By Naka Nathaniel

“Kānaka, come home.”

When Kalani Barrett said that to me and my ʻohana it was a clear and forceful blow to the naʻau.

We were on the lānai of my parents’ small cottage in Volcano and Mauna Loa was watching over us.

It was a tumultuous time in Hawaiʻi. The islands were just reopening to tourists, but the fuel leaks at Red Hill had poisoned the waters. And while it hadn’t been made official, there were more and more Native Hawaiians leaving Hawaiʻi.

I asked how those of us in the diaspora could help Hawaiʻi Nei.

His quick answer: “Kānaka, come home.”

This kāhea needs to be heard clearly across the honua. “Kānaka, come home.”

Hawaiʻi is once again in a fragile place and too many of us are living away from the islands with diminished influence to make Hawaiʻi Nei the thriving homeland of the Hawaiian people. The diaspora is needed in our ancestral homeland.

There is a struggle for the future of Hawaiʻi. Who will be making the decisions about what course Hawaiʻi takes not only politically, but culturally? After decades of being shunted to the side, Kānaka have a chance to have a legitimate say.

This previously denied say was earned by Kānaka who rallied at Mauna Kea and led the rescue and relief work in the wake of Lahaina.

“When we show up, we win,” said Tiare Lawrence, a Kanaka leader of the Maui wildfire response, at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s (CNHA) Native Hawaiian Convention in Maui in mid-November.

However, it’s hard to be on the front lines and have a say when you’re a member of the diaspora.

You’ve read here in Ka Wai Ola and in other places, that the United States Census made it official that there are now more Kānaka Maoli outside of Hawaiʻi than living in Hawaiʻi Nei.

It’s an occurrence that has caused soul-searching and handwringing. We need to do what we can to get this reversed.

The fires in Maui have only made conditions harder for Native Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi.

My Hilo-raised father claims Hawaiians are the most adaptable people on the planet. He attributes it to our ancestors’ skills of landing their canoes on uninhabited shores and creating new civilizations. That’s why Hawaiians can thrive in the deep chill of Alaska and the Northwest or in the blazing heat of Nevada and Texas.

Besides adapting to physical environments, I know dozens of Native Hawaiians who have been successful in the hard-edged world of politics, finance and media on the continent. They have gone toe-to-toe in competitive fields and thrived.

We, in Hawaiʻi, need to actively entice them to bring their smarts and ambition to Hawaiʻi Nei.

At the CNHA convention in Las Vegas this summer a panel was convened to address the question: “Should Mainland Hawaiians Be Part of the Lāhui?” One of the panelists was Patrick Makuakāne, a Californian, who just received a MacArthur genius award.

“We’re the proudest people I know in terms of where we’re from,” said Makuakāne. “It’s hard to explain to people why, but so there’s a sense of pride being a Hawaiian that will never be taken away from us because we moved.”

Makuakāne is successful in California, in part because he’s been able to leverage his Kanaka identity and the cultural resources available to him on the continent. He’s a great example of the diaspora thriving on the continent.

However, there’s one place where Kānaka aren’t thriving, the place where Makuakāne is proud to be from: Hawaiʻi.

We need a campaign: “Kānaka, Come Home.”

“No Kanaka needs permission to move home to Hawaiʻi.”

There needs to be a program to incentivize the diaspora to return.

Creating a “Kānaka, Come Home” initiative will not be easy. The main hurdle is, of course, the cost of living and housing in Hawaiʻi.

On the same panel with Makuakāne, Carole Lanialoha Lee, who has lived in Chicago for most of her life, said: “I don’t know how you guys survive in Hawaiʻi. I grew up hearing about the struggles and how my parents got [to Chicago,] and it was for me, a story of survival.”

She’s right. It’s hard to understand how most of us live in Hawaiʻi. The question of housing is daunting.

Most of the returning diaspora have a family home they move into. The much harder path is to go into the open market and compete for high-priced housing with Californians bolstered by tech money or retired baby boomers sitting on top of formidable equity built up from prior ownership.

Hawaiʻi is suffering from a proliferation of people without generational connections, a sense of history or place.

When I took the channel jumper from Waimea to Kahului to attend CNHA’s Native Hawaiian Convention in Maui, the kind accountant seated next me asked me to identify the island on the left side of the plane. He wanted to know if it was inhabited.

I dug deep into my reserves of aloha and explained Kahoʻolawe to him.

Despite having lived in Hawaiʻi for several years and possessing a Hawaiʻi driver’s license, he wasn’t familiar with the island or its history.

For me, he was a symbol of those who have moved here, with wealth amassed from elsewhere, who haven’t invested time to understand Hawai’i. Each encounter like this makes me think about the person whose place he’s taking.

I realize it’s not a zero-sum situation, but I can’t help but think that a person living in Hawaiʻi, who doesn’t understand Hawaiʻi, has stolen a place away from a Kanaka who should be living in Hawaiʻi Nei.

Kānaka Came Home
Scroll to the bottom of the article to read extended stories of Kānaka who came home.

It’s easy to overlook, in a world of borders and conflicts over immigration policy, that there are no restrictions that limit any American from living anywhere in the United States. Yes, affordability and community acceptance are pragmatic limitations, but if you’re an American and you want to live in Miloliʻi, Waiʻanae or Keaukaha there’s nothing keeping you out.

“…a person living in Hawaiʻi, who doesn’t understand Hawaiʻi, has stolen a place away from a Kanaka who should be living in Hawaiʻi Nei.”

It’s a challenge to watch the competition for housing play out in parts of Hawaiʻi popular with remote workers. A returning Kanaka finding affordable housing is the exception to the rule, but those exceptions can be found.

When I write about the situations with Native Hawaiians, I’m inevitably confronted with a comment saying “Well, my German/Italian/Irish ancestors left Europe or my Japanese/Chinese/Korean ancestors left Asia and everything turned out just fine.” I choose not to engage those commenters.

It won’t help to point out that in all the places and groups they cite, the culture, language and political leadership are still dominated by the same ethnicity of the emigres. That isn’t the case with Kānaka Maoli. Hawaiʻi’s culture, language and political leadership isn’t Kānaka Maoli.

That’s why our Native Hawaiian community has been cast to the winds. Today, we are kept connected to Hawaiʻi by L&Ls, visits by Hawaiian performers to the continent and Roku boxes that stream HNN and OC16.

What Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi and the diaspora are grappling with is deracination.

“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul,” wrote Simone Weil in The Need for Roots (1949).

“Uprootedness occurs whenever there is a military conquest, and in this sense conquest is nearly always an evil. There is the minimum of uprootedness when the conquerors are migrants who settle down in the conquered country, intermarry with the inhabitants and take root themselves. Such was the case with the Hellenes in Greece, the Celts in Gaul and the Moors in Spain. But when the conqueror remains a stranger in the land of which he has taken possession, uprootedness becomes an almost mortal disease among the subdued population.”

I know not everyone can heed Kalani’s kāhea. I know many who don’t want to move to Hawaiʻi. They’re doing great going toe-to-toe on the continent and being successful. Or they have spouses who can’t imagine moving to a place that’s a small fishbowl.

But the currency currently used in Hawaiʻi isn’t based on aloha, so there’s no way for those who sought better economic conditions to compete for housing in a place where housing for Native Hawaiians should be a guarantee.

There’s also the question of identity that holds back the diaspora. My sister, who also heeded the kāhea and moved into our parents’ cottage full-time (the same place where Kalani’s kāhea was first spoken) told me, “There are choke Hawaiians on the continent who don’t think they are Hawaiian enough.”

However, there’s no one to judge or keep score. Every ʻohana has members who are no longer in Hawaiʻi. There are Kānaka in Hawaiʻi who can be hyperbolically judgmental about the decisions of Kānaka not to live in Hawaiʻi but they, too, inevitably have ʻohana living away from Hawaiʻi.

No Kanaka needs permission to move home to Hawaiʻi.

We all want to be in a place where we belong. We want to be in a place where our outside features and our names are the rule and not the exception. For Kānaka, that place is Hawaiʻi.

Photo: ʻAuliʻi and Naka Nathaniel
ʻAuliʻi and Naka Nathaniel are the granddaughter and grandson of Harry and Katherine Nathaniel. ʻAuliʻi
(@haku_aulii) is an artist from Volcano and Naka (@nakanathaniel) is a writer from Waimea. – Courtesy Photo

For me, the small thing that I rarely fail to note is being surrounded by Kānaka who also share names with my siblings. I never grew up with other people named Uʻilani, Pomaikaʻi, ʻAuliʻi or Naeʻole.

Personally, it feels great to shed the diaspora label. I hope more Kānaka are able to do it. We need to take on a concentrated effort to not only keep Kānaka home, but also to help them come back.

Kānaka, come home.

You’re desperately needed.

Kānaka Came Home

Keenan Thompson moved from Minnesota

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? Minneapolis, Minnesota in a neighborhood called Powderhorn. 
  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? I started thinking about coming home in mid-2016, and have been back since late 2018. Inspiration and obligation both played a role in the decision.
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? Being able to reconnect with family.
  • What’s the worst? Lack of access to public lands. 
  • Message for the diaspora? #LandBack

Kahai Tate moved from San Francisco

  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? I came back home in February of 2021 to visit family and friends on Maui, Big Island and Oʻahu. I have been severely depressed living in the Bay Area for several years. When I came back home and swam in the ocean and the warm sun, the depression went away and my nervous system was calm. My children were grown and moved out and so had been looking for where I belonged in the world. I started spending time on the Big Island with an old hula brother and returned to dance hula after retiring in 2012 with The Academy of Hawaiian Arts under the direction of Mark Kealiʻi Hoʻomalu. I decided to stay on Big Island because it resonated with me. 
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? There are so many things that are beautiful about living on the Big Island that it is hard to narrow down to one thing. I would say the beauty & openness of the people and the slow simple pace of the island are two of the best things about living here. 
  • What’s the worst? The worst thing is the cost of living and lack of affordable housing for Kānaka Maoli. I got lucky and just moved into the first low income housing in 20 years on Big Island. 
  • Message for the diaspora? I would say come home. I literally had nothing when I made the choice to move here for my soul. I had zero money in the bank, only a few boxes of sentimental belongings and no idea how I was going to survive. What I have learned is that when I trust in the mana of the ʻāina it always shows me the way, provides paths for me and keeps me safe. We are the ones that need to tend to the land, the people and the spirit of our islands.

Sean Crimmins moved from Florida

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? Florida mostly, but I did spend some time in Grenada and Oklahoma. 
  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? I told myself when I was finished with my schooling, I wanted to go home. When my parents heard me say “home,” they knew immediately what I meant and that they could not stop me. 
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? Getting back out in the water has been a big part of my life currently, but it just feels good to where I belong; where my mana feels strong. 
  • What’s the worst? Cost of living and housing. Honorable mention: getting stuck behind someone on Mauka Highway
  • Message for the diaspora? Stand strong in adversity and as always, trust your naʻau.

Eli Paneʻe moved from Massachusetts

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? I moved back home to Hawaiʻi from Reading, Mass., in July 2022 with my daughter and her family. I had moved to Massachusetts in 2019 to be closer to her, my son-in-law and my two grandsons, but prior to that, I lived in Raleigh, N.C., for 46 years. My (now deceased) wife and I settled in North Carolina when I got out of active duty military. I had lived away from Hawai’i for over 50 years before returning home, and I never thought I would get the opportunity to live here again.  
  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? I was born at Schofield Barracks in Wahiawā in 1941, the fourth of five children. I graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1959 and went to UH, where I met my wife. We left Hawaiʻi in 1966, and settled on the mainland in Raleigh. I have always listened to my Hawaiian music, and the music of Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand (Māori) and Fiji, to name a few. I missed the aloha culture of the islands, celebrating my Hawaiian/Chinese heritage, enjoying the ʻono local food and of course being with my family and friends. My wife brought our children home every summer when they were growing up so they could know their ʻohana. I would visit every few years and always enjoyed attending my Kamehameha reunions and meeting my classmates in Las Vegas every February. I always wanted to return to Hawaiʻi to live but never imagined it was possible. My wife passed away from cancer in 2009 and is buried here. About a year into the pandemic, one of my grandchildren (who visited Hawaiʻi yearly and loved being here) casually mentioned how it would be nice to move here permanently. My daughter grasped onto the idea and she and my son-in-law worked and planned for over a year to make it a reality. They visited Hawaiʻi annually with my grandchildren and always loved their trips home. The acceptance of remote work due to COVID made it possible to consider a permanent move, and they were inspired to reassess their lives during the lockdown. So, I was not obligated at all to return home  – it was a gift my daughter and son-in-law gave me. My daughter wanted her children to have something she never got to have – the opportunity to grow up and live here, and be truly connected to our culture.
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? Being back home with my ʻohana and renewing my relationships with cousins, nieces, nephews and their families. Also, getting to renew relationships with my high school and college classmates and their families.  Also, eating all the food that I had difficulty getting when I lived on the mainland! And being exposed all day to the music of Hawaiʻi. But the best thing is seeing my daughter, son-in-law and my two grandsons enjoying Hawaiʻi life. Both grandsons are doing hula at school and one is studying Hawaiian language. My son-in-law and older grandson are paddling with a canoe club. It’s great seeing them connect to the culture. And we all live together so I get to see my grandsons grow up and share moʻolelo in a way I couldn’t before.
  • What’s the worst? Without a doubt, it’s the extremely high cost of living. The paradise tax is real. Personally, I really hate the buildup of the residential areas that were once lush and green. Also, on O’ahu, there are an outrageous amount of high rises that block the beauty of the island. Auwē no hoʻi e!!!
  • Message for the diaspora? Come home if you can – Hawaiʻi no ka ʻoi! Do not forget where you came from and seek to enhance your knowledge of our land, its history, its people. I grew up in Hawaiʻi before the renaissance, so I am happy to see the resurgence of Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian pride. You do not have to live in Hawaiʻi to take part in that.

Keliʻi Opulauoho moved from New York City

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? New York City
  • What (and when) brought you here? Lifelong goal was to return to Hawaiʻi in 2022 when my son graduated high school in NYC, and headed off to college. 
  • Inspired? Or Obligated? Inspired.
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? It’s amazing to see how much Hawaiʻi has changed. It’s also amazing to reflect on how much I have changed. But, the best thing about Hawaiʻi is the people – loving and kind, super diverse, and wonderfully multicultural. Second best thing – the weather (rarely cold, and no snow). Third best thing – plate lunch (food).
  • What’s the worst? It’s a small world – a little bit of a fish bowl. Too many plate lunches…
  • Message for the diaspora? I understand the importance of cultural connections and the significance of maintaining ties to our roots in Hawaiʻi, especially when living far from our island home and for extended periods of time. Whatever the reason you are part of the Hawaiian diaspora due to work, education, or personal circumstances, your spirit remains intertwined with the rich heritage, traditions, and values that make Hawaiʻi so remarkable. May your love for Hawaiʻi and the values it embodies inspire you, wherever you are. Try to come back soon.

Anela Barboza moved from Minneapolis

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? I was born and raised in a rural suburb of Sacramento, Calif. I spent my summers on Oʻahu with my grandparents and ʻohana growing up. When I left home, I spent time in Montana and last lived in Minneapolis, Minn., for 10 years.
  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? I moved back home in May of 2022. I had worked to make it home for 30 years prior, while raising my two bebes on the continent. Timing and circumstance finally fell into place for me once both kids came to college out here. Their moves enabled me to come home without worrying I’d leave them behind. I was really fortunate; I was able to buy our familyʻs home. 
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? There are so many subtleties about the cycles of ʻāina that I get to experience now that I am here. I get to learn more about the wisdom of our kūpuna as I get more exposed to our traditions, lifeways and seasons. But…The best things about living here are the small everyday interactions I have whether alone on our land, with my ʻohana or with people on the street. There is a feeling of being familiar, belonging, connected. Home is the only place I ever experienced this.
  • What’s the worst? The price of land continues to go up, land grabs and foreign cash buyers wedge out regular Hawaiian families trying to buy an affordable home, the clear cutting of native species and overgrowth of invasives. 
  • Message for the diaspora? We need you, miss you, and we want you to come home. We need your voices and your efforts as neighbors and stewards of our ʻāina, lāhui, and culture. Thereʻs nothing more you need to do or prove before Hawaiʻi is ready for you. We are ready for you now, e nā Kānaka. Mālama your relationship with Hawaiʻi and let it mālama you, from no matter how far. Listen for itʻs kāhea, and trust it. It may have taken a lifetime, or maybe more. However long youʻve been away, and however long it takes to return, you can make your way back and find your place again here. And until you do, keep finding and connecting with each other and with us.

Kalei Nakamoto moved from Minnesota

  • Where did you live last before Hawaiʻi? I last lived in Central Minnesota with my mom and little sister. My dad followed several years later, and we were the only Kānaka we ever knew there for 23 years. 
  • What (and when) brought you here? Inspired? Or obligated? Over the years, so many different things pulled and fueled that yearning for home: missing my ‘ohana, kuleana to my ‘āina, all the news I would hear echoing thousands of miles to me. But the truth is my piko was never severed from pae ‘āina no matter where in the world I was, and kūpuna were forever calling me home. 
  • What’s the best thing about living here now? The best thing about living here is finally feeling at peace in my naʻau and feeling a safety I could never find on the continent. I have the opportunity to heal deeply and be seen by others fully. It really is a dream come true. All I ever wanted was to be “regular” and feel connected to all the things you feel when thinking of home. I am thankful every single day for the amazing sisters and friends I found on my journey that made returning possible. 
  • What’s the worst? I would say the worst part about living here is the cost. Prices of everything, food and rent especially, are a killer. Something difficult that I don’t think gets mentioned is the emotional toll of seeing the loss of places and displacement of our people, especially knowing the ache of being away from home. 
  • Message for the diaspora? My message to the diaspora is this. You belong here, you are wanted and needed here. There are choke reasons that take people away or prevent them from coming back, but it’s never too late. Come home. You deserve to be here. It’s your birthright and we will be here when you are ready.