Many native Hawaiians have asked non-natives to refrain from vacationing on the islands
When the average Wake Forest student is asked to consider the Hawaiian Islands, they probably envision a stunning vacation land of crystal clear waters, surfing and volcanoes. However, our thoughts rarely begin with the indigenous Kānaka-Maoli peoples of the islands.
On Thursday, November 10th, the Intercultural Center and the Office for Sustainability joined forces to host an event at Tohi Garden that aimed to change this connection. The discussion, titled “Should we go to Hawaii?” was moderated by Savannah Baber, an associate director at Wake Forest University’s Intercultural Center.
Baber, the Chickahominy and Lumbee Native American, was inspired by the awareness efforts of native Hawaiian youth on social media platforms during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“See what [Native Hawaiian youth] were able to achieve in terms of raising awareness and building movement [on social media]… is really interesting and relevant when you think about the university and the students,” said Baber.
Many Native Hawaiians became alarmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when tourists visiting the islands began straining the health care system of a state whose population is made up of about 10% Native Hawaiians, an ethnic group of these ones A 2020 University of Hawaii study suggests she was initially hardest hit by the pandemic. This prompted the youth to take to platforms like TikTok, where they hoped to share their concerns with people around the world.
online activism during the pandemic opened up a broader conversation about tourism in a state whose history is ripe for the impact of settler colonialism and imperialism.
Hawaii was originally colonized by the British in 1778, and diseases introduced by Europeans decimated the native population in just a few decades. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Kānaka Maoli population dwindled 300,000 on British arrival to 70,000 by 1853. Americans also flocked to the islands, and by 1893 the United States controlled the Asian-immigrant-driven Hawaiian plantation economy and had overthrown the islands’ monarchy.
After the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, Hawaii rose in prominence as a US territory, becoming the 50th state in 1959. In the years that followed, Hawaii was inundated with a massive and increasing number of tourists; in 2017, Almost 9 million people visited the islands.
In addition to pandemic-related fears for human health and safety, tourism in the Hawaiian Islands has numerous environmental impacts. Apart from undoubtedly massive CO2 emissions caused by air transport to the islands, Tourism is also increasing microplastics on and around Hawaii’s beaches.
Over 4,500 miles from Hawaii, Baber’s talk at Tohi Garden brought the topic to the minds of some members of the Wake Forest community. Leading the discussion, Baber explained that the native people of Hawaii consider not only land but also water sacred.
One participant, sophomore Emory Lewis, mentioned that growing up on the Maryland coast enabled her to sympathize with the kānaka maoli’s sacred perspective not only on land but also on water. Seeing firsthand the effects of pollution in the waters near her hometown, Lewis became aware of the dangers of plastic waste and littering at a young age, which helps her imagine some of the pain felt by Indigenous Hawaiian communities , when tourists leave rubbish on and around their sanctuary bodies of water.
When asked why she came to Baber’s talk, Lewis said she felt talks about Indigenous land issues weren’t happening enough.
“There’s a lot of dialogue that doesn’t happen over land,” Lewis said, “…Hawaii is a really interesting case study [when it comes to that] because it is physically distant from the mainland United States and has such a rich history.”
While discussions of land may be alien to many Wake Forest students, native Hawaiians are no strangers to fighting to protect their homeland. In addition to the activism related to tourism, the public controversy that began in 2014 about the Construction of the TMT telescope on Mauna Kea completed in July 2022.
Given the history, exploitation, and environmental impact of Hawaiian tourism, the question remains: should we travel to Hawaii?
“I would say it’s definitely a good learning opportunity,” says Baber of the idea of a Wake Forest student visiting Hawaii. “I would hope that every student going to Hawaii would make use of it [their visit] as an opportunity to practice the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion and to reflect on what it means to follow the leadership of Black, Brown and Indigenous people.”