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Stories and cultures of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders that are inextricably linked to the United States: Big Island Now

In recent years, there has been something of a Hawaii explosion around the world. Certainly in pop culture, but also more broadly in terms of the people, places and heritage of the islands.

Some of the destruction in Lahaina on August 17, 2023. (File photo courtesy of Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources)

Especially after a wildfire destroyed one of Hawaii's most historic sites on August 8, 2023. In an instant, Lahaina, on the leeward side of Maui, was practically ashes. The extreme fire wiped out an important cultural center of the islands in a $6 billion disaster that also killed more than 100 people.

“Last year, the First Lady and I witnessed the absolute courage of Native Hawaiian and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities when we visited Maui in the wake of the devastating fires,” President Joe Biden said in an April 30 proclamation declaring May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “The destruction has upended so many lives, and yet the community is there and ready to help rebuild, stronger than before.”

Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has been celebrated since 1977, when it was first a week-long holiday called Asian/Pacific Heritage Week. Congress extended it to a month in 1990, and in 1992 then-President George HW Bush officially declared May as Asian American Pacific Islander Month.

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

The U.S. Senate recently unanimously passed a resolution declaring May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The measure, introduced by Hawaiian Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono, recognizes the significant contributions these communities have made to the United States.

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The resolution was co-sponsored by several other senators, including Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz.

A companion bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Democratic Representative Judy Chu of California, who is also chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

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

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

The resolution states that the history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States is inextricably linked to the history of the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian American population has grown faster than any other racial or ethnic group over the past decade, growing by nearly 60% between 2010 and 2020. During the same period, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew by nearly 31%.

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There are now over 24 million people in the United States who identify as Asian, and about 1.6 million who identify as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, making up more than 7% of the total U.S. population.

The resolution contains numerous facts and information about the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

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

This year also sees several important anniversaries for the three communities.

This year marks the 155th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads met and merged at Promontory Summit in Utah.

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Hirono's resolution states that the project involved more than 12,000 Chinese workers who, despite being given the hardest work, were subjected to racial and wage discrimination.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders have also made significant contributions to the country as members of the federal government and the U.S. armed forces.

The late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye and the late U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (file photos)

The late U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii was a recipient of the Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, as President pro tempore of the Senate, was at the time the highest-ranking Asian American government official in the country’s history.

The late U.S. Senator 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 in a president's cabinet. She served as U.S. Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush administration from 2001 to 2009.

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

There are 21 Asian and Pacific Islander representatives in the 118th Congress, and members of these three communities are represented in record numbers in the legislatures of 38 states and three territories.

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

Some of the cultural contributions of the three communities have even been or are being minted into U.S. currency through the American Women Quarters Program.

The commemorative coins are dedicated to 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 an opportunity to recognize the achievements, contributions and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and to understand the challenges they face,” Hirono’s resolution states.

There is so much good, but there is also always the bad and the ugly.

While progress has been made that is critical to many sectors of the U.S. economy, there are still many challenges facing Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

Since March 2020, there has been a dramatic increase in reports of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents across the country—a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in 2021 and a 124% increase in 2020—including three related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Stop AAPI Hate, more than 11,500 hate incidents have been reported since the beginning of the COVID pandemic through March 2022.

On March 16, 2021, eight people, including six Asian women, were murdered at three different Asian-owned businesses in Atlanta. Just over a year later, on May 15, 2022, five people were shot in Laguna Hills, California, in an incident that targeted the Taiwanese congregation of Geneva Presbyterian Church.

These are just some of the incidents of recent years.

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

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

Biden said in his proclamation that there is still much work to be done to stop the hate and to better engage members of the three communities. Hirono agreed.

Asian American, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time to advocate for and celebrate them at the same time.

Their ingenuity, courage and persistence have driven the American experiment forward.

There have been numerous examples here in the last year alone.+

The Merrie Monarch Festival, held each year in Hilo on the Big Island, was voted 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 the big heart who serves as a therapy animal at Queen's North Hawai'i Community Hospital in Waimea, was named Pet Partners' 2024 Pet of the Year.

Tasi Savage, a 13-year-old keiki from Kona, baked her way into the top 3 on the latest 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 in the latest season of Bravo TV's “Below Deck Mediterranean.” Ilima Shim, who was born on the Big Island and now lives on O'ahu, finished sixth in the fourth season of the CBS reality competition show “Tough As Nails” last year.

And even though he's not from the Big Island, who could forget the rise of Iam Tongi, a native of Kahuku, O'ahu, to become the winner of American Idol 2023?

“From Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander peoples whose ancestors have called their land home for hundreds of years, to newly arrived Asian immigrants and those whose families have lived 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 many others, [Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] peoples have shaped the fabric of our nation and opened up new opportunities for all of us.”

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

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

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

Anna Harden

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