E ka Lāhui – Our Voices Matter


Photo: Joshua Ching

By Joshua Ching

“I’m Hawaiian and I vote.”

As my eyes scanned across the sign, I couldn’t help but fixate on that phrase, beaming in white block letters. For me, what stood out was the single conjunction – “and” – that stitched Hawaiian and vote together as if they were mutually exclusive. Standing there, that qualifying conjunction prompted a nagging question to bubble in my mind.

Are Hawaiians not supposed to vote?

A recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau found that roughly 47% of all Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were registered to vote. Moreover, a March 2022 report from the Biden Administration on Indigenous voting rights cited persistent poverty, redistricting, and limited access to in-person voting as key blockades to Native Hawaiian voter turnout.

It’s no question, however, that a strained relationship between the lāhui and the American government is also at the core of our limited civic engagement. A history of distrust laid on the foundations of colonialism is hard to ignore – but often is.

Photo: Kamehameha Schools Kapālama seniors at the voting center in Honolulu Hale
Kamehameha Schools Kapālama seniors at the voting center in Honolulu Hale. – Photo Courtesy Kamehameha Schools

What I’ve found, and what most have known, is that it’s not an issue of whether or not we’re supposed to vote – it’s an issue of whether or not we’re enabled and empowered to.

Our Native Hawaiian communities face a slew of systemic issues that are in need of dire attention from our elected officials. From overrepresentation in our criminal justice system to the poisoning of our aquifers in the name of national defense, the challenges we face today hammer dividing cracks into our lāhui. But the answer isn’t to simply turn away from our systems of government, it’s to do what we can to engage with them – and I’ve seen firsthand how powerful that can be.

Over the past four years, I’ve been a legislative spokesperson for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi’s Youth Council. We advocate for stricter regulations on the tobacco industry to curb marketing strategies that specifically target Native Hawaiian communities. In the beginning, our bills often died through backhanded political maneuvers. However, as we continued to meet with more legislators, community organizers, and other youth advocacy groups, our bills moved further along, gaining more political traction and public support.

Today, we have two bills poised to pass into law this session. Whether or not you agree with the merits of the bill, the lesson remains the same – our systems of government have the capacity to create change, even when Native Hawaiians are at the helm of those movements.

It’s a tall order to ask anyone to dedicate their time and energy to movements that can take years to come to fruition. What I ask of you, though, is to not lose hope. We have the power to create change and it can come in acts as simple as registering to vote and engaging in our civic process. Submit testimony to the state legislature and make your voice heard. If you feel drawn to it, run for your neighborhood board, the city council, state legislature, or even for Congress.

Movements don’t start overnight – they start with a single step. And perhaps it’s time to remove that conjunction, to create a world where Native Hawaiians aren’t only voters by nature, but integral cogs in our civic process.

We matter. Our voices matter. And it’s time that we are heard.

Joshua Ching is a senior at the Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Campus, where he serves as the president of the Advocacy Club, co-student body president and legislative spokesperson for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaiʻi’s Youth Council. He is from Waikele, Oʻahu.