What/who is a Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli? [text]

#208 in the Moʻolelo series

In 1964, the Hawaiian writer John Dominis Holt wrote the essay “On Being Hawaiian” – this essay is seen as a catalyst for the nascent Hawaiian movements: the renaissance and sovereignty of later decades. In it, Holt – a descendant of both Hawaiian and European royalty – asked whether “Hawaiian” was a matter of blood or ʻsentiment:”

Holt wrote:

 I am, in depth, a product of Hawaii–an American, yes, who is a citizen of the fiftieth State, but I am also a Hawaiian; somewhat by blood, and in large measure by sentiment. Of this, I am proud.

As the Poetry Foundation described him:

John Dominis Holt is recognized as one of the leading voices of the mid-century “Hawaiian Renaissance.” Descended from Hawaiian royalty and European ancestors, Holt navigated the competing claims of pedigree and genealogy in postcolonial Hawaii…

I posit here three ways of defining “Hawaiian”

  1. Genealogy – the debate on this is basically settled. To be Hawaiian is to have a Hawaiian family, and to be able to trace their lineage back to what Kealani Cook has called the time of ʻoiwi wale – when there were only Kanaka ʻOiwi
  2. Hawaiian citizenship – in a more modern context of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the term “Hawaiian” connoted Hawaiian subjects, who could be and were multi-racial – Willy Kauai informs us in his dissertation The Color of Nationality that between 1840 and 1887 there were “3200 people from numerous other place who became naturalized Hawaiian subjects.” Kauai writes:

3. A set of values – this is of course much more nebulous and subject to being stretched and even abused, but it does seem that values such as aloha, lokahi, lokomaikaʻi and others (George Kanahele established a set of 25) are foundational to being Hawaiian.


Filed under Education

2 responses to “What/who is a Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli? [text]

  1. Thomas Chock

    Random thoughts:

    So someone could be Hawaiian by 1 and 2, but not 3…or Hawaiian by 3, but not 1 nor 2….etc. etc. Then of course there’s the quantum issue with 1…if I’m 1/256th Hawaiian blood, am I really Hawaiian? Which seems to then turn into an even more fun conversation when the 1/128th Hawaiian person does (or doesn’t?) olelo Hawaii or dance hula etc.

    Another thing I often think about in this context is the Hawaiian Dictionary (small kid time I thought there was someone named Pukui Elbert) or those kumu olelo Hawaii who “aren’t Hawaiian” by the rules of #1…

    Or the Pilipino aunty who is a second or third gen born and raised local who dances hula beautifully and cooks a mean squid luau…

    Mahalo, Kumu, for all your hard work keeping up this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • umi

      You wrote: “So someone could be Hawaiian by 1 and 2, but not 3” – definitely! someone could be kanaka maoli and Hawaiian but not act like it! Theyʻre still definitely Hawaiian in my book


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