The Meaning Behind “He Hawaiʻi Au”: An Exploration of Native Hawaiian Youth Identity Formation and Activist Involvement


By Kelly Lehua

I’m sitting in one of the plastic chairs in our Thursday Youth Cultures work group. I had decided to shake it up a little bit today by sitting on the other side of the room today. I was feeling dangerous, young, and alive.

We were discussing the state of youths in today’s society. Listening to other people’s comments, I got that itching in my finger and up it went. Taking a deep breath in preparation to drop some major knowledge, I chimed in with a Hawaiʻi-related comment. I spoke with confidence because I knew what I was talking about. After I had finished talking, I remember the room being silent for a second. It was just enough time for me to start feeling a little uncomfortable when Yatun, my Youth Cultures instructor, looked me dead in the eye and said in her ever-calm voice, “You’re an activist.”

In that moment, you could have told me that I was the next Miss USA and I would have believed it more. I was absolutely floored.

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Why does she think I’m an activist?’ I thought. ‘Yeah, I talk about Hawaiʻi a lot in class, but that doesnʻt make me an activist.’ I remember nodding to her blankly and the discussion carrying on as I stayed stuck, replaying that moment in my mind for the rest of class.

I don’t think Yatun meant to change my perspective with that simple statement, but she did. As dramatic as it sounds, that moment made me question my whole life. Actions that I had thought of as normal and commonplace for a young Hawaiian made me as an activist? The thought was bizarre to me and it got me thinking. What is an activist and am I one as Yatun says I am? Why do I feel so weird about being labeled as an activist and my work as activism? With these curiosities driving me, I created a single central research question: In what ways do kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) youth participate in activism surrounding Native Hawaiian issues and why?

[If you want to know why – have a look at this! But first read this. Or jump to the actual essay straight away.]