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Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacifc Islander stories, cultures inextricably tied to that of US

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The past several years have seen what some might call a bit of a Hawaiian explosion around the globe. Definitely in pop culture, but also in a broader sense of the people, places and heritage of the islands.

Some of the destruction in Lahaina as of Aug. 17, 2023. (File photo courtesy of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources)

Especially after a wildfire on Aug. 8, 2023, destroyed one of the most historic places in Hawai‘i. In a flash, Lahaina on the leeward side of Maui was essentially ash. The extreme blaze wiped out an important cultural center of the islands in a $6 billion disaster that also more than 100 people.

“Last year, the first lady and I witnessed the absolute courage of the Native Hawaiian people and Hawai‘i’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities when we visited Maui in the wake of the devastating fires,” said President Joe Biden in an April 30 proclamation marking May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “The destruction upended so many lives, and yet the community showed up, ready to help rebuild stronger than before.”

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has been celebrated since 1977 when it was just a weeklong observance, then called Asian/Pacific Heritage Week. Congress expanded it to a month in 1990, and in 1992 then-President George H.W. Bush officially declared May as Asian American Pacific Islander Month.

The name was changed in 2009 too Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month until 2021, when, by presidential proclamation it was again expanded to include Native Hawaiians.

The U.S. Senate recently adopted a resolution by unanimous vote to mark May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawai’i Democrat, the measure honors the significant contributions that those communities have made to this United States.


The resolution was co-sponsored by several other senators, including Hawai’i Democrat Sen. Brian Schatz.

Companion legislation was introduced in the U.S. House by Representative California Democrat Rep. Judy Chu, who is the chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

“Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebrates the historic contributions made by our communities and recognizes the challenges that we have overcome — from racist legislation to a rise in anti-Asian hate and violence,” said Hirono.

A hālau performs during the 2019 Cultural Festival at Kahuku. (File photo courtesy of Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park)

The resolution says the history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States is inextricably tied to the story of the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian American population grew faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the past decade, nearly 60% between 2010 and 2020. During the same time period, the population of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders grew by nearly 31%.


There are now more than 24 million U.S. residents who identify as Asian and about 1.6 million who identify as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. Combined, they make up more than 7% of the total U.S. population.

The resolution includes a lot of facts and information about the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

Did you know the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843?

This year also marks several anniversaries important to the three communities.

The 155th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad is this year. It was May 10, 1869, when the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met and hooked up at Promontory Summit in Utah.


Hirono’s resolution says the project involved more than 12,000 Chinese laborers, who faced racial and wage discrimination despite being entrusted with the most laborious tasks.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders also have made significant contributions to the nation as part of the federal government and members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka (File photos)

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye from Hawai‘i was a Medal of Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who, as president pro tempore of the Senate, was the then-highest-ranking Asian American government official in the history of the nation.

The late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka was the first U.S. senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Patsy T. Mink was the first woman of color and Asian American woman elected to Congress. Elaine L. Chao was the first Asian American woman member of a president’s Cabinet. She served as U.S. Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush Administration from 2001-09.

And then there’s current U.S. Vice President Kamala D. Harris, who is the first woman and first Asian American to hold that office.

The 118th Congress includes 21 members of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, and members of the three communities are serving in record numbers in 38 state and 3 territorial legislatures.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders represent 7% of federal judges and nearly 7% of federal employees.

Some of the cultural contributions from the three communities have even been or will be minted in U.S. currency as part of the American Women Quarters Program.

The commemorative quarters honor Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders including Native Hawaiian composer, kumu hula and cultural icon Edith Kanaka‘ole, Chinese American film star Anna May Wong, Mink and Korean American disability justice advocate Stacey Park Milbern.

Edith Kanaka‘ole

“Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month provides the people of the United States with an opportunity to recognize the achievements, contributions and history of, and to understand the challenges faced by, Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” Hirono’s resolution says.

There’s so much good, but there’s always the bad and the ugly, too.

While there have been strides and they are a critical in so much of the fabric of the United States, there are many challenges Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders still need to overcome.

Since March 2020, there’s been a damatic increase in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents — 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 and 124% increase in 2020 — throughout the nation, the bad, including three related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 11,500 hate incidents have been reported since the start of the COVID pandemic through March 2022, according to Stop AAPI Hate.

On March 16 2021, eight people, including 6 Asian women, at three separate Asian-owned businesses in the Atlanta were murdered. Just a little more than a year later on May 15, 2022, five people in Laguna Hills, Calif., were shot in an incident where the Taiwanese congregation at Geneva Presbyterian Church was targeted.

Those are just a few of the incidents during the past several years.

Discrimination against Asian Americans, especially in times of crisis, is not a new phenomenon, and violence against Asian Americans has occurred throughout U.S. history. One of the ugliest was the 1942 executive order that authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

Honouliuli Japanese internment camp operated from 1943 to 1946 on O‘ahu. (File photo from Google Images 2019)

Biden said in his proclamation that there is work to do to stop hate and get members of the three communities even more involved. Hirono agreed.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time to advocate for them while also celebrating them.

Their ingenuity, grit and perserverance have pushed the American experiment forward.

There have been plenty of examples locally in just the past year or so.+

The Merrie Monarch Festival, hosted in Hilo every year on the Big Island, was picked as the No. 1 cultural festival in the United States by online voters in the USA Today 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards. Darby, the miniature horse with a big heart that serves as a pet therapy animal at Queen’s North Hawai‘i Community Hospital in Waimea, was named the 2024 Pet of the Year by Pet Partners.

Tasi Savage, a 13-year-old keiki from Kona baked her way into the top 3 on the most recent season of Food Network’s “Kids Baking Championship.”

Jessika Asai, who grew up in Kea‘au, was a member of the 180-foot luxury yacht Mustique on the last season of Bravo TV’s “Below Deck Mediterranean.” Ilima Shim, a Big Island native who now lives on O‘ahu, placed sixth last year on the fourth season of the CBS reality competition show “Tough As Nails.”

And while he’s not from the Big Island, who can forget the rise of Kahuku, O‘ahu, native Iam Tongi to become the 2023 winner of “American Idol”?

“From Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, whose ancestors have called their lands home for hundreds of years, to Asian immigrants who have newly arrived and those whose families have been here for generations — [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] heritage has long been a part of the history of our great country and a defining force in the soul of our nation,” Biden’s proclamation said. “As artists and journalists, doctors and engineers, business and community leaders, and so much more, [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] peoples have shaped the very fabric of our nation and opened up new possibilities for all of us.”

Hirono is glad her Senate colleagues passed her resolution marking May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“I join my colleagues in celebrating [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] Heritage Month and reaffirming our commitment to building a more inclusive and equitable future where members of the [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] community and all people are treated with dignity and respect,” Hirono said.

To read all of the Senate resolution, click here. You can read the rest of Biden’s proclamation here.


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