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May 19, 2017

Meet Native Hawaiʻi: Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month at the museum, we interview Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi, a Native Hawaiian who works in Washington, D.C. The museum frequently invites interesting and accomplished Native individuals to share a little about their lives and work. Their responses offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today.—Dennis Zotigh

Native Hawaiian Governance 'Aha 2016
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi (first row, wearing a black blazer and long necklace) participated in the Native Hawaiian Governance ʻAha (Conference) 2016. February 2016, Oʻahu, Hawai'i. 

Please introduce yourself and, if you can, give us your Hawaiian name and its English translation.

I'm Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi. The name Kawahinekoa was given to me at birth by my tūtū, or grandmother. It means “the brave, fearless woman” or “the woman warrior.”

Where did you grow up, and where in Hawaiʻi do you call home?

I was born in Wailuku on the island of Maui, and that is where I call home.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

What Hawaiian community are you affiliated with?

In 1920 Congress made a commitment to house the increasingly landless and homeless Hawaiian community after they had been displaced from lands they’d occupied for generations. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was passed to help Native Hawaiians reconnect to the land and improve their economic situations by leasing homesteads on which they could live and farm. I grew up on the Paukukalo Hawaiian Homestead on Maui, part of the 200,000 acres of land that Congress appropriated then. 

You've also held a pageant title in Hawaiʻi.

In 2012 I won the Miss Maui Scholarship Pageant and became a goodwill ambassador for the island of Maui. During my year of service I was a spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network, raising funds for the Kapiʻolani Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

What is a significant point in history from your Native community that you would like to share?

Kahoʻolawe is the smallest of the eight main islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago. From 1941 to 1994, the island and its surrounding waters were under the control of the U.S. Navy. This area was used by the navy and United States’ allies as a live-fire training area. A decade-long struggle by the people of Hawai‘i succeeded in stopping the bombing of Kahoʻolawe and helped to spark the rebirth and spread of Native Hawaiian culture and values. In 1994 Congress conveyed the island back to the State of Hawaiʻi. The Hawaiʻi State Legislature had already established the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC) in 1993. Its mandate is to manage Kahoʻolawe, its surrounding waters, and its resources, in trust for the general public and for a future Native Hawaiian sovereign entity.

What issues are the Hawaiian people facing at this point in time?

Of the nation's three major indigenous groups—American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians—we are the only one that currently lacks a government-to-government relationship with the United States. The long history of Native Hawaiians to recover our lost lands, abundant resources, and moreover our ability to self-govern, as a legal sovereign, has been blocked by both political and public policy conscription for over 120 years. The disparity in the federal treatment of Native Hawaiians has caused questions about the legitimacy of Native Hawaiian programs, services, and preferences, resulting in lawsuits threatening our assets and our ability to use them as they were intended.

Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi 2
Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands?

The incorporation of Hawaiʻi into the United States at the turn of the 20th century included the extension of a policy against indigenous languages used as the medium of education. What had earlier been a flourishing system of education through the Hawaiian language was closed, and legal barriers to using the Hawaiian language in education were only removed 90 years later, in 1986. By that time fewer than 50 children under the age of 18 were proficient in Hawaiian, and Native Hawaiian educational achievement had plummeted.

A small group of Hawaiian educators began a plan to revitalize the language by focusing their efforts on the best chances the language had for survival: the keiki (children) of Hawaiʻi. The educators decided to create Pūnana Leo (language nest) preschools—Hawaiian-language immersion schools that would rely heavily on involvement from parents and community members to stay afloat. The first Pūnana Leo was established at Kekaha, Kauaʻi, in August 1984, with subsequent schools opening in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, and Honolulu, Oʻahu, the following year.

This started a revitalization movement that has been extremely successful, serving as a model to other indigenous communities in similar straits. According to the 2011 census, the number of fluent speakers of Hawaiian had risen to a reported 24,000, including 2,000 native speakers. The ʻAha Pūnana Leo has been one of the leading organizations in the Hawaiian language revitalization movement, and there are now a number of immersion schools and programs throughout the state. In the University of Hawaiʻi system, Hawaiian language classes are offered at all 10 campuses, and the number of second-language speakers continues to grow.

What cultural activities or events did you participate in Hawaiʻi?

I have danced hula since the age of 6. My kumu (teachers) were very influential in my upbringing and early development. They instilled in me a set of beliefs based upon our familial and cultural experiences, ultimately solidifying my identity as a Native Hawaiian woman. This identity has motivated me to travel through life confident in the key elements of what it means to be a wahine (woman) as part of a vibrant and flourishing culture. There could have been many other outlets and ways for a six-year-old's energy, emotions, and dreams, to take concrete form, but it was hula that allowed my creative dreaming to happen and those ceremonies and rituals that helped center my thoughts and behaviors.

It was also hula that taught me the history of our female gods, including Haumea, goddess of childbirth, war, and politics. I truly believe that this early understanding—an understanding that came from these powerful female ancestors—largely contributed to my spiritual and mental health and overall well-being.

What are some ways you stay in contact with your culture while living in Washington, D.C.?

I strive to cultivate and embody the values of the Hawaiian community in my everyday life:

Kuleana, to view your responsibilities as a privilege and honor, to accept responsibility as a duty, not in pursuit of reward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Haʻahaʻa, to be unpretentious and to exude a sense of humility. The word can also be used to describe a degrading and lowly state, but this is not an expression of the value. As a value, ha‘aha‘a is a sign of strength through humility.

Hoʻomau, to having perseverance and endurance. To be unceasing and committed to achieving a goal or completing a difficult task.

What message would you like to share with the Hawaiian youth who may be interested in coming to Washington to live?

Our aliʻi (monarchy) and appointed representatives conducted numerous diplomatic missions to Washington. Princess Kaʻiulani (1873–99) was only 17 years old when she left school in England to travel here to meet with federal officials to prevent the passage of the Annexation Treaty. Prior to her departure, the princess outlined her purpose: to plead for my throne, my nation, and my flag. After meeting with Kaʻiulani, President Grover Cleveland removed the treaty from consideration, although it was ultimately adopted by his successor.

Much has changed since then, but the importance of our presence here remains. As laws are being crafted and implemented every day, we cannot assume that our leaders, even those in the highest positions of authority, have had the opportunity to learn and understand the unique history of Native Hawaiians. It is important that we are here to ensure that the contributions of Native Hawaiians, as well as our unique challenges, are kept at the forefront.

Thank you.

Thank you.


Photos courtesy of Catelin Kawahinekoa Aiwohi.

To read interviews in the museum's series about Native elected leaders, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.

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