Mea mai kanaka Hawai’i

Since its discovery in 1778 by Captain James Cook, Hawaii would forever be changed. This chain of Polynesian islands looks a lot different today compared to back then; granted, virtually everything looks different compared to how it looked in 1778. Less than 0.2% of the U.S. population identifies as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, which is peculiar given that before colonization the approximate total of Native Hawaiians was around 400,000 (Stillman 2004). However, I’m not here to talk about statistics. I’m here to examine the people of Hawaii today and how they are perceived in not just the media, but the cinemas and society as well. Although the people have changed, that doesn’t necessarily mean the perception has.

In 2002 (yes, it was that long ago), Disney released a movie called Lilo & Stitch, which was well received by the general viewing audience. Upon researching reviews of the film I found a lot of, “Cute story, likeable characters, great soundtrack, etc.” Seeing as this movie was intended for kids, this makes a lot of sense. I did, however, come across a review that implied the movie was sexist because the thin alien (Pleakley) was disguised as the women every time, but that’s not really an argument because at one point the other alien (Jumba) wanted to try on the wig, so… I think that person was just trying to make something out of nothing.

Anyway, I would like to move the focus to the portrayal of the characters in the movie, and while critics make very good points about the characters being likeable and very real; in some ways, I think they aren’t. Much of speaking is done with a pidgin accent, which is a slanged version of English, and that’s not true of most of the Hawaiian population. I don’t have that accent, and actual native Hawaiians don’t even have that accent (we’re actually quite articulate). Not to mention it’s a little insulting when I hear people trying to mimic that accent. It’s not difficult, but accents aren’t for everyone. Here is a video of a Youtuber from Hawaii letting you know what people from Hawaii say, which I don’t agree with (perpetuating the misconception).

There’s also the feel of the movie. Disney managed to capture the Native Hawaiians strong belief of family, or ohana. Although, I could have done without the many “cuz” or “brah” or “braddahs” that were used throughout the movie. In my experience, this is not an actual experience. The movie does have its own flow though. In a New York Times review, they say, Instead of the usual barrage of cheeky pop-culture references, there is Lilo’s devotion to Elvis (whom she teaches Stitch to impersonate), and a quiet regard for details of character and setting.” Hawaii may not be as skilled at being weird as Portland, but there seemingly is no shortage of originality, according to the New York Times. I won’t speculate on the emphasis that was put into Elvis and his relation to Hawaii, but I think Disney may have put a little too much emphasis there. Despite that, I think this movie does a good job of portraying the values and beliefs of the people of Hawaii compared to its portrayal of language and people.

In Peter Segal’s 50 Fifty First Dates, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, the movie also takes place in Hawaii. Raving reviews of “bravely true, undeniably heart-felt, and an audience that’s expected to laugh.” can be read about the film. That’s entirely out of context though. Most of the reviews are actually very negative. Rightfully so? Jaquo, arguably the films saving grace, is the name of the walrus from the zoo. News flash, there are no walrus’s at the zoo, it’s too warm. Sometimes they’re driven near Alaska when the ice starts melting, but that’s the closest they usually come.

An actor by the name of Rob Schneider plays a native Hawaiian; however, he identifies as Filipino. There are Filipino’s in Hawaii, so I could see him playing a character that is from Hawaii, but not Hawaiian. After all, Hawaii has people with Filipino ethnicity. He plays a Hawaiian though. Again, he has that stereotypical accent as well. Not everyone from Hawaii has a pidgin accent. Actually, that accent isn’t even related solely to Hawaiians. It’s more related to any minority group that was present during the white power owners (plantation owners and such), so any group that isn’t Caucasian… Pretty much. Actress Amy Hill identifies as half-Japanese and half Finnish. There are quite a few people of the Japanese persuasion who have taken up residence in Hawaii, so once again the question comes to mind as to why she couldn’t just play a Japanese person instead of Hawaiian. I appreciate the thought of letting people think that Hawaii is riddled with Hawaiians, but sadly that is just not the case.

This isn’t Hawaii’s fault though. There are constantly battles amongst “foreigners” and the “locals” about certain issues; particularly on the presence (or lack thereof) of larger businesses. I’m not sure if anyone not from Hawaii has heard the saying, but it definitely resonates strongly among the local population.

Keep the Country Country

It means what you think it means: Leave things the way they are. We are PRO tradition, and have strong beliefs in the ideas of our ancestors. While “country” may not be the most accurate term, it’s a suitable one. The locals want to keep the traditions and smaller “mom-and-pop” shops while big businesses want to cement themselves in Hawaii.

Unfortunately, change is something that happens consistently. Why then, does the portrayal and, in turn, perception of Hawaiians not? While I have had the pleasure of meeting people who have a firm grasp on what Hawaii actually looks like and stands for, I have also had the displeasure of meeting individuals who have a, politely put, slight misunderstanding of Hawaii. To answer the most common troll questions, yes we ride dolphins, yes we live in grass huts, yes we wear grass skirts and coconut bikinis, and if you believe me, I feel very sorry for you.


  1. Stillman, A. (2004). Project MUSE – Pacific-ing Asian Pacific American History. Retrieved July 23, 2015, from

1 thought on “Mea mai kanaka Hawai’i

  1. Mitchell-

    Hey! I think we’ve met before. I’m also from Honolulu, and so I relate to your identity completely.

    On terms on the pidgin accent, I complete relate to the insult I feel when someone mimics it. However, it’s not much of an accent. It’s actually a type of language of it’s own. It began when immigrants came from the plantations and needed a way to communicate with one another, (due to them being from China, Japan, Portugal, etc.) I don’t consider myself to have an pidgin accent either, however, among my friends from the mainland, they claim to hear it when I speak.

    After reading your essay, I absolutely identify with the disrespect I feel when other people stereotype locals like us. However, I’m trying to figure out your identity. I think it would have been interesting to incorporate your racial identity to being local. As you know, we locals are mixed with different diversities. I am mixed with 3 different nationalities myself.

    It could have been an interesting look at locals in Hawaii, and to why we have pidgin accents.

    Stereotypes are inevitable, along with change. You make a very interesting point about how our island is becoming more industrial, whereas the stereotypes of local people tend to be the same. A very, very valid point that I have never thought of.

    However, there are people who are constantly trying to preserve the ancient Hawaiian culture. You’re right- not a lot of locals have Native Hawaiian blood, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t locals out there, without native blood, that are trying to preserve the culture.

    Not to go all kanak on you, (haha) but my brother actually has his degree in Hawaiian Studies/Hawaiian Language and speaks almost fluent Hawaiian. We don’t have a drop of Hawaiian blood. My reasoning for bringing this up is because this resonates with me deeply, that people disrespect the culture despite people trying to preserve it.

    I’ve personally watched the sadness my brother goes through when people not only criticize him for not being Native Hawaiian and being so affluent in the culture, but also have watched him become upset over the industrial change happening to our state.

    I guess what I’m saying is, people have an old-fashioned stereotype of local people because there are real people out there trying to preserve the old-fashioned ideas.

    I found your post to be compelling. I enjoyed relating to someone immensely, as I do feel the stereotypes when I witness the portrayal of local people in popular culture. Especially hula. It’s baffling how badly misconstrued hula is in popular culture. (I used to be a hula dancer).

    I apologize if this comes off as really strong. But you’re right about us locals, we are PRO tradition, and have strong beliefs in the ideas of our ancestors. Hence the length of this response.

    Overall, I enjoyed the take you had on local people in Popular Culture, especially the fact you used such well-known films.

    Thank you for sharing,

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