Across the continental United States, Hawaiians have migrated from Hawai'i, or the ancestral homeland of Hawaiians, and have created a burgeoning diaspora. More Hawaiians are also born on the continent in between the defining (and dominating) memory of Hawai'i and the everyday contexts of the mainland. In this essay, I speak from the vantage point as a member of the diasporic Hawaiian generation (mainland Hawaiian generation) and the daughter of a Native Hawaiian father who migrated for work. Here I narrate how the notion of “migration” itself has become a type of “home” for me after years of frenetic searching, nostalgic longing, and a quest to find my cultural “center” or “whole” as a Native Hawaiian born and raised off island. I share my own diasporic narratives of identity and belonging as a mainland Hawaiian and how being in the diaspora—in between and in connection to but away from my ancestral homeland—has become “home” for me.


To and From

Here and There

Home to Home

Island to Mainland

The movements from, across, and through the Hawaiian diaspora, have defined my life.

I couldn't take my eyes off of those words on a website that I found—“a Hawaiian village” during the gold rush in Coloma, El Dorado County. I frantically read through the historical details of a rumored Hawaiian settlement in California during the time of the gold rush.

Native Hawaiians …

In the gold rush …

Settled in California in the 1840s through the 1850s …

I called the contact listed on the website and ended up getting the phone number of a local historian who had done work on Native Hawaiians in that region during the gold rush. My fingers quickly dialed the number of the referred local historian, and as usual, I gave in to my ever-increasing need to know as much as I could about diasporic Hawaiians.

The next day, my partner, Kung Chiao, and I drove two and a half hours to El Dorado County to meet the local historian. A few hours later, we all had completed the arduous trek through hilly wooded terrain to see what was once the living space of diasporic Hawaiians—Hawaiians who were part of the historical migration of the indigenous inhabitants of Hawai'i to the mainland.

I took it all in. I was captivated by the sight of large stones stuck together (like stucco) to form a building or house structure in a space that the local historian had identified as a Hawaiian village during that time so long ago. I touched the stones. I closed my eyes. I tried to imagine what it was like to be in this place—on the mainland for these Native Hawaiians—in that historical moment.

Rona Halualani and Kung Chiao look over the site of a diasporic Hawaiian gold mining site. Photo by Joanne McCubrey, Placerville Mountain Democrat.1 

Rona Halualani and Kung Chiao look over the site of a diasporic Hawaiian gold mining site. Photo by Joanne McCubrey, Placerville Mountain Democrat.1 

This was not an isolated incident. For most of my life, I was chasing down memories of Hawaiian migration to ultimately find … myself.


Hawaiians represent the largest Pacific Islander group in the United States.2 According to US census updates from 2010, there are 527,077 Native Hawaiians. Of these, 55 percent live in Hawai'i while 45 percent reside on the continental US mainland (across 49 states), with the largest numbers living in California, Washington, and Texas.3 Native Hawaiians have increasingly moved to the mainland since the 1940s due to military stationing and relocation for work and economic reasons.4 However, there is historical evidence indicating that Native Hawaiians have migrated “off island” since the 1800s; many Hawaiian men left on whaling ships (or were taken), migrated to burgeoning industries (fur trapping, gold mining).5 Hawaiian women also migrated via hula troupes.6 These Hawaiians who migrated are referred to as “diasporic Hawaiians” or “mainland Hawaiians.” As a result of such Hawaiian migration and settlement on the mainland, a “mainland Hawaiian generation” (or the offspring of migrated Hawaiians) was born. I am part of this mainland Hawaiian generation as I was born and raised away from Hawai'i and the daily markers of Hawaiian culture.

In this essay, I unpack how the notion of “migration” itself has become a type of “home” for me as I have relentlessly searched and nostalgically longed for my cultural “center” or “whole” as a Native Hawaiian born and raised on the mainland. Here I share my own intertwined and evolving diasporic stories of identity and belonging as a mainland Hawaiian and how being in the diaspora—in between and in connection to but away from my ancestral homeland—has become “home” for me. I share narrative details from a larger critical autoethnographic collection of my theorized experiences as a mainland Hawaiian woman in relation to the cultural politics surrounding indigeneity (who can claim to be native and in which contexts), race, socioeconomics, and gender.7 Critical race theory scholars Robin M. Boylorn and Mark P. Orbe note that critical autoethnography highlights the multilayered insights proffered by analyzing lived experiences of “gender, race, ethnicity, ability, and orientation within larger systems of power, oppression, and social privilege.”8 My narratives here reveal the overwhelming push and pull of migration over me as a person, as a teacher, and as a scholar in terms of larger dynamics of power. Ultimately the moving between and across—or residing in a liminal space—becomes a stable positionality and position from which/where to make sense of my identity and my world.


I am a part Native Hawaiian woman born and raised … in San Mateo County, California.

For the popular imagination, a Native Hawaiian is part of and tied to the cultural homeland of Hawai'i. To be anything else is not to be Hawaiian. This necessary relationship among culture, place, and identity—a notion that Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg have contested—has overburdened Hawaiians and Hawaiian identity for a long time.9 Moreover, Lavie and Swedenburg highlight that culture is not fixed, discrete, or bounded, and that it challenges the simple dualism of the notions of “home” and “away” and “center” and “periphery.”

Holding the notion that one could be native and yet not from or residing in the homeland—proves to be difficult for many.

What part of Hawai'i are you from?

I was just at your home last week.

No really, where are you from?

With that name? You gotta be from Hawai'i.

Fielding these questions and comments on a daily basis pushed me into an endless search for my cultural origins. I would ask my Hawaiian father, Alohikea Halualani, about how he grew up and what it was like. I devoured his memories hoping to find a piece for myself that crystallized what it meant to be Hawaiian. Memory therefore stands as an important element for diasporic migration. For mainland Hawaiian generations like mine, memories are not initially immediate or personally experienced; instead, they are inherited from their parents, tutu (grandparents), and ohana (family). These memories capture and create an imagined past and sense of culture for mainland Hawaiian generations. These memories that are inherited from an authenticating parent from the cultural homeland become the “lifeblood” for a diasporic cultural member.

But the memories of my father were not enough. After all, my father originated in Hawai'i and on one of the oldest Hawaiian homesteads, Keaukaha. This relational connection to Hawaiian culture was powerful but I was in pursuit of more. I needed more with regard to searching for my Hawaiianness. I would look around during our summer visits to our family in Hawai'i, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of the Big Island and Oahu (the island origin points of my parents). When my parents took us to visit every historical Hawaiian landmark (many mostly visited by tourists), I visually took in as much as I could. I searched for any clue or sign that somehow connected me to my Hawaiian identity. I scoured for some flashing key that I was on the right track. I chased down every possible clue, even in the halls of Iolani Palace, which is the site of Queen Liliuokalani's residence where she was imprisoned during the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. I remember looking beyond the red velvet ropes as I entered the parlor and grand ballroom of the palace. I was looking for a feeling as a Native Hawaiian that I was in a deeply sacred Hawaiian place of our last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, who was completely devoted to her people. I remember attending a middle-school summer program in Hawai'i for mainland Hawaiian kids (Ho'omaka'ika'i) from Kamehameha Schools, for a week. There, I combed through the detailed activity book pages with lines of Hawaiian words and savored the field trips to different sites of Hawaiian culture (Bishop Museum, Hawaiian lands). I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Native Hawaiian identity to also explore this question and examined Hawaiianness through history books, popular culture, tourist sites, legal discourses, and community narratives. In that work, I found that Hawaiian identity was anchored by notions of “home,” “being on-island,” “blood quantum as race,” and normative benevolence (that Hawaiians are always hospitable and embracing). I traced every possible connecting point of Hawaiian migrations that I could find—past or present.

This meant spending weeks in the Hawaii State Archives looking up 1800s ship logs about Hawaiian sailors who left the islands on whaling ships. For hours, I combed through files and documents about Hawaiians who left Hawai'i to join the gold rush, to become part of the fur trapping industry in Oregon, and/or to travel to British Colombia. I read historians' analyses of Hawaiian men who migrated to the mainland and married Maidu Indian women to become a part of the Maidu culture. Here, I was fascinated at how Hawaiians migrated to another land and joined another culture, thereby re-situating themselves and connecting to another identity. I asked, “Would that be me someday?” Somehow, through all of this chasing down of Hawaiian migration, I was looking for some origin point of that migration, that movement from Hawai'i, one that would neatly historicize migration as being Hawaiian in and of itself.

I wanted to sediment Hawaiianness to movement and migration (via the “routes”) in a way that authenticated and validated diasporic Hawaiian identity without necessitating the anchor point (via the “roots”) of Hawai'i geographically. And then I began to wonder if, perhaps, migration was already distinctively Hawaiian and an act of Hawaiianness.

And I still continue to move in my search—visiting as many sites, locales, and festivals of mainland Hawaiians as I can. The quest is never-ending. I have come to understand that it is not what I find at every site that gives me roots; rather, it is the movement, the quest for an identity “after” migration, that shapes me as a mainland Hawaiian. The movement, the points of connection that I traverse, and their links together are my Hawaiian identity in the diaspora. This may in fact be part of mainland Hawaiian identity: movement and being a part of a cross-generational, cross-regional network of Hawaiians.

In a similar vein, noted Pacific Studies scholar Epeli Hau'ofa powerfully highlights how the Pacific should be reconceptualized differently in terms of Tongans.10 He states that there is a difference between perceiving the Pacific as “islands in a far sea” and as “a sea of islands.” The latter notion highlights how indigenous Pacific groups see themselves and their worlds (context to context) in large, cosmological, oceanic terms. Tongans, he states, are “people from the sea” (kakai mei tahi) and not a group designated to a national boundary…. Tongans all over the world are of the vast ocean, of the totalities of relations in their experiences and worlds.”11 Thus, Hau'ofa reminds us that, by extension, Pacific Islanders are connected, defined, or marked—not by land, but by the vast oceans of the world, by the seas and their movements in connecting, binding, and relating one another to each other. Given this, movement and migration could be conceptualized as actually binding Hawaiians and Hawaiianness together. In retrospect, now I know that I was chasing migration without realizing that perhaps I was performing and practicing what it means to be Hawaiian all along.


After 20 years of searching and chasing after migration in an endless pursuit, I see “migration” as a type of home and not as a limitation or a “lesser than” status as a Native Hawaiian. This critical practice of tracing diasporic movement has helped me to understand my own conception of Hawaiian identity and cultural identity. While there are always cultural anchor points for cultural identities (my ancestral homeland will always be Hawai'i when it comes to my Hawaiian identity), we are not limited to just one origin point. There can be multiple, unpredictable, and moving anchor points for cultural members. While there will always be a complex set of politics (in terms of indigeneity, sovereignty, authenticity, and belonging) that bear upon those anchor points in different ways depending on the configuration, how we lay claim and connect to our cultural identities does not have to fit a particular mold with stable referents.

I will always feel the tension of the struggle over Hawaiian rights to identity, land, and sovereignty in Hawai'i while I am on the mainland (and whose very off-island existence weakens the rhetorical leverage of Hawaiian sovereignty discourses). Moreover, I struggle with being diasporic Hawaiian and being situated on long-colonized Native American land. The politics around race and the racialization of Native Hawaiians around blood quantum also still looms. As a Native Hawaiian woman, the exoticization of Hawaiian women and the objectification of Pacific female bodies and their dance forms (hula for Hawaiians) continue to be problematic. The power issues do not disappear. Rather, the tensions and uncertainties that arise with diasporic migration can be unpacked beyond and outside of a seemingly stable “GPS location” of “original (originating)” homeland to off-shoot (“less than/inferiorized”) diasporic settlement sites. The relationalities across, between, and within cultural anchor and origin points are unbounded and indeterminate, thereby making “culture,” “identity,” and “belonging” more complex, layered, and vibrant.

This notion that we can have multiple anchor points with a culture has helped me in my pedagogy. Beyond just intellectual and philosophical acceptance, I have fully embraced—through an analysis of my own experience in chasing down migration—that culture and cultural identification can occur in a variety of ways and through unpredictable gateways. Becoming interested in one's culture through popular culture or the much-maligned food, fairs, and festivals especially for diasporic generations is important and significant and not necessarily superficial (while also embedded with complex power issues).

Connecting the diasporic traces of those before me (migrated Hawaiians from the past to the present) and those like me (mainland Hawaiian generations) functions to recognize and affirm Hawaiian migration and movement. But in the same moment, these connections also destabilize the notion of Hawaiian sovereignty and land entitlements in Hawai'i, so there will always be larger cultural politics implications beyond and because of the diaspora. Migration had become a familiar place—one that ironically grounded me while also unsettling me. I still am chasing diasporic traces but for my part-Hawaiian twins, Keli'i and Kea, who represent the newest mainland Hawaiian generation. Migration has therefore become a type of “home” for me as well as a sensemaking device through which to more deeply and differently know my Hawaiianness.


George Lloyd, “Author Visits Hawaiian Mining Camp Site Near Coloma,” Placerville Mountain Democrat, 3 August 2000,
Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiian Data Book (Honolulu: Office of Hawaiian Affairs Research Study, 2010).
Lindsay Kae Hixson, Bradford B. Hepler, and Myoung Ouk Kim, The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population: 2010 (Washington, DC: US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau, 2012).
Rona Tamiko Halualani, In the Name of Hawaiians: Native Identities and Cultural Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
Jean Barman and Bruce McIntyre Watson, Leaving Paradise: Indigenous Hawaiians in the Pacific Northwest, 1787–1898 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006).
Adria L. Imada, “Hawaiians on Tour: Hula Circuits through the American Empire,” American Quarterly 56, no. 1 (2004): 111–49.
Rona Tamiko Halualani, Being (and Becoming) Hawaiian on the Continent: Mainland Hawaiian Identity and the Politics of Belonging (book manuscript in progress).
Robin M. Boylorn and Mark P. Orbe, Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life (New York: Routledge, 2016).
Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg, Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).
Epeli Hau'ofa, “Our Sea of Islands,” The Contemporary Pacific 6, no. 1 (1994): 148–61.
Hau'ofa, “Our Sea,” 152.