Hoʻi ʻAna i ke Kulāiwi

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Born on the Continent, These ʻŌiwi Returned to Hawaiʻi

Hawaiians leave Hawaiʻi for all kinds of reasons. For many it’s purely financial – the cost of living in Hawaiʻi has become so burdensome that too many people find they are living to work instead of working to live. They relocate to the continent to improve their quality of life, including achieving homeownership – something that has become out-of-reach for too many ʻŌiwi here in our kulāiwi.

Others leave because of job transfers or to pursue their careers. Some go to college on the continent, become part of their new communities, and remain once they graduate. Still others find love on the continent and happily relocate to be with their partner.

While some Hawaiians of the diaspora eventually return to Hawaiʻi, most never do. Instead, they find (or form) new communities on the continent, raise their families there, and visit Hawaiʻi and ʻohana back home as often as they can.

And a handful of ʻŌiwi, children of the diaspora born on the continent, find their way back to their kulāiwi as adults.

Mele and Hula in the City by the Bay

Photo: Anina Naheʻana Carmack with her partner, Rob Wengler
Anina Naheʻana Carmack with her partner, Rob Wengler, at a recent gala. Although born and raised in San Francisco, she grew up dancing hula and singing Hawaiian music. Twenty years ago she enrolled at UH Hilo and after graduating decided to stay and make her home in Hawaiʻi. – Courtesy Photo

Anina Naheʻana Kaʻōhuaʻaionāʻaliʻi Carmack, 40, was born in San Francisco in the 1980s and Hawaiian music and hula have been part of her life for as long as she can remember. “My family was very ʻarts and music,’” Carmack shared. Her father, Kaʻala Carmack, is a musician and her mother, Rosalie Alfonso, is a dancer.

Although her father is Native Hawaiian, Carmack is also Native American and Filipino. Her mother is Papago of the Tohono Oʻodham Nation, and growing up, the family would take road trips to Arizona to visit ʻohana and stay on the reservation. And every year, Carmack and her family participated in powwows, dressing in traditional regalia and dancing.

Carmack initially learned to dance hula from the performers that were part of her father’s Hawaiian music group. At age 10, she joined Nā Lei Hulu i ka Wēkiu, and began studying under Kumu Hula Patrick Makuakāne. By the time she was 12, Carmack was the youngest member of Makuakāne’s performing group. “That was a big experience for me,” she said. “It really grounded me in my Hawaiʻi roots.”

In addition to performing Hawaiian music, her father also taught music in San Francisco’s “Japantown,” and so Carmack (who is not part Japanese) ended up attending a Japanese bilingual preschool and elementary school – in part because the principal was also from Hawaiʻi like her dad. “Hawaiʻi people on the mainland tend to just find each other,” she said.

Throughout her teens, Carmack traveled and performed as part of Makaukāne’s hālau. A couple years after graduating from high school, she decided to enroll at UH Hilo.

For her, attending college in Hawaiʻi wasn’t just about getting a degree – it was also an opportunity to gain experience and to learn more about herself. “Growing up, we’d come here every Christmas and summer. When my dad’s parents were still alive, we would come to Oʻahu and sometimes me and my brother would attend summer school here.”

Carmack’s uncle and aunties were living on Hawaiʻi Island at the time and she knew having ʻohana close by would help with her adjustment. Because of her grounding in Hawaiian culture, the only “culture shock” she experienced moving from San Francisco to Hilo was transitioning from a big cosmopolitan city to a small town.

Despite moving to the home of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival, Carmack fell away from dancing. “The hardest part of moving was not just leaving my parents and my city, but leaving hula because it was such a big part of my life. When I moved I thought I was going to be more immersed in it, but that was not the case at all.”

After graduating with a degree in linguistics (she continued her study of Japanese plus ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and a little bit of French) Carmack decided to remain in Hilo and ended up living there for another seven or eight years.

She eventually relocated to Oʻahu due to limited job opportunities in Hilo and wound up working as a student services advisor at Heald College. Ironically, that gave her an opportunity to tap into her music background as she and a few others on staff incorporated Hawaiian music and hula into the schools’ quarterly graduation ceremonies. “It was kind of nice to have that back in my life again,” she said.

She started making new friends who were also into the music scene and began singing back-up in various bands. “Although I enjoyed Hawaiian music, I ended up singing with local cover bands and doing reggae music. It was new and exciting, being in that nightlife industry.”

It was during this time that Carmack met her partner, Rob Wengler, an ʻŌiwi fire fighter; nine years later, they are a family with two keiki.

No longer part of the music scene, Carmack currently works as an executive assistant for a condominium complex and she and Wengler are focused on raising their children. Their oldest attended a Pūnana Leo and is now attending a kula kaiapuni (Hawaiian immersion school), and next year their 2-year-old will start at Pūnana Leo. “We’re committed as a family to learn the language together,” said Carmack. “Neither of us are fluent, so it’s a lifelong journey.”

And almost two decades later, she found her way back to hula after her 6-year-old daughter started dancing with Kumu Hula Vicky Holt Takamine of Pua Aliʻi ʻIlima and Carmack decided to join the hālau’s new adults’ class. “I’m just taking basic classes and it’s nice to do something for myself again as a mother,” she said.

Carmack has been in Hawaiʻi for almost 20 years now and is settled with her ʻohana but her path was not without challenges. Reflecting on her transition from the continent, she spoke candidly: “Growing up I was so certain about my identity. And then when I moved to Hawaiʻi, sometimes local people made me feel less Hawaiian just because I was born somewhere else. Even though I could sing Hawaiian songs, dance hula, chant oli – it still wasn’t enough.

“The mere fact that you aren’t born on this land is a big factor to some people and, unfortunately, to some folks it doesn’t matter that you are of Hawaiian blood or that you practice the culture.

“I feel like people who live on the mainland and who miss Hawaiʻi and Hawaiian culture accept anybody who is part of that, and you’re all proud of who you are together. That is the aloha spirit I was so fortunate to grow up with.”

Raised in Seattle but Rooted in Hawaiʻi

Photo: Kaniela Hōʻolu Hughes
Kaniela Hōʻolu Hughes was born and raised in Washington State but has dreamed about coming “home” to live in Hawaiʻi since he was a child. He made his move in 2015 at the age of 25. – Courtesy Photo

Growing up, Kaniela Hōʻolu Hughes, 33, always felt like he was in between two worlds. Although he was born in Kirkland, Wash., and raised on the continent, Hughes’ earliest memories are of Hawaiʻi.

“I remember the beach, and my mom taking us to the zoo, and listening to Willie K play music. My connection was always to this ʻāina and the culture here,” he recalled. “Both my parents were born and raised on Oʻahu and for as long as I can remember, we spent most summers at my grandma’s house in Kailua.”

Hughes’ parents moved from Hawaiʻi to Washington in 1981 after his father, David Hughes, a stand-out football player from Kamehameha Schools during the 1970s, was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks during his junior year at Boise State University.

The fourth of five children, Hughes was mostly raised in Seattle where the family settled once David retired from the NFL. Despite living on the continent, Hughes said his ʻohana maintained strong cultural connections. “My dad grew up playing and singing Hawaiian music in addition to being a very good athlete. And my mom [Holly (Haleamau) Hughes] was a professional hula dancer for Aloha Airlines.

“So, we grew up with Hawaiian music, hula, language, and food – we experienced all that. My parents did a very good job at raising us to have the values they grew up with in Hawaiʻi – humility and respect – respect for kūpuna, yourself and others. But also pride in who we are and where we come from – to never be ashamed of the food we eat or the songs we sing or the dances we dance.”

Another strong element of Hughes’ upbringing was his faith. When he was in sixth grade his dad became a pastor at a church in Seattle. “My Christian faith has always been a huge component of who I am and my identity to this day.”

Perhaps due, in part, to his grounding in Hawaiian culture, Hughes always felt out of place on the continent. “Whenever we were in Hawaiʻi I asked my parents why weren’t we living there as a family. ʻWhy aren’t we home? Everyone is happier when we’re home. We have more friends and more family.’”

That yearning to live in Hawaiʻi never left him. It was always there, in the back of his mind. So when he decided to move home to Hawaiʻi in 2015 after graduating with a master’s degree in theology from Westminster Seminary in Escondido, Calif., it really wasn’t much of a decision.

“I was doing what I always knew I was supposed to do, and the time was right. I had just finished my graduate degree. I was single. I didn’t have a job holding me anywhere,” he said. “It was the first time in my life that I was in a place to be able to make the move back home in order to be where I wanted to be and pursue what I wanted to pursue.”

Hughes moved home without illusions. “I didn’t have a romanticized view of Hawaiʻi. I had very realistic expectations, based on my exposure and experiences.”

Still, his move wasn’t easy. He moved in with a cousin but was shocked at how difficult it was to find work, even with a master’s degree. “By the graces of some very good family friends I was able to find a job working construction and even then, with a good paying job, I was still in need of family to provide housing and they were so gracious to allow me to stay with them.”

The construction job kept him afloat until worked his way into a teaching position at Kamehameha Schools. “It was a process, and it wasn’t easy,” he said. “There were definitely a lot of spam and cabbage days as I was trying to make a future for myself. It was a lot of prayer, hard work and sleepless nights. But by the grace of God and a lot of diligence, Iʻve been able to carve a spot out for myself here.”

His years at Kamehameha helped cultivate his perspective on what it means to be Kanaka today. “I couldn’t have asked to be in a better place to develop myself and my understanding of the culture. I was able to learn from both my students and my fellow kumu and made lifelong friends. I grew a lot from that experience. It made me very paʻa in who I am and how I see myself as a Hawaiian.”

Today, Hughes is working as a contractor for the Department of Defense at Indo Pacific Command. Addressing the elephant in the room, Hughes acknowledges that the military presence in Hawaiʻi has negatively impacted Native Hawaiians historically right up to the present, citing last year’s devastating Red Hill jet fuel leak.

“Still, there’s also the perspective that I can create change from within,” he opined optimistically. “A growing group of young Native Hawaiians are stepping into some of these [military] spaces to create conversations that need to take place. I’ve seen growth happen within my own workspace and it’s been very positive.”

A few years ago, Hughes’ younger brother, Iokepa, joined him in Hawaiʻi. And a few months ago, his parents did too. “I know there are people in circumstances very different than mine who probably wouldn’t have the same opportunities that I had. And I feel very privileged because this is truly where my heart is and has been my whole life. I’m beyond grateful. When you truly want something and you’re willing to sacrifice, there are ways to make it work.”