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The islands of Hawaii are home to a unique culture that developed in isolation over centuries. The question of whether Native Hawaiians constitute a distinct race or ethnicity is complex and tied to Hawaii’s history of colonialism and marginalization.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Hawaiian is generally considered an ethnicity rather than a distinct racial category. Native Hawaiians share ancestry, history, language, and culture that distinguish them from other groups..

In this approximately 3000 word article, we will examine the origins of Native Hawaiians, historical and modern perspectives on Hawiian identity, and the continuing impacts of colonization on this community. With insights from anthropology, history, and current events, we will thoroughly explore the nuances around Hawaiian ethnic identity and the debate over Hawaiian sovereignty.

Origins and Settlement of the Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands have a rich and fascinating history that dates back thousands of years. The islands were first settled by Polynesian people who migrated to the area from other Pacific islands. This migration is believed to have taken place around 1,500 years ago, making the Hawaiians one of the last Polynesian groups to settle in the Pacific.

Migration from Polynesia

The exact origins of the Polynesians are still debated among scientists, but it is generally believed that they originated from Southeast Asia and gradually migrated eastward, eventually reaching the islands of Polynesia. The journey to Hawaii would have been a difficult one, as the islands are located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away from any other landmass. However, the Polynesians were skilled navigators and used their knowledge of the stars, currents, and winds to guide them on their voyages.

It is important to note that the Polynesian migration to Hawaii was not a one-time event. Over the centuries, multiple waves of migration occurred, leading to a diverse population with different lineages and cultural influences. This diversity is still reflected in the Hawaiian population today.

Development of a Distinct Culture

Once the Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they began to develop a distinct culture that was uniquely adapted to the islands’ environment. They cultivated crops such as taro, sweet potatoes, and yams, and also fished in the abundant waters surrounding the islands. The Hawaiian people developed sophisticated farming techniques and irrigation systems to support their growing population.

In addition to their agricultural practices, the Hawaiians also developed a complex social and political system. They lived in extended family groups called ‘ohana and were led by chiefs known as ali’i. These chiefs had significant power and influence and were responsible for maintaining order and justice within their communities.

Over time, the Hawaiians also developed a rich tradition of art, music, and dance. They created beautiful and intricate designs using materials such as wood, bone, and feathers. Hula, a traditional Hawaiian dance form, became an integral part of their cultural expression.

By understanding the origins and settlement of the Hawaiian Islands, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the unique culture and heritage of the Hawaiian people. Their journey across the Pacific Ocean and their ability to thrive in a challenging environment is a testament to their resilience and ingenuity.

Hawaiian Identity Under Kingdom Rule

The Kingdom of Hawaii, which existed from 1810 to 1893, played a crucial role in shaping the Hawaiian identity. During this time, the Hawaiian people developed a unified kingdom identity that was deeply rooted in their cultural heritage and connection to the land. The monarchy, led by King Kamehameha and his successors, worked to unite the islands and establish a sense of Hawaiian sovereignty. The kingdom’s policies and governance reflected the values and traditions of the Hawaiian people, further strengthening their collective identity.

Unified Kingdom Identity

Under kingdom rule, the Hawaiian people embraced their shared heritage and cultural practices. They celebrated traditional customs such as hula, chant, and storytelling, which served as a means of preserving their history and passing down knowledge from one generation to another. The Hawaiian language was also promoted and used as the official language of the kingdom. This emphasis on cultural preservation helped to solidify a sense of Hawaiian identity that was distinct from other ethnic groups.

Furthermore, the kingdom implemented policies that prioritized the well-being of the Hawaiian people. Land redistribution programs were established to ensure that the native Hawaiians had access to their ancestral lands, and efforts were made to protect the natural resources that sustained their way of life. These initiatives aimed to foster a strong connection to the land and reinforce the Hawaiian identity as tied to the islands and their unique environment.

Influences from Outside Contact

While the Kingdom of Hawaii maintained a strong sense of Hawaiian identity, outside influences also played a role in shaping the cultural landscape of the islands. The arrival of European explorers, missionaries, and later, American settlers, brought new ideas, technologies, and cultural practices to Hawaii. This contact with the outside world introduced elements of Western culture that were assimilated into the Hawaiian way of life.

For example, Western-style clothing, education systems, and religious practices were adopted by some Hawaiians. However, it is important to note that these influences did not erode the Hawaiian identity. Instead, they became integrated into the existing cultural framework, resulting in a unique blend of traditions and practices that are still celebrated today.

Racialization Under US Colonization

When discussing Hawaiian ethnicity, it is important to acknowledge the historical context of racialization under US colonization. The impact of colonization on the Hawaiian people has been profound, leading to significant changes in their social, cultural, and political landscape.

Loss of Sovereignty

One of the key consequences of US colonization was the loss of Hawaiian sovereignty. In 1893, the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by a group of American businessmen with the support of the US government. This marked the beginning of a period of intense cultural and political assimilation, which had a profound impact on Hawaiian identity.

The loss of sovereignty had far-reaching consequences for the Hawaiian people. It led to the suppression of indigenous cultural practices, the imposition of Western values and norms, and the marginalization of the Hawaiian language. As a result, many Hawaiians were forced to navigate a complex and challenging path to preserve their cultural heritage.

Disenfranchisement and Marginalization

Another significant aspect of racialization under US colonization was the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the Hawaiian people. Following the overthrow of the monarchy, Hawaiians experienced a loss of political power and were systematically excluded from decision-making processes.

This disenfranchisement manifested in various ways, such as limited access to education, restricted land ownership rights, and unequal treatment under the law. These systemic injustices further exacerbated the challenges faced by the Hawaiian community, leading to socioeconomic disparities and a loss of cultural autonomy.

Blood Quantum Law

The implementation of the Blood Quantum Law is a striking example of how racialization has affected Hawaiian ethnicity. This law, which was introduced in 1921, aimed to define and categorize individuals as Hawaiian based on their bloodline. It established a system where individuals needed to prove a certain percentage of Hawaiian ancestry to qualify as Native Hawaiian.

The Blood Quantum Law had significant implications for the Hawaiian community, as it created a hierarchy of identity based on bloodline. This approach has been controversial, as it has led to debates about who qualifies as Hawaiian and has perpetuated divisions within the community.

It is important to note that the racialization of Hawaiian ethnicity is a complex issue with ongoing implications. Efforts to address the historical injustices faced by the Hawaiian people continue today, as communities work towards reclaiming their cultural heritage, preserving their language, and advocating for self-determination.

The Hawaiian Sovereignty and Identity Movements

The Hawaiian sovereignty and identity movements have played a significant role in shaping the cultural and political landscape of Hawaii. These movements have sought to address issues of self-determination and reclaiming Hawaiian identity in the face of historical injustices.

Cultural Renaissance

One of the key aspects of the Hawaiian sovereignty and identity movements is the cultural renaissance that has taken place in recent decades. Hawaiians have actively worked to revive and preserve their traditional language, arts, music, and dance. This cultural resurgence has not only helped to strengthen the sense of Hawaiian identity but has also served as a means of asserting their unique heritage and challenging the dominant narrative that Hawaiians are simply a racial minority.

Organizations such as the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance Foundation and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs have played a crucial role in supporting cultural revitalization efforts. Through various initiatives, these organizations have provided resources and platforms for Hawaiians to explore and celebrate their cultural heritage.

Activism for Self-Determination

The Hawaiian sovereignty movement seeks to address historical injustices inflicted upon the Hawaiian people, including the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and the subsequent annexation by the United States. Activists argue that these actions were illegal and violated the rights of the Hawaiian people.

Various groups and individuals have advocated for self-determination, including the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom or the establishment of an independent nation. This movement has gained momentum in recent years, with increased awareness and support from both within Hawaii and internationally.

Efforts for self-determination have included legal battles, grassroots activism, and political lobbying. The goal is to ensure that Hawaiians have the right to determine their own political status and have a voice in decisions that directly impact their community.

Debates Over Federal Recognition

One of the ongoing debates within the Hawaiian sovereignty and identity movements is the issue of federal recognition. Some groups advocate for federal recognition as a way to secure certain rights and benefits for Hawaiians within the existing U.S. framework. They argue that federal recognition would provide a platform to address historical injustices and empower Hawaiians within the current political system.

Others, however, are critical of federal recognition, viewing it as a compromise that fails to fully address the issues of self-determination and sovereignty. These groups argue that true sovereignty can only be achieved through the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom or the establishment of an independent nation.

Contemporary Perpectives on Hawaiian Ethnicity

Hawaiian ethnicity is a topic that sparks debate and raises questions about identity, race, and culture. In contemporary times, the understanding of Hawaiian ethnicity has evolved to encompass a range of perspectives. This article delves into three key aspects of contemporary perspectives on Hawaiian ethnicity: the distinct indigenous identity, the complex multiracial identities, and the ongoing struggles over land and rights.

Distinct Indigenous Identity

Hawaiian ethnicity is rooted in the indigenous people of Hawaii, known as Native Hawaiians. They have a rich cultural heritage that includes language, traditions, and a deep connection to the land. Native Hawaiians have a distinct indigenous identity that is recognized and protected by the United States government through various laws and policies.

For instance, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 established the Hawaiian Homes program, which provides Native Hawaiians with access to affordable housing on ancestral lands. This recognition and protection of their distinct indigenous identity have been crucial in preserving their cultural heritage and ensuring their rights as an indigenous people.

Complex Multiracial Identities

In addition to the distinct indigenous identity of Native Hawaiians, Hawaiian ethnicity has also evolved to include complex multiracial identities. Hawaii’s history as a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities has resulted in a diverse population with mixed heritage.

Many individuals in Hawaii identify as being of Hawaiian descent while also having ancestry from other ethnic groups, such as Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, or European. This blending of different cultural backgrounds has given rise to unique multiracial identities that contribute to the rich tapestry of Hawaiian ethnicity.

It is important to note that the concept of race in Hawaii is often seen as fluid and more focused on cultural identity rather than strict racial categorization. This perspective recognizes and celebrates the diverse backgrounds and experiences of individuals in Hawaii.

Ongoing Struggles Over Land and Rights

Despite the recognition and protection of Native Hawaiians’ indigenous identity, there are ongoing struggles over land and rights in Hawaii. The history of colonization and the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 have had lasting impacts on the Hawaiian people and their relationship with the land.

Native Hawaiians continue to advocate for the protection of their ancestral lands, as well as for self-determination and sovereignty. These struggles are rooted in historical injustices and ongoing challenges faced by Native Hawaiians, including issues of land ownership, preservation of cultural sites, and access to resources.

Organizations such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation work tirelessly to address these issues and advocate for the rights of Native Hawaiians. The fight for land and rights is an integral part of the ongoing discourse surrounding Hawaiian ethnicity and the broader movement for indigenous rights.


In examining the origins, history, and modern perspectives on Hawaiian identity, we see the complex interplay between Polynesian heritage, colonization, marginalization, cultural revival, and activism around sovereignty and rights.

While views remain divided, strong arguments exist for considering Native Hawaiians a distinct indigenous ethnicity with a common ancestry, culture, and experience of injustice. The future status of Hawaii continues to be shaped by the enduring impacts of colonization along with Native Hawaiian resilience and advocacy for self-determination.

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