiians make up about 45% of all NHPIs. Also, Pacific Islanders residing in the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are completely excluded by the Census. Seventy-three percent of NHPIs lived the thirteen-state Western region and in fact, 58% lived in just two states: Hawai'i (282,667) and California (221,458).

Native Hawaiians

The Native Hawaiian population was estimated between 400,000 and 800,000 in 1778, the year that Briton Captain James Cook arrived in Hawai'i. The monarchy originally founded by King Kamehameha I in 1810 was overthrown in 1893 by U.S. naval forces and in 1898, the U.S. annexed the islands as the Republic of Hawai'i. Through diseases introduced into the islands by colonization, by 1900 the pure Native Hawaiian population declined to 29,800 with another 7,800 Hawaiians of mixed ancestry.

According to the 2000 Census, Native Hawaiians and part-Native Hawaiians number 239,655 and comprise about 20% of Hawai'i's population. Another 161,500 persons with Hawaiian ancestry live in the continental U.S. In Hawai'i, Native Hawaiians earn lower incomes, hold lower-status jobs, and have the highest unemployment rate of all the ethnic groups in the islands. Due to their low incomes that hinder access to health care, Native Hawaiians also suffer higher disease, cancer, and mortality rates and their life expectancy is shorter by eight years than other groups.

As an indigenous minority group, Native Hawaiians are recognized as having a "special trust relationship" with the U.S. government, similar to Native American Indians (along with Native Alaskans), entitling them to special programs and resources. Pacific Islander traditional performer © Michele Westmorland and Getty Images However, in February 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed established policies of the U.S. Congress and ruled that the composition of the trustees who control Native Hawaiian rights and entitlements (the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, or OHA) was unconstitutional because they were based on racial identity qualifications. This decision basically throws into question the fundamental rights of Native Hawaiians.

In light of the ruling, Hawai'i's two Senators, Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye introduced the "Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act" (aka the "Akaka Bill") before Congress in 2000. The bill would formally extend the federal policy of self-determination to Native Hawaiians and put them on the same legal status as Native American Indians. Opponents of the bill argue that it promotes racial/ethnic separatism and that similar to debates about affirmative action, non-Hawaiians should not unfairly bear the consequences of reconciling events that occurred several generations ago.

Hawaiians have a saying, Aloha mai no, aloha aku -- When love is given, love should be returned. Sovereignty supporters believe that now is the time for aloha to be acknowledged and returned to the Native Hawaiian people and their descendents. The Akaka bill would provide an avenue for both the people of Hawai'i and the U.S. Congress to correct the historical injustices they have suffered collectively as a people, and enable them to exercise self-determination through self-governance, in order to heal as a people.

The House version of the bill (H.R. 505) passed on October 24, 2007 and the Senate version is still being considered.

Samoans and Guamanians

There are more than 130,000 Samoans living in the U.S., with two-thirds being monoracial and another third being multiracial. That's nearly a threefold growth from the 1990 population of 49,345. Like the Native Hawaiians, they are considered Polynesians, and are theorized to have migrated from the west (the East Indies, the Malay peninsula or the Philippines) as far back ago as 1,000 B.C.E. Today, the islands are divided up into American Samoa and Samoa. The former is only 76 square miles, has a population of around 67,000, and sends a delegate to the U.S. Congress. Samoa, known as Western Samoa until 1997, is an independent nation with islands totaling 1,090 square miles, and a population of 179,058.

The economy of American Samoa remains undeveloped; nearly one-third of workers are employed in the fishing or canning industry. Tourism has not taken off. In recent years, one of American Samoa's main exports has been football players. There are more than 200 playing Division I college football, and 28 in the NFL, reported ESPN in 2002. Perhaps the most famous has been linebacker Tiaina "Junior" Seau.

Pacific Islander children © Plush Studios and Getty Images

After Samoans, the next-largest NHPI group are the natives of the island of Guam, also known as Chamorro. There are only about 157,000 people living on today's multicultural Guam, of whom about half are Chamorro. So like American Samoa, a larger number of Chamorro actually live abroad-in the U.S., there are nearly 93,000 people of pure or part-Chamorro descent.

Today the U.S. military maintains a large, albeit declining, presence in Guam, with 23,000 military personnel and their families living on the island. Though the government has lobbied to free Guam from its "unincorporated" U.S. territory status, the island has yet to be granted the Commonwealth recognition given Puerto Rico. And although the people are given U.S. citizenship, they do not vote in U.S. presidential elections. Economically, the growing tourist industry catering to Japanese visitors has helped offset the military downsizing.

Socioeconomic Characteristics of NHPIs

Besides the cultural and ethnic differences between Asians and Pacific Islanders, one of the main motivations for NHPI activists to fight for separate racial recognition by the Census Bureau was the very real socioeconomic differences between the groups. Indeed, while some NHPIs have very high incomes and educations, a disproportionate percentage are impoverished, have lower educations, and may require or need public assistance. The model minority myth surrounding Asian Americans, which obscures problems with disadvantaged members of the group, has hurting NHPIs, too.

In terms of aggregate figures, NHPIs tend to lag behind most other groups. The per-capita income in 1999 for NHPIs was $15,054. That is 37% lower than the $23,918 per capita income for Whites and 31% lower than the $21,823 figure for Asian Americans. NHPI households had a median 1999 income of $42,717 -- higher than the overall U.S. median figure of $41,994, simply because NHPIs tend to have larger families and more workers per household.

The percentage of NHPIs enrolled in school or college as of 2000 was 35.4%, which ranked higher than both the 26.1% of Whites and 33.5% of Asians. That may be indicative of the relative youthfulness of the NHPI population more than anything else -- the median age for the general population is 35.3 years old; for Asians, it is 31.1 years old, while for NHPIs it is just 25.4 years old. However, in educational attainment for those 25 years or older, about one quarter of NHPIs has a bachelor's degree or more. This lags behind Asian Americans, with 44.1% having a bachelor's degree or more.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by Davianna McGregor, Edmund Moy, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: McGregor, Davianna and Edmund Moy. 2003. "Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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