Liz Prato

Creative Nonfiction

Liz Prato is the author of the short story collection Baby’s on Fire (Press 53). Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Carve, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Subtropics. She is the Editor at Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals from coast to coast. Liz is currently working on a linked essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i through the prism of white imperialism.


A Haole Guide to Hawaiian Taxonomy

To ‘Okina, or Not to ‘Okina

The most fascinating detail I learned on my first trip to Hawai‘i when I was twelve years old is that the Hawaiian alphabet consists of only thirteen letters. For many years I considered this a profound metaphor about Native Hawaiians’ organic wisdom and simplicity: while white people needed twenty-six letters to prattle on about our lives, ancient Hawaiians managed to say everything they needed to say in only thirteen. To express love, war, land, water, hunger, birth, thirst, fire, family, death—all they required was a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w, and the mysterious ‘okina.

It wasn’t until well into adulthood—after over a dozen trips to the Islands—that I realized these thirteen letters were not endemic to the Hawaiians. These letters exist because white Westerners assigned them to represent Native Hawaiians’ oral communication. Prior to Western contact, the sole written language of the Hawaiians had been petroglyphs: simple, but evocative, drawings of waves and warriors, volcanoes and rain, turtles and sharks carved into rock. This can be considered a primitive form of communication, or as evidence that communication is art and art is communication.

When British explorer James Cook and his men first landed on Kaua‘i in 1778, they made an initial stab at transcribing ōlelo Hawaiian—the Hawaiian language—into the written word. Cook and his crew seemed to have a genuine social/scientific interest in what and who they encountered on their voyages, and their journals contributed greatly to the world’s understanding of certain native cultures. Ultimately, Cook’s contact with Hawai‘i also led to the archipelago’s colonization, which includes capitalism (and its kissing cousin, tourism), religion, ecological destruction and a handful of deadly diseases. But on that first trip to the Islands, Cook sailed away with notes about birds and plants, sketches of natives surfing, and 229 Hawaiian words recorded in his journals.

Forty years after Cook’s first contact, white New England missionaries came to Hawai‘i with the express goal of translating the way the Hawaiians spoke into a written language, into their written language. The natives and their homeland were considered, dark, savage, heathen, and the missionaries vowed to teach them the Bible and, you know, make them Christians. These missionaries weren’t playing, either: they brought an entire printing press with them on the five-month voyage down the east coast of North and South America, through the Straits of Magellan, and out toward Hawai‘i.

The missionaries who translated the Hawaiians' spoken language through the prism of their familiar alphabet originally included the letters B, D, R, T, and V, along with the letters currently recognized (Cook’s linguist did the same). But the missionaries ended up dropping those five letters four years later because they were considered phonetically redundant, and/or the usage of them wasn’t consistent enough among the different islands. In 1826, they actually voted on which letters to keep and which to jettison, like it was an episode of The Voice. Like, “I find the B to be kind of one-dimensional,” or “I’m just not feeling the T.”

One linguistic move the missionaries made that shows respect for the Hawaiian tongue is inserting the ‘okina into words. An ‘okina looks like this: ‘. Like a backwards, upside-down apostrophe. Many English word processing programs don’t have an ‘okina built into their software, so apostrophes are used in their place—when they are not omitted altogether. But make no mistake: these apostrophes are imposters. They are not the real deal.

The ‘okina represents what linguists call a glottal stop, which is basically a quick, sharp pause. In ōlelo Hawaiian the ‘okina is most often used between double vowels, indicating that you pronounce them both, like in Hawai‘i. But it can also appear at the front of a word that begins with a vowel, which creates a short intake of breath before speaking. It’s more subtle than I’m making it sound, and has the effect of words being richer, more textured, like a musical note moving up and down the operatic scale. But more than that, the ‘okina is not simply a punctuation mark. The missionaries designated the ‘okina the thirteenth letter of the Hawaiian alphabet—an actual consonant.

Hawaiian words can have drastically different meanings depending on whether or not that ‘okina is there. ‘Ahi, for instance, is tuna, while ahi is fire. Ka‘i means to walk, and kai means the ocean. Kou is a kind of tree, ko‘u means “my.” English speakers are quite used to homographs and apparently find no reason to provide intrinsic clues to differentiate between this one or that one (does “just” mean only, or does it mean “fair”? Is something an object, or do you object to it? Is that a tear on your cheek, or a tear in the fabric?), but I bet foreign speakers wish there was a little more definition inherent in our words.

When you read enough literature about Hawai‘i, you notice vast inconsistencies around use of the ‘okina. Many publications omit it, including an astounding number of travel guides—including ones created by the Hawaiian tourism boards. From what I can tell, the roots of the anti-‘okina issue go back to 1898, when the United States annexed Hawai‘i and declared English its official language. It meant ōlelo Hawaiian was no longer taught in the schools, and all governmental documents relating to Hawai‘i were written in American English. Therefore, when Hawai‘i became a state in 1959, and a state seal and a state constitution were created, the ‘okina—and ōlelo Hawaiian—was nowhere to be seen. This seems especially dickish, since it was American missionaries who created and taught ōlelo Hawaiian, making the Islands one of the most literate societies on Earth. Then the US government quickly turned around and took that away. A linguistic bait and switch that, not coincidentally, disempowered Hawaiians.

An ever-evolving movement towards restoring Native Hawaiian culture that started pretty much the second Westerners landed in Hawai‘i got ōlelo Hawaiian named an official co-language of the state in 1978. And yet, many authors and publications still exclude the ‘okina or use it inconsistently. The explanation, when one is given, is that it would be too confusing or too difficult to use the ‘okina. This strikes me as so weird. English speakers have somehow managed to incorporate all sorts of foreign marks—accents and umlauts and tildes (the latter, by the way, is technically also a letter, and not just an “n” with a wavy thing over it)—without our minds being blown and, more importantly, while showing respect for the cultural origins of these words. Can you imagine the hissy fit Americans would throw if another culture decided to eliminate the “c” or the “k” or the “q” from our language because they seem redundant and it would just be easier? Then again, the United States government has yet to be conquered. That seems to be key in establishing language: who’s in charge.

I have made the decision to use the ‘okina in my writing out of respect for Hawaiian culture. During the last four decades I have visited the islands over two-dozen times, and it’s an embarrassment of privilege that I don’t remember exactly how many. Over the years my family and I have stayed in a minimum of forty-four shoreline hotel rooms and eleven condos, the construction of which destroyed the natural habitats of Hawaiian monk seals, albatross and honu, and took over beaches that used to belong, if not in title, then in heart, to the locals. In those hotel rooms and condos we’ve taken long hot showers, and have turned on the air conditioning instead of opening windows to the trade winds, and have left on the lights when we exited the room—not always out of forgetfulness, but because we wanted the room to seem welcoming when we returned at night. The fact that electricity is almost three times more expensive in Hawai‘i than the national average was someone else’s problem. The hotels and condos we stayed in are in lushly planted resorts often built on red, dry desert, and we’ve swum in elaborate pools, requiring hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, never realizing (or caring) that being surrounded by an ocean is not at all the same as having abundant drinking water. We’ve flown over 174,000 miles, almost three-quarters of the distance to the moon, burning around seventeen tons of fuel. We’ve driven a minimum of thirty-three rental cars, spewing carbon-dioxide into the air. We have laughed at the words Mele Kalikimaka. We have benefited from our government taking land away from the Hawaiians and building on it and even bombing the shit out of it. We, white mainland Americans, have taken enough from Hawai‘i. The very least I can do is not strip the ‘okina away, too.

About the Kahakō

The kahakō is another mark that is sometimes used, and sometimes abandoned, in written Hawaiian. The kahakō is the dash above a vowel indicating you draw out the sound. Like: nēnē, or kāne (the Hawaiian words for goose, and man, respectively). The kahakō doesn’t inspire quite as much impassioned debate as the ‘okina, but it’s still in the mix. An article in Hawaiian Business magazine discussed their year-after-year debate about whether or not to use the “diacritical marks” ‘okina and kahakō in their publication. This confused me, because I’m under the distinct impression that the ‘okina is not “just” a diacritical mark, but is a consonant in the Hawaiian alphabet. The kahakō isn’t (it’s a macron!), which doesn’t mean it’s not important, but certainly makes it more confusing as to whether or not I should use it. But just as I wouldn’t leave off the accent grave if I was writing about French culture, I won’t leave off the kahakō when writing about Hawaiian. For one simple reason: it’s kind of assholish.

On Naming

Most tourists guidebooks are quick to remind readers that Hawai‘i is part of the United States, and therefore referring to the mainland as “the States” is a major breach of etiquette, fairly insulting, and also kind of stupid. After all, much is made of Hawai‘i being our fiftieth state. Hawai‘i is responsible for giving symmetry to the rows of stars on the US flag. Former President Obama is from Hawai‘i and, as much as some people wanted to pretend he’s not an American, Hawai‘i is not a foreign country. Hawaiians are Americans.

Here’s where it gets tricky: You know how people who live in New York state are called New Yorkers, and people from Colorado are Coloradoans, and folks from Oregon are Oregonians? In the Islands, someone who lives in Hawai‘i is not called a Hawaiian, but “a resident of Hawai‘i.” Only direct descendants of Native Hawaiians are called Hawaiian. A permanent/longtime resident of Hawai‘i is also called kamaʻāina, which translates to “child of the land.” Newcomers are malihini. If someone is born in Hawai‘i but is not white (they are brown skinned), then they are called a local. A white person is called a haole, which also means foreigner. White people are always haole, even if their family has lived in Hawai‘i one-hundred years longer than the brown-skinned local next door. They will never be local, but they can be kama‘āina. It's like a logic problem you'd find in a grocery store puzzle magazine: If locals can be kamaʻāina, and haoles can be kamaʻāina, but haoles can never be locals, then . . .

There’s a pretty big difference between the term “Hawaiian” as used by the United States census, and as used in Hawai‘i for legal or identity purposes. The census used to include “Pacific Islanders” in the “Asian” category, but Native Hawaiian activists convinced them to create a separate category for Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders (NHPI). Frankly, that doesn’t clear things up all that much, since not all Pacific Islanders are Native Hawaiian, but all Native Hawaiians are Pacific Islanders (the logic problem rears its ugly head again). Native Hawaiians—the people who settled the archipelago somewhere between 300-800AD—hailed first from the Marquesas Islands. The next group to arrive was from Tahiti. Pacific Islanders do include Tahitians and Marquesans, but also people from Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, the Gambier Islands, the Cook Islands, the Mariana Islands, Melanesia, Micronesia . . .


To even further complicate matters, it’s hypothesized that Tahiti (whose voyagers conquered the Marquesans when they arrived in Hawai‘i) was itself first settled by the Marquesans, and the Marquesas Islands were settled by Samoans, who came from Southeast Asia and Melanesia. We can keep following this line of human migration all the way back to Africa, as trips through human migration tend to go, but because I’m trying to understand what it means to be Native Hawaiian and/or Pacific Islander, that’s exactly where I’m going to stop. In the Pacific Islands.

This particular designation, NHPI, matters mainly for the purpose of the census, which is about counting, and—ironically—not about the law. This naming matters in a whole different way legally. In 1921, a bill called The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act passed in the US Congress with the intent of giving land back to the Hawaiian people. By this time, it was pretty well recognized that the US presence in the archipelago had demolished the Hawaiian culture (not to mention the population, through the introduction of whopping cough, small pox, and venereal diseases), so Congress figured giving back some of their land might help make things right. Hawaiian Home Lands, as they’re called, can range in size from a ¼ acre lot which may or may not have a house on it, to multi-acre agricultural lands. They are leased to Native Hawaiians for only $1 per year for 99 years with limited property taxes.

While this sounds like a good way to begin making reparations to Native Hawaiians, there is so much incredibly fucked up about this program that it’s hard to know where to begin. Although, in a sense, you don’t have to look further than 1921, since the most controversial aspect of the law has never once been amended.

In the rest of the US, who “counts” as a Native American and partakes in tribal membership is set individually, by each tribe, and varies from as low as 1/16 blood quantum up to 1/2. Prince Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole, Hawai‘i’s congressional delegate in 1920 (but one without a vote), lobbied that Hawaiians be no less than 1/32 blood quantum to receive Home Lands. But Congress decided not to listen to the Hawaiian guy. They decided that in order to qualify for Home Lands, people must prove 50% blood relation to residents of Hawai‘i before Western contact in 1778. Many scholars theorize that this number was set so high because the government assumed not many people had that high a percentage of Native Hawaiian blood (or couldn’t prove they did), or that they would die/be bred out, and the government wouldn’t have to cough up a lot of land. Not only is that scenario not the case—there’s a really long waiting list to get Hawaiian Home Lands—but it also screws people of authentic native Hawaiian background who fall short of the fifty-percent minimum. And in case that’s not ridiculous enough: currently, DNA or any other blood/genetic testing are not acceptable ways to prove one’s ancestry. It has to be proven through paperwork—birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, etc. The rule assumes a certain bureaucratic record keeping is in place, despite there being no written language prior to the 1820’s. And if you happen to be adopted and therefore aren’t legally allowed to know your genealogy? Well, good luck with that.

Several news sources that you’d think would be reliable—like the Honolulu Star- Advertiser and Al Jazeera—say the waiting list for Home Lands is 29,000 people long. I went to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) website and clicked on the waiting list tab, and it showed 44,000 plus-change had applied. Each person was listed individually and although I didn’t count each name, a rough accounting proved 44,000 to be more or less accurate. Weirdly, there’s another page on the same website that claims 29,000 people are waiting. The reason for the significant discrepancy is not clear, not even after I waded through reams of official documents acquired through inter-library loan and was reminded why I didn’t “do anything” with that history degree I earned in college. In the same article where the 29,000 figure is cited, Al Jazeera interviewed an 80-year old man who has been on the waiting list since he was 20—sixty frickin’ years. He wants an agricultural plot on Kaua‘i so he can raise cattle and grow his own food, like his family did when he was a child. This guy wants to maintain a distinctly Hawaiian way of living from the ʻāina (land), which is expressly stated as a primary goal of the Act. The reason he’s never received land isn’t because there’s none available—there are designated and deserted Home Lands not far from where he lives. The government won’t give him a parcel of this conveniently located land because it lacks services, like a water and sewer line and a road. This guy’s like, “Hey, just because there’s not municipal water doesn’t mean there’s not water” (when someone is used to living on the land—a tropical, fairly rainy one, at that—they can figure out how to get water, you know?), and he’s willing to build a road. But, no. This man will most likely die on the waiting list.

One of the good(?) things about dying on the waiting list is that applicants can name a successor to their place on the list—assuming, of course, the heir is 50% Hawaiian. They don’t lose their place in line—although I’m not sure how much that means, since applications aren’t filled in the order in which they were received. Leafing through the minutes of HHL Commission meetings (once again reminding me why I’m not an historian), I found the successor application for one George Keolanui, who died in 2014. He applied for a residential plot in 1969, languishing on the wait list for forty-five years. But you know who doesn’t languish on the list for forty-five years? A whole bevy of non-Hawaiian people and corporations.

You see, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act contains a gigantic loophole that allows the government to lease “unused” Home Lands to non-natives. The problem is, why the lands are, or can be, deemed unused is not clarified. Perhaps the original sponsors of the act thought that after all the land was handed out to every single eligible Hawaiian, there’d be a surplus (an optimistic and perhaps naïve interpretation of their intentions). But without that—or any—specificity written into the law, the interpretation is left up to the Home Lands committee. It’s estimated that around half of all available Home Lands have been leased to non-natives. A few examples include: a non-Hawaiian couple with a five-thousand acre ranch on Maui, a mainland developer building a 1.4 million square foot mall on West O‘ahu, and—wait for the gag reflex—a Target on the Big Island.

To be clear, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands isn’t stupid: they don’t charge Target (and Safeway and Walmart) $1 per year. DeBartolo Development, the builder of the mega-mall on O‘ahu, will pay DHHL $142 million during the first twenty-five years of the lease—which is handy, since the DHHL is in gigantic debt. Not only do they lease land for $1/year to Hawaiians, they also provide them with loans to improve their property, build houses. But the thing is, the DHHL isn’t a bank. They ended up drowning in red ink, and stealing Home Lands from the Hawaiians and leasing them out for big bucks was their way to get afloat again. Which does make them sound sort of stupid—not being able to foresee the cash flow problem—but it’s a flaw of the original law more so than the contemporary handlers. Because it’s a Federal program, it would literately take an act of Congress to change the law, and with their level of effectiveness . . . well, you can see the problem. (And, let’s face it: If it didn’t happen when Hawaiian-born Obama was in office, it’s a lost cause). On the other hand, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the 29,000 or 44,000 people on the waiting list don’t bring one mother of a class-action suit against the DHHL. Maybe they aren’t as litigious in Hawai‘i as we are on the mainland.

So this incredibly screwed-up program is the main reason being 50% Hawaiian matters at all. It might even be the only reason, as most citizens of Hawai‘i believe it doesn’t matter if your blood is one drop Hawaiian or 100%. Hawaiian is Hawaiian is Hawaiian. But just to add a plot twist—and contradict my earlier statement that Hawaiians are Americans—there’s a contingent of Native Hawaiians who don’t believe they are United States citizens. They don’t accept that Hawai‘i is a state.

Once again, we don’t have to travel very far back in history to understand why: In 1893 some cranky sugar plantation owners and the US Marines staged a successful coup against the Hawaiian monarchy and deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani. Seizing the Kingdom of Hawai‘i is why the US had the power to annex it in 1898, which is why they could make it a state in 1959. But the coup was illegal (as I assume most coups are), and in 1993 President Bill Clinton even issued an official statement of apology to the people of Hawai‘i for the illegal overthrown of its government. That acknowledgment didn’t undo Hawai‘i’s statehood, though, so members of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement continue to declare that they are not Americans, but citizens of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, which has been under constant military occupation since 1893. I assume this means they don’t fill out the census.

Those who do and identify themselves as “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander” on the census only officially comprise 9.9% of Hawai‘i’s population. If 90% of residents of Hawai‘i aren’t Hawaiian, then what are they? Thirty-seven percent are Asian alone (Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.), 26.7% are white alone (aka: haole), and 2.6% black alone, which leaves us with about 23% of the population that is of two or more races. These folks may or may not be called “hapa,” depending on who you ask.

My haole friend Edie was born and raised in Hawai‘i in 1940, and raised her kids there, too. One time I was telling her about my old friend Bobby, a Maui local, whose dad was haole and mom was Japanese and deaf, and therefore Bobby was fluent in Japanese sign language (it had never occurred to me before age 15 that there were different variations of sign language, which was the original point of my anecdote).

“Oh,” Edie said about Bobby, “Then he’s hapa.” In all the years I’d spent on Maui when I was a teenager—and all the years I’d spent in Kaua‘i as an adult—I’d somehow never heard the term. When I asked her what it means, Edie explained, “Half-Asian, half-Caucasian.” The full term is hapa-haole, but most people just say hapa.

There was a lot I could relate to in this concept: being half one thing, half another. I’m half-Italian, half-Irish. But I’m also adopted, so there’s some way I’m half-nature (my unknown biological parents), and half-nurture (the mom and dad who raised me). By the time Edie said the word “hapa” to me, I also had a well-developed case of vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that kills off the color in my skin in patches. When it first crept onto my skin, I’d just returned from Maui so I assumed it was haole rot, a fungus white folks often get in the tropics. It’s easily reversed with some dandruff shampoo and fresh sun, but what had mottled my skin stayed put. So, half my body was still olive and capable of turning a deep tan, while the other half was white white and could only burn.

One thing I learned in all the years I’d spent on Maui as a teenager and all the years I’d spent on Kaua‘i as an adult is that Hawaiian words and their meanings are not for mainland white people to take and bend to our own needs. We’d done enough of that already. So, it’s not like I went around referring to myself as hapa. I just carried that word in my heart.

Not everyone who discovered the word hapa kept it to themselves. Tyra Banks did a “hapa inspired” photo-shoot on America’s Next Top Model where the models posed as racial mixes like Moroccan-Russian, Japanese-Malagasy, Batswana-Polynesian, and Mexican-Greek. NPR has done numerous stories on the identity politics and true meaning of hapa, and who is allowed to use the term. A “Wikipedia war” (I shit you not) rages over the entry for hapa. It started with some mainland haole—who later admitted to knowing nothing about Hawai‘i or Hawaiian culture—writing the majority of the page and claiming that hapa means mixed race anything, anywhere, and the term is widely used in the Eastern US. He was confronted by a part-Native Hawaiian/part-haole who claimed that his racial mix is the correct and true definition of the word. Then a Honolulu local jumped in and said that’s not true, it means half-haole, half-Asian, as my friend Edie said. This debate goes on and on and doesn’t really come to any right conclusion.

I’m not laying out all this nomenclature to be purposefully confusing. I’m laying all this out to make two points: 1) That taxonomy, naming, is important to humans in general, but especially in Hawai‘i, where the people have been in a constant struggle to hang onto who they are and what is theirs, and 2) That, despite orchid leis and papaya-orange sunsets and warm Pacific waves and slack-key guitar with ukuleles and tiki glasses of pineapple adorned mai tais, a lot about Hawai‘i is quite complex. A lot of it is divided. A lot about Hawai‘i is hard to name.

Early in working on my essay collection in-progress about Hawai‘i, I realized that the nomenclature of local identity is something I take for granted. Figuring out how to explain it to the reader illuminated a new complexity of the taxonomy—and the use of the ‘okina and kahakō—for me. It’s not just a matter of preference or convenience. It’s a matter of imperialism.