The Aloha Settler-State of Hawaii
Complicating Hawaii’s identity as a harmonious multicultural paradise

By Carol Li

“If you drew on a white shirt, was $2, put an ‘Aloha’ on it, oh my God, the value goes up,” says Ka’eokulani D. Vasconcellos, an American Studies teacher at Punahou School. Originally from kānaka maoli, “aloha” is molded and utilized for various purposes to greatly affect behavior and discourse surrounding Hawaii.

Kyle Kajihiro, an Ethnic Studies graduate teaching assistant and member of Oceania Rising, an organization at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus, brings to light that “aloha is not just a superficial friendliness or hospitality … it has to do with a deep sense of connection and responsibility that comes with it.”  

Now, “it gets used as a disciplining discourse around civilization and proper behavior as a way of keeping order.”

“Aloha” is an anthem that rings through Hawaii, carrying different connotations to different people and communities. As a place where love and “aloha” is interwoven into its culture, Hawaii appears to be a friendly and hospitable place for all people– local, indigenous and tourist– to live together in harmony.

The idea of Hawaii as a paradise greatly manifests worldwide. Contemporary portrayals of the islands in a number of popular travel brochures show Hawaii’s “spectacular natural beauty.”  For example, this beauty materializes in Blue Hawaiian Helicopters’ brochure highlighting Hawaii’s “cascading waterfalls,” “hidden rainforests” and “stunning tropical vistas.”

However, “nothing is more seductive than beautiful Waikiki Beach,” right? Hawaii’s “uniqueness” and assumed racial, ethnic and cultural diversity makes it one of the top travel destinations in the world.

John Fischer from About.com Travel even claims that, “Hawaii is the only state in the [U.S.] where everyone is a minority.”


As someone who was born and raised in this “paradise” for 18 years, I am particularly interested in critically engaging with ideas surrounding Hawaii. I returned from Oregon to pursue a Carson Research Grant project which observed and studied contemporary marketing, discourse and characterizations of Hawaii, while considering how this affects the people, culture and island itself. For three months during the summer, my research consisted of a combination of reading 10 academic journal articles and four books, watching three documentaries, analyzing 20 travel brochures, conducting and transcribing over ten 30-90 minute interviews, attending the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference, being a part of an Aloha ‘Āina protectors demonstration and visiting sites such as the Hawaii Plantation Village Museum, Ho’oulu ‘Āina and Bishop Museum, to better understand this place I call home.

Prior to colonization, Hawaii was a pre-existing kingdom. Because of its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii became a prime target of possession as a strategic military location for the United States. In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown by a party of white businessmen and later in 1898, the Kingdom of Hawaii was illegally annexed by the United States, despite opposition by many of the people in Hawaii.

Even though Hawaii is considered by many to be the 50th state of the U.S., the ways in which the islands of Hawaii were seized by the United States to establish colonial laws and systems became very important to how people speak about and label the “Aloha State” and its residents. The islands are now home for Hawaiians (not everyone who resides in Hawaii is kānaka maoli, or native and indigenous people of Hawaii) and descendants of those who come from many geographical locations such as Asia, Micronesia, Europe and South America, just to name a few. Therefore, by calling everyone from Hawaii “Hawaiian,” it equates those who have immigrated and settled in Hawaii in just the last few decades and centuries to kānaka maoli, who thrive on the islands for millennia even prior to white European contact.

Furthermore, this equating erases the different histories of communities and colonialism on the islands. Davianna McGregor PhD, an Ethnic Studies Professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus, describes the distinction of indigeneity that differentiates kānaka maoli from others.

“Indigenous rights are distinct from civil rights … We still retain our inherent right to self-governance and that right of self-governance is important for us to perpetuate our cultural practices and customs and to continue to perpetuate our language and again, most importantly, the management and stewardship of our lands and natural resources.”

Hawaii is not just described as a paradise because of its physical attributes, but also because of the supposed harmonious racial and ethnic relationships that exist there. Charlie Ishikawa, a tour guide from the Hawaii Plantation Village Museum told me, “Hawaii is a lot of immigrant groups now. You know, although we are all immigrants, we consider them, us, all residents.”

The plantation era is often celebrated as a symbol for providing opportunity for immigrants from countries such as Puerto Rico, China, the Philippines, Korea, Portugal and Japan an opportunity for a better life and creating Hawaii’s currently celebrated multicultural society. However this “melting pot” and “multiculturalism” exists in great part because of deliberate intentions and actions of white sugar plantation owners.

Lori Pierce describes in her article, “The Whites have Created Modern Honolulu: Ethnicity, Racial Stratification and Discourses of Aloha” that multiculturalism in Hawaii began largely during the plantation era when white haole plantation owners imported labor primarily from Asia to work under harsh, unbearable conditions: “The result was that by 1900, 87,000 of the 154,000 residents of Hawaii were of Asian ancestry.”

Although different ethnic communities on the plantations worked with one another and even contributed to what is known as “local” culture, the perception of diversity does not necessarily constitute racial equality.

“When you live here, the tension that is kind of in the air around Hawaiian sovereignty. You can cut it with a knife. That really disrupts this idea that everybody gets along kind of paradise. There’s a lot of tensions and still ongoing racism in Hawaii,” said ‘Ilima Long, an Eia Mānoa Faculty Specialist at Native Hawaiian Student Services at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus.


Currently, tourism and the construction of Hawaii’s paradisal imagery is now the main source of economic revenue for the islands. A news report from Hawaii News Now on July 28, stated that the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), a State of Hawaii agency, reported more than 4 million people visited the islands in the first two quarters of the fiscal year, spending over $7.7 billion. In 2015 HTA spent $77,015 for the industry including maintaining the “Hawaii brand,” research, publications, etc.

Despite the controversies that many people in my interviews have described to exist in Hawaii, such as overpopulation, overdevelopment, homelessness, environmental destruction, economic disparities and militarization, to name a few, the “spirit of aloha” continues to seemingly connect everyone in Hawaii together.  There are many ways in which “aloha” is used in discourses to grant invitation and entitlement to the islands through the construction of a passive, welcoming island chain.  This paradisal image of Hawaii contributes to the oversimplification of the islands and its people, obscuring institutional systems that affect people in Hawaii in many ways.  My project looks into this idea of “aloha” that permeates through Hawaii and how it operates in the current settler-state.

If you would like to learn more about Hawaii, how different narratives regarding paradise, racial and ethnic relations function in Hawaii and the power of “aloha”, come to my research project presentation this Thursday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. in the Hatfield Room on the second floor of the library. Everyone is welcome and I hope to see you there.