Leaving for Las Vegas: Reaching out to Native Hawaiians

LAS VEGAS — Trying to make it in Hawaii is becoming increasingly difficult — so impossible for some that more than 50% of Native Hawaiians are now living outside of the state.

Are those who have fled the islands for an easier life still part of the lahui (community), and should they receive the same benefits and assistance as those struggling to survive in the islands? The subject of expanding services to Native Hawaiians on the mainland has become a hot debate.


But to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the trend is clear — that’s why they debuted a new annual mainland conference, the Western Regional Native Hawaiian Conference. Held in Las Vegas this year, the conference drew nearly 2,000 attendees, and more than 60% came from 36 states across the mainland — including states as far away as Maine.

It’s also why CNHA is eyeing Seattle for a conference in 2024 and has plans to begin scaling up to offer advocacy and services in Los Angeles over the next couple of years, with other cities to follow.

CNHA has numbers on its side. The U.S. Census’ American Community Survey in 2021 estimated that 370,546 Native Hawaiians were living on the mainland, compared with 309,807 in the Hawaiian Islands.

Kuhio Lewis, CNHA CEO, said Native Hawaiians now comprise just 18% of Hawaii’s population, and the dynamics of the lahui have grown more complicated as they are now fractured between Hawaii and the mainland. Lewis said Hawaii loses part of its culture with each Native Hawaiian who leaves, while Native Hawaiians living outside the islands struggle to preserve their own Native Hawaiian culture, values and identity.

“What is Hawaii without the culture? It’s sad to see that the Hawaiians, the people that have kept that culture alive for generations, are moving away just to survive,” Lewis said.

Meanwhile, Lewis said, “There’s no national intermediary voice that is representing the collective Hawaiian community. It’s all Hawaii-based — like the (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) that’s chartered by the state of Hawaii and Kamehameha Schools, which is focused on Hawaii.

“Nobody is focused on the future, the trajectory. The trajectory shows that Hawaiians are displaced and they are all over the U.S.”

Lewis said what’s emerging at CNHA and at its Western Regional Native Hawaiian Conference is a national intermediary voice. To be sure, the conference was important enough to attract Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, bipartisan staff from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Native American tribal leaders, and politicians from Hawaii and elsewhere.

“I do think that there is a future here where CNHA will have a presence in states that have predominant Native Hawaiians. We are already talking about opening up something in Los Angeles, possibly in the next two years. We are already poking around.”

Lewis said CNHA’s vision for mainland expansion includes everything from workforce, business and cultural development programs to loan programs. He said the goal is to help Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii build wealth so that “maybe one day they could come home (to Hawaii).”

But CNHA’s vision isn’t an automatic sell. Some Native Hawaiians living in Hawaii worry that there will be less for them if CNHA expands to the mainland. They are also concerned that it would encourage more Hawaiians to leave, taking a piece of Hawaii’s culture with them.

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, a cultural resource specialist, environmental planner and community engagement consultant living in Hawaii, was part of a conference panel discussion Wednesday — “Should Mainland Hawaiians Be Part of the Lahui?” — but said she was more interested in discussing how to keep the Native Hawaiian community at home.

“When we talk about lahui, to me that is a sacred word. It is rooted in our history, it is rooted in aloha aina (land). This is not our aina. We are not native here. We are malihini (strangers) here,” Watson said. “I would rather be houseless in Hawaii than ever move from my homeland.”

Watson said she is open to offering Hawaiians on the mainland assistance with language, culture, education and perhaps relocation help for ohana who want to return home. But she found herself questioning the use of homeownership loans being used to buy “some other Indigenous people’s land.”

Judging from the applause after Watson’s remarks, she wasn’t the only conferee with that sentiment. However, some of those viewpoints mellowed as conferees found opportunities to talk, listen and identify connections and shared values to bridge the gaps between them.

Pa‘ahana Bissen, who participated in the same panel as Watson, shared that her family relocated from Hawaii to the mainland for her father’s work. Bissen said three generations of the family now live on the mainland, but she still dreams of returning to Hawaii.

“As the flood of Hawaiians come to the continent, we are only asking Hawaii to help us care for them, to help them be successful like they should. We want to show the continent that our people in Hawaii care about us,” Bissen said.

“I myself want to go home, and I have plans to go home as soon as I can. But I want to go not to drain Hawaii; I want to bring things back to enhance Hawaii.”

Sentiments were also expressed by some conferees that Native Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii who become better off financially than those living in Hawaii should kokua by remitting money back to Hawaii as do other Pacific Islanders. However, while Las Vegas offers new opportunities, it hasn’t always become the promised land for those leaving Hawaii, and some of those who left Hawaii in crisis have struggled to find their footing.

While some would return to Hawaii, others said that wasn’t a possibility due to the high cost of living as well as housing. They also expressed concerns that Hawaii offered a less friendly business environment, and fewer opportunities to find good-paying jobs. Another popular reason to leave was to be closer to other friends and family who had already left.

Noelani Paselio, whose family followed friends to Las Vegas in 2007, said the move allowed the family to buy a home, which they could not have done in Hawaii. However, she said being outside of Hawaii has made it more difficult to find loans or other assistance to expand the candy business, Sweet Kings Las Vegas, that she and her daughter Anuhea opened during the pandemic.

The Kamehameha Schools graduate said she reached out to Hawaii programs for support but was turned away because she does not live there. In contrast, aid for other minority groups in the United States doesn’t commonly use location as a qualifier. The difference might be the concept of “sense of place,” which is so important to the Native Hawaiian culture that introductions commonly include information about where a person comes from as well as identity.

“I understand that we are no longer on the birthplace of our ancestors; however, we are still an extension. Wherever we go we carry that with us, so why not support us while we are here?” Paselio said, adding she believes that Native Hawaiians living outside of Hawaii should be able to qualify for the same benefits as Native Hawaiians living in Hawaii.

Terry Nacion, a Native Hawaiian Realtor at Xpand Realty in Las Vegas, where about 70% of the agents are from Hawaii, said struggles aren’t unique to Hawaii. Nacion said she has seen many Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders buy homes, but she also has encountered those going through a short-sale or foreclosure, who would have benefited from CNHA’s loan programs, financial counseling or emergency assistance.

“Support should be provided just as with any other nationality,” Nacion said. “We have limited resources. But I feel the Hawaiian people are just ever so grateful for any help. They are not demanding it.”

Lewis said CNHA’s planned push into serving mainland Hawaiians will not take away resources from those living in Hawaii, where the nonprofit now manages $100 million in annual program revenue, four facilities and employees across six divisions.

“I think what people don’t realize there’s already a lot of money going to states to support Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” he said. “California gets a huge amount of federal allocation. The problem is they go to these Asian American organizations and groups, rather than one that truly represents Native Hawaiians.”

He said even more resources are likely to become available as greater advocacy power for the lahui comes from forging a deeper connection with Hawaiians in all states.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, said Wednesday in a digital welcome to conferees, “Here in Congress, really the responsibility for our federal programs and our laws and our funding on behalf of Native Hawaiians has fallen to our Hawaii congressional delegations as it should — that’s a responsibility that we all bear.”

However, he added that census records show that 28 states now have 10,000 or more Native Hawaiians living there. He said there are large states such as California that have almost as many Native Hawaiians as in Hawaii, and other states, such as Texas and Washington, also have become natural partners.

He implored conferees: “Please go back into your states, into your districts, and contact your member of Congress and ask for their commitment to Native Hawaiians not just as a matter of national policy, but also as a matter of personal commitment to their own constituencies.

“This is going to be necessary for us to carry forward Native Hawaiian programs, Native Hawaiian efforts and commitment to Native Hawaiians in our federal government for another number of generations.”

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