Posted on January 18, 2023

In Pasifika, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Communities Seek Identity and Independence

Marc Ramirez, USA Today, January 15, 2023

As she grew up and carved out a life in Washington state, Malie Chanel remembers filling out forms and applications and having to identify herself as Asian, or at best, Asian Pacific Islander.

The thing was, as a Samoan American, she wasn’t Asian and certainly didn’t feel that way. Asian Americans didn’t consider her such, even though much of larger society considered her to be.

“It really destroys who you are as your Indigenous self,” said Chanel, elder services director for the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington in Federal Way. “It’s an honor to call myself Pasifika.”

The growing use of the term “Pasifika” reflects a push within the community to recognize Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as distinct from Asian Americans – not only as an expression of identity but as a means of addressing inequities between the two populations. Lumping them together, advocates say, places Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at a disadvantage when it comes to health and economic resources given the community’s small numbers and unique concerns.

According to the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise just 0.4% of the U.S. population, including about 355,000 in Hawaii.


Pasifika – a transliteration of “Pacific” – has its roots in New Zealand, where government agencies created the term in the 1980s to describe growing communities of Indigenous migrants representing the Pacific diaspora – places like Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and other areas of Oceania.


Though the term also has been adopted in Australia, its use in the U.S. is in part a statement of identity reflecting a broader trend of Americans questioning the terms thrust upon them by outsiders. For instance, the Pacific Ocean, as well as the Oceanian subregions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, were all named by European explorers.

“For so long, Pacific communities have been – and continue to be – framed by other people looking in,” said Lana Lopesi, an assistant professor of Indigenous race and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “It’s really important for Pacific diasporic communities in the U.S. to take control of their own representation. The growing use of the term Pasifika is part of that.”


Brandon Fuamatu, development manager for United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, or UTOPIA, an organization serving queer and transgender Pacific Islanders in South King County, Washington, said the word is a beacon signaling those who recognize and acknowledge Pacific Islander identity.

“It encompasses us as people of the Pacific,” Fuamatu said, adding that from his observation, the word has been embraced mostly by those of Polynesian background. {snip}


The community has fallen under umbrella terms such as Asian Pacific American and Asian American Pacific Islander. Meanwhile, said Hwang of the University of Michigan, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, headed by Native Hawaiian Krystal Ka‘ai, has popularized use of the term AANHPI.

Such groupings, while initially designed to promote inclusivity, have instead produced disparities.

“The amount of funding that goes to AAPI groups is small, and the amount that goes to Pacific Islanders is even smaller,” said Fuamatu, who is Chinese and Samoan. “A lot of groups receive funding that is supposed to go to both, but there’s no NH/PI representation. {snip}”


Last February in Seattle, leaders of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival apologized to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community for using the term in its programming as an umbrella description of the overall Asian American community when it had no actual “meaningful equitable relationships with Pasifika communities.”