Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …
I plop down on a bench in downtown Honolulu and wait for my friend Lisa to get done with her job at a native Hawaiian law firm.
I open a copy of Honolulu Weekly and flip to my favorite section: letters to the editor. That’s where you find the good stuff. Let’s see, what’s cooking among local residents?
A German tourist complains of homeless people begging for money in Waikiki, disrupting the mirage of paradise she expected on her vacation. Ugh. So obnoxious.
Lisa walks out of the building, so I close the publication and we go on our merry little way. The next week, true to routine at 4:55 p.m. — after my “work day” of writing at a coffee shop — I once again claim a bench spot in front of Lisa’s office and peruse the letters to the editor, finding a response from the a Honolulu resident to the previous week’s German tourist.
“What the letter writer wants is a packaged paradise, an escape from the harsh realities that occur when millions of outsiders drop in on our Islands for two weeks at a time, taking, using and consuming, but not giving back … Sorry, but we’re busy worrying about how to create affordable housing for the families and multiple generations of Hawai’ians and other longtime residents who have been displaced by tourism development.”
Oh, snap! (Wait, was that term around back in 2006? I can’t remember).
But, technically, I’m one of those tourists — ah, the guilt! But I’m totally more enlightened and would never say something like that German tourist. Right? Heck, I boycotted a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center after learning Mormons operate the joint. I don’t want to take advantage of the islands and its residents. But how should I avoid that? Plus, I want the authentic Hawaiian experience. But just what is that? And why do I deserve to have it?
I was beginning to notice a theme during my short stay on O’ahu: frustration over tourists and commercialism. But these aren’t the only things worrying Hawaiians of Polynesian descent.
Native Hawaiians have the worst health and socioeconomic indicators of any ethnic group in Hawaii. They have the shortest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate. They have 44 percent higher rates of death from heart disease and cancer than the rest of the U.S. population. Native Hawaiian women have increased incidence and mortality breast cancer rates compared with other ethnic groups in Hawaii.
This island state has the worst crystal meth problem in the nation, with some health officials describing it as “worse than an epidemic.” While meth surfaced in the late 1970s, its usage skyrocketed in the past decade. State lawmakers originally responded by establishing mandatory minimum prison terms for meth users and then thought to develop treatment facilities.
In addition to public health concerns, a higher proportion of Native Hawaiians live below the poverty line than any other ethnic group. They compose 40 to 60 percent of the state’s prison population despite making up only about 10 percent of the total population. Fifty-five percent of Native Hawaiians do not complete high school and only 7 percent have college degrees.
It is within this context we find the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and other movers and shakers in the Hawaiian Renaissance who are eager to share their cultural and political awakening.
Or, as activist George Kanahele said back in 1979 near the start of the renaissance’s second phase: “Like a dormant volcano coming to life again, the Hawaiians are erupting with all the pent-up energy and frustrations of people on the make.”