Pacific Islander and Asian American Heritage Month – A Hawai’i Perspective


Supporting the Kahu Manō  and marine protection in Hawai’i.

By Hoku Maru Yamamoto, Shark Stewards Volunteer

May is recognized as Pacific Islander and Asian American Heritage Month established to recognize the history, contributions, achievements and importance of Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans. It is also is meant to recognize and address grievances and concerns of the racism, harassment, and exclusion of Pacific Island, and Asian descended peoples in the USA.

I was born in Kealakekua Bay, in Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. I come from four generations of Japanese farmers, and I am known as a Hapa, mixed with native Hawaiian blood. Hawai’i is the most diverse state with nearly one-in-four residents (24%) identifying as multiracial, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. Residents of Hawaii Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander are around 18% and white and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (12%). Hawaii is the only state to have a tri-racial group as its largest multiracial group, one that includes white, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (22%). Today, pure blood natives who are descended from the original people of Hawaii make up only 6% of the islands’ population.

As Pacific Islanders, thousands of miles and thousands of years removed from other peoples, native Hawaiians suddenly experienced colonialism and the loss of their sovereignty under the hands of the British. On January 20, 1778, Captain James Cook first visited the shores of Kauai at Waimea. A year later, early January of 1779, Cook returned to the Hawaiian Islands this time visiting the Island of Hawai’i’s Kealakekua Bay near my home. Kealakekua is known among Hawaiians as The pathway of the God, where, it was said, the Hawaiian fertility god, Lono-i-ka-makahiki, lived. Cook’s arrival coincided with a four-month religious festival known as Makahiki, which marked the return of the Hawaiian god Lono. The islanders welcomed Cook and his crew, providing food and gifts but the burden of the voyagers on the local resources led to distrust and resentment by the local people. 

After returning to after a dismasting, on February 14, Cook went ashore with nine Marines to force the return of items reportedly stolen from his ship. Cook himself exacerbated the tension by confiscating wood that was sacred from a heiau, and attempting to hold a chief hostage. No longer believing Cook’s status associated with Lono, Cook’s crew met with resistance leading to his death at the hand of the Hawaiian warriors. His monument now resides over the beautiful Kealakekua Bay where the Hikiau Heiau and many other Hawaiian sacred sites are located. The British later occupied Hawaii, even providing support to the unification under King Kamehameha I, until ceding the islands as a Hawaiian Territory in 1853. By then the United State’s interest in the Hawaiian Islands had grown as a result of its whaling, shipping and trading activity, and important strategic location in the Pacific.

In 1893, lawyer and first governor of the new territory of Hawaii, Sanford Dole declared Hawaii an independent republic. The United States annexed Hawaii in 1898 at the urging of President William McKinley, ending the reign of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last sovereign monarch of Hawai’i, with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom on January 17, 1893.

Queen Liliuokalani in 1891 Public Domain Honolulu Star Bulletin Nov 12 1917
Queen Liliuokalani. Photographed around 1891 by James J. Williams (Source: Honolulu Star-bulletin., November 12, 1917, 3:30 Edition, Page 3). Public Domain (

Brought over by land barons my great grandfather and other Japanese immigrants came to Hawai’i as farmers. Their children later suffered internment, arrest and discrimination following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Like those living along the West Coast of the US, the Japanese American community on the islands contended with prejudiced ideas about their loyalty. Like the native Hawaiians, many Japanese lost their land and belongings, but not to the extent of losing a nation.

Historically, Hawaiian lands have been usurped, while cultural practices and language were consumed by the church and western culture. Our island nation’s heritage has suffered, but the heart and memories of the Hawaiian people are strong. With mixed Asian- Hawaiian blood, I represent two island peoples, both who have suffered from discrimination, but also two races who are closely connected to the ocean. In recent years I have learned about Hawaiian cultural values like pono (wisdom ) and malama, (care) for the ocean. In the past two decades, Hawai’i has become the center of shark and coral reef protection, including the practice of traditional marine management recognized by the state of Hawai’i. .

At the north end of a great triangle connecting Kaviki (Tahiti) and Ateoroa (New Zealand) Hawai’i is the endpoint for migration and the traditional sailing voyages by my ancestors who used the winds, stars, and ocean currents to wayfind their way across the vast Pacific seascape. The waters surrounding Hawai’i are home to some of the most diverse and remarkable tropical marine life on the planet including numerous threatened and endangered species and species found nowhere else in the world.

Hawaii is home to the  Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary where thousands of humpback whales travel from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warm waters of Hawai‘i to mate, give birth, and raise their young each winter. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary protects these whales and their habitat and provides wonder to local people and tourists who enjoy their breaches and cavorting from shore.

Located in the culturally and ecologically significant islands Northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is unique. The Monument is one of the few intact, large-scale predator-dominated reef ecosystems left in the world.  It is home to more than 7,000 marine species and hosts many sacred sites to native Hawaiians.  

Marine Protection is Working to Protect Our Resources

A 2022 study published in Science found that the world’s largest no-fishing zone, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, has increased the catch rate of yellowfin tuna by 54% in nearby waters. Catch rates for bigeye tuna (also known as ʻahi) increased by 12%; catch rates for all fish species combined increased by 8%. The waters of the National Monument is now under consideration to protect as a National Marine Sanctuary, that will include cultural protection and use for ceremonies by native Hawaiians.

I recently learned about the Kahu Manō  (Shark Keepers) film by Shark Stewards, learning from the Hawaiians and their application of ancestral knowledge and management of sharks and marine resources. Many Hawaiians believe that there ancestors are connected to sharks and have become leaders in shark protection. As of 2022, shark fishing is illegal in Hawaii. Communities like the Hā‘ena Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area (CBSFA) on Kaui, Kīpahulu Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area on Maui, and more recently the Miloli’i CBSFA on the Big Island are managing their own resources and sanctioned by the State Department of Marine Resources.

Pacific Islander and Asian Americans have made invaluable contributions to the building, prosperity, and defense of our nation. This is aloha ‘āina, having a love and respect for all living things, including people and places; this informs the way we mālama, take care of the ocean and all that lives in it.