I grew up very proud of my Hawaiian heritage. I loved listening to stories about my dad and his siblings who participated in the Hawaiian renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s. As Native Hawaiians, they joined the movement to reconnect with our lost Hawaiian culture. They attended a halau, which is a traditional school for teaching hula. Then, they performed shows around Southern California and Hawaii, sharing songs and dances from different Pacific Islands.
As an adult, I have realized that there are many misconceptions about Hawaiians, Polynesians, and Pacific Islanders. While each group is unique, there are also many areas of overlap. On my Instagram account, I share lots of information in my stories to help educate others about the rich heritage of Pacific Islanders. In this post, I share a few fun facts in honor of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month.
1. Who are Pacific Islanders?
Pacific Islanders are the Indigenous people from the regions of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. In fact, the Pacific Island group includes more than 20 individual islands. According to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, approximately 1.4 million people identify as Pacific Islanders. This represents 0.4 percent of the U.S. population. Pasifika is another term for Pacific Islanders from Oceania.
Worldwide, the WHO estimates that about 6.6 million people reside in the Pacific Islands. However, not everyone is an Indigenous Pacific Islander. Contact with Christian missionaries in the early 1800s led to colonization by countries including United States, Britain and France. As a result, many Americans and Europeans also inhabit the islands.
This is also why many Pacific Islanders speak multiple languages. For example, in French Polynesia, French is the official language. But, many people speak Tahitian at home, and many learn English as well. Hawaii has three official languages: English, ‘Olelo Hawaiian, and an English-based Creole called Pidgin.
2. Not All Pacific Islands Are Warm Tropics
Pacific Island climates range from tropical to subtropical to temperate. Some islands even span more than one climate. For example, the Hawaiian islands include several climate zones. They range from humid tropical to alpine!
As another example, much of New Zealand enjoys a temperate climate with average temperatures between 50℉ and 70℉ (10℃ and 20℃). However, inland alpine areas of the South Island experience below-freezing temperatures and snow. This is one reason why New Zealand was chosen as the filming location for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
3. Easter Island
Rapa Nui, commonly known as Easter Island, is particularly fascinating. The name comes from Dutch explorers who made contact with the island on Easter Sunday in 1722.
However, most people know about it because of its giant statues. Until recently, the giant statues, called moai, were believed to be just heads. But, archaeologists discovered that many of the heads are actually attached to full bodies. These bodies are buried underground, perhaps as a result of shifting soils.
Interestingly, Rapa Nui is the only Pacific Island controlled by a Latin American country. Disease and enslavement nearly wiped out the original Indigenous people. Chile then annexed the island in 1888. Even today, about ⅓ of the island’s small population is Chilean.
4. Polynesian Wayfinders
In 1973, a group of Hawaiian researchers set out to prove that Polynesian seafaring theories were correct. So, they built a ship without navigational instruments. Then, they steered it using traditional methods.
Their first vessel, the Hokule’a, launched in 1975. It sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti and back. This proved that the Polynesian people could navigate purposefully. They were not simply driven by currents, happening upon other islands accidentally.
Since then, the Hokule’a completed a 3-year 47,000 nautical mile trek around the globe. It returned to Hawaii in 2017 after making stops at 85 ports in 26 countries.
5. Polynesians and Native Americans
There is also an interesting relationship between Polynesians and Native Americans. Previously, agriculturists thought sweet potatoes were found only in North America. However, sweet potatoes grow in Polynesia, too. This prompted researchers to examine how this happened. Since there are thousands of miles between them, most people assumed they could not have had contact with each other.
However, a genetic study, published in 2020 by Stanford, offered new insights. The results confirmed that Polynesians and Native Americans had contact with one another prior to the arrival of Europeans. In fact, the study showed the contact occurred in 1200AD, during the Middle Ages! Some continue to argue that the sweet potatoes found on the islands and the mainland are two different varieties. But, this has never been proven.
Hopefully, I have inspired you to conduct more research into the Pacific Islands and their people. Although small in population, we have a rich cultural heritage that is enjoying a revival period. Moreover, many of us are now sharing our traditions and histories. Here are more specific suggestions:
Learn about Micronesia and Melanesia
Learn about Polynesian Wayfinding
Polynesian wayfinding, navigation techniques, and shipbuilding are also incredibly interesting. Plus, it’s a great way to learn about geography, social studies, and science all in one. I have compiled several different wayfinding activities into a single resource. It can be found here.
Learn about Hawaiian culture
You can learn more about Hawaii with this virtual field trip. It explores all aspects of Hawaiian culture, including dance, food, and language.