Pacific Islander Americans

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Author: Liz Swain
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 6,703 words
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Pacific Islander Americans

Liz Swain


Pacific Islander Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from the Pacific Islands region of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Islands, which lie east of the Philippines and north and east of Australia, consist of 25,000 islands, crescent-shaped atolls, coral reefs, and tiny islets in about 11 million square miles (28.5 million square kilometers) of ocean. The entire region is called Oceania and includes Australia and the large island nation of New Zealand. Six to ten thousand of the islands are inhabited, and there are twenty-two countries and territories in the region, each consisting of one or more clusters of islands or archipelagos. The countries of the Pacific Islands are divided into three cultural/geographic subregions: Melanesia, the area geographically closest to Australia; Micronesia, which is north of Melanesia and east of the Philippines; and Polynesia, a triangle that lies to the east of these. Most of the islands in the region are between 4 and 4,000 square miles in land surface area. The entire region's area of 11 million square miles is twenty times the size of Alaska.

The population of the Pacific Islands, not including Hawaii, was estimated to be just over 10 million in 2011, according to Secretariat of the Pacific Community. The U.S. Census estimated Hawaii's population in 2012 to be 1.39 million, about 10 percent of whom were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The subregion with the largest population in 2010 was Melanesia, with 8.8 million, 70 percent of whom lived in Papua New Guinea. The population of Micronesia in 2010 was approximately 546,000, with 106,000 living in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), 187,140 living on Guam, 54,439 in the Marshall Islands, about 63,000 in the Northern Mariana Islands, and 20,518 in the Palau Islands. Polynesia, not including Hawaii, had a population of 668,000 in 2010, with the most populated island groups being French Polynesia (268,767), Tonga (103,365), Samoa (183,123), and American Samoa (65,896). The Pacific Islands are ethnically and religiously diverse, and religious affiliation there depends in large part on the extent of the islanders' contact with foreign cultures. For example, in Micronesia, many people living on Guam and the other Marianas Islands are Catholic, due to contact with the Spanish. In Fiji, which is part of Melanesia, there are significant numbers of Hindus and Muslims because the British sent Asian Indians there as contract laborers. In Polynesia, Tonga has significant Mormon population, and many Samoans belong to the Congregational Christian Church. For the most part, Pacific Islanders live in subsistence economies that offer little potential for economic mobility.

The first Pacific Islanders in the Americas were most likely seafaring Polynesian explorers who arrived in various places along the North and South American Pacific coast hundreds of years before the first Europeans came to the New World, as well as hundreds of years before Europeans invaded the Pacific Islands. Large groups of Pacific Islanders came under U.S. authority through the process of colonization. By the end of the eighteenth century, all of the South Pacific Islands—except for Tonga, which was never formally colonized—had come under the control either of Japan or one of the European powers, and by the latter 1800s, U.S. interests in the South Pacific had increased, partly due to conflict with Spain. When the United States won the Spanish American War in 1898, Spain ceded Guam and the Philippines to the United States, and the United States annexed the independent nation of Hawaii. At the time of annexation, there were some 40,000 indigenous Hawaiians and another 7,500 non-Hawaiians living in the Hawaiian Islands, according to a census taken in the islands in 1890. Apart from the early explorers, the first individual Pacific Islanders known to have come to the mainland United States arrived in California and New England aboard whaling ships in the 1800s. Missionary activity also brought individual Pacific Islanders to the United States, beginning in 1924 when the Mormons set up missions in Tonga. Despite U.S. involvement in the region, significant immigration to the United States did not begin until after World War II. One of the first significant migrations was of Samoans who had been employed at the naval base on American Samoa, which closed in 1951, destabilizing the territory's economy. The people of Page 402  |  Top of ArticleGuam were also made U.S. citizens in 1950, which included unrestricted entry to the United States.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there were 1.2 million Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders in the United States. The six-largest Pacific Islander American ethnicities were, in order: Native Hawaiian (527,077), Samoan (184,440), Guamanian or Chamorro (147,798), Tongan (57,183), Fijian (32,304), and Marshallese (22,434). Native Hawaiians are an indigenous minority group that has a “special trust relationship” with the United States, similar to other Native Americans and Native Alaskans. As the census methodology changed to account for multiracial identity, the count of Pacific Islanders greatly increased. For instance, from 1990 to 2000, the number of Pacific Islanders who reported being “Pacific Islander alone” decreased by 6 percent; however, when Pacific Islander alone or in combination with any other race or ethnicity is counted, the number of Pacific Islanders increased 71 percent. In the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly half of Pacific Islander Americans reported being multiracial, the highest percentage of any racial/ethnic group. Over half (52 percent) of the Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone-or-in-combination population lived in the states of Hawaii (356,000) and California (286,000). Together with Hawaii and California, the states of Washington (70,000), Texas (48,000), Florida (40,000), Utah (37,000), New York (36,000), Nevada (33,000), Oregon (26,000), and Arizona (25,000) accounted for over three-fourths of the Pacific Islander American community.


Early History Archeological evidence suggests that the Papuan-speaking people of the island of New Guinea are descendants of travelers who settled there over 40,000 years ago. Additional evidence compiled by scholars working in various fields including linguistics, ethnography, and anthropology indicates that as far back as 3,500 years ago, the early inhabitants of New Guinea had established a complex set of relationships with Austronesian-speaking people (travelers from Taiwan, Malay, Indonesia, and other points in Southeast Asia) who visited the island. Findings from 1950 at Lapita Beach on the island of New Caledonia (in the eastern part of Melanesia) have led scholars to believe that the Austronesian-speaking people mixed with the Papuans, and this racially mixed group is believed to have migrated as far east as Fiji and the outer islands of Melanesia. The people who traveled through New Guinea and to points east have been called Lapita. Their descendants are what we now call Polynesians. According to archaeologists, Lapita from Tonga and Samoa settled the Marquesas Islands 2,000 years ago. Artifacts found on the Society Islands indicate that Polynesians settled in Tahiti around 850 CE.

The Lapita sailed in massive double-hulled canoes that held up to two hundred people. With no navigation instruments, these ancestors of modern Polynesians relied on wayfinding, the use of nature to navigate. The navigational course was determined by observing the stars, the sun, the wave currents, and the flight pattern of birds. The Lapita/Polynesians lived on the coasts of small islands, and when they traveled to settle a new island they brought with them everything they would need, including seed plants, domesticated animals, and tools for fishing and hunting. Polynesians established a hierarchical social structure in which children inherited their father's power and social status. A chief and his descendants ruled a territory that ranged in size from a village to a region. Within the hierarchical governing system were power struggles. These struggles sometimes resulted in war, forcing islanders to flee and settle other islands.

Spain and Portugal, vying for control of sea routes to Asia, were the first European countries to send explorers through the Pacific Islands. Spain became the first European country to colonize islands in what became known as Micronesia when, in 1565, it claimed Guam, the Mariana Islands, the Carolines, and the Philippines. A century later, Spanish Jesuits forced the conversion of the population, whose resistance was quelled by Spanish soldiers. Over the next centuries, Britain, Holland, France, Japan, Germany, and the United States would compete for control of the Pacific Islands region.

Dutch navigators Jakob LeMaire and Abel Tasman were the first Europeans to report seeing Tongan and Fijian islands in the first half of the seventeenth century. European exploration of the islands continued through the eighteenth century. English captain Samuel Wallis reached Tahiti in 1767 and claimed it for England. A year later, French explorer Louis de Bougainville landed in Tahiti. He did not realize Wallis had been there and claimed the land for his country. In 1774 British captain James Cook sailed through the islands. Cook first encountered what he named the “Sandwich Islands” (now the Hawaiian islands) in 1778. It is estimated that at that time, there were 400,000 to 800,000 indigenous people on the islands; due to diseases introduced by Europeans, less than 40,000 were there one hundred years later. Cook was followed by many explorers and traders, including British Captain William Bligh, whose failed attempt in 1789 to attain breadfruits led to the infamous mutiny on his ship, The Bounty.

The Pacific Islands region is a breeding ground for many species of whales, and whales have been both an important part of Pacific Island culture as well as a draw for European and American whale hunters. Thousands of sperm and humpback whales were killed by sail whalers beginning in the late 1700s. Commercial whaling greatly expanded in the 1800s, due in part to industrial ship building and advances in processing. New England, particularly Massachusetts, was a center of the whaling industry, with hundreds of whaling ships embarking each year to the Pacific Islands region. The ships often stopped in the islands Page 403  |  Top of Articleto stock provisions and gather new crew members. In 1824, for instance, more than 100 ships stopped in Polynesian ports; by the peak year, 1846, more than 700 whalers stopped in Hawaii. The impact on the people and economy of the Pacific Islands was profound. The Native Hawaiians began to produce food the American sailors wanted (potatoes and beef) and were exposed to foreign cultures and diseases.

Christian missionaries brought more change to the islands. In 1797, members of the London Missionary Society settled in Tonga and Tahiti. The missionaries eventually succeeded in converting Tahitians, but they left Tonga in 1799. Catholic and Wesleyan missionaries also attempted to convert the Pacific Islanders. Wesleyan ministers succeeded in converting Tonga to Christianity. In the nineteenth century members of the islands' royalty converted. Fijian king Cokobau, for instance, converted to Christianity in 1854.

Modern Era France gained control of Tahiti in 1842 and made it a French colony in 1880. Fiji was colonized by England in 1874, while Tonga remained an independent kingdom. The colonization of the South Pacific devastated the region's peoples. Populations were killed by conquest, disease, and ignorance. The islands were used as penal colonies and to test nuclear weapons, and they were also the sites of battles between foreign nations. The three years of fighting between the United States and Japan, beginning with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, took place largely in the Pacific Islands region, on Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati), the Marianas, the Carolines and many other islands and atolls. Between 1946 and 1962 the United States conducted nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands and other locations in the South Pacific, as did the French, who conducted at least forty-one nuclear weapons tests on atolls in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1974.

Yet the story of the Pacific Islands since World War II is one of growing political independence. In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific Island to attain independence in the twentieth century. Tonga and Fiji gained independence (from Britain) in 1970. Later in the 1970s, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati attained independence. In the 1980s and 1990s, three independent countries entered into a Compact of Free Association with the United States, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and in 1994, Palau.

In 1995–1996, the French conducted more nuclear tests on the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia, but abandoned them amid widespread protests. At the end of the twentieth century, the U.S. military bases in the Pacific Islands, in the Marshall Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii were still major factors in the islands' economies. Widespread unemployment, overfishing, and dependence on U.S. aid were major issues. During the early part of the twenty-first century, the effects of climate change, particularly the warming of the oceans and intensifying weather patterns, were beginning to be felt and anticipated in the Pacific Island region. Scientists confirmed that equatorial fish were migrating to cooler waters, and they predicted that higher levels of rainfall may create increased habitat for freshwater fish. In countries such as Kiribati, where 40 percent of gross national product in 2010 was related to the fishing industry, preparing for these changes was a profound challenge.


The U.S. Census category “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” was added in 2000. However, historical accounts and church records provide some description of migration and settlement patterns up until the government began documenting Pacific Islander immigration to the United States.

There is good evidence based on sweet potato and chicken bone DNA, linguistic analysis, and sewn plank boat findings that the first Pacific Islanders to come to the American continents were seafaring Polynesians who made multiple landfalls, some in southern California, well before Columbus. There is also abundant evidence of Pacific Islanders on the mainland in California during the gold mining era, and New England during the height of the whaling industry. As early as the 1830s, Polynesians, referred to as “Kanaka” (the Hawaiian word for “man”) who boarded whaling and other trade ships as crew members disembarked and remained in California. At least six different mining towns in California were named “Kanaka Bar” after the Hawaiians. Due to discrimination, most did not stay past the 1880s; however, some moved up to Oregon and Washington, married Native American women, and worked primarily in the salmon fishing industry. It was unlawful for Pacific Islanders to marry white women in Washington and Oregon, but Native Americans did not have the same prejudice and some of the Hawaiians and their descendants became leaders of various tribes. Statistics indicate that Hawaiians were among the top three contributors to the Northwest Coast Indian gene pool, and it was estimated by a French priest that there were 500 Hawaiians living on the Northwest coast in 1842.

In 1809, twenty-year-old Henry Ōpūkaha'ia arrived in Massachusetts from Hawaii aboard a seal-trading ship. He was one of the early converts to Christianity and began the work of giving his native language an orthography. Ōpūkaha'ia wanted to travel back to Hawaii with other missionaries but died before he was able to. He and other Pacific Islanders and Native Americans were instrumental in the founding of the Foreign Mission School in 1816, administered from Boston by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). During its ten years, about 100 students attended: “43 Native Americans, 13 Americans (white), and 20 Hawaiians, and other natives of the Pacific, including 2 Chinese” (Sydney K. Mitchell, Phases of the History of Cornwall, 1939).

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According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the first Pacific Islanders granted legal permanent resident status were French Polynesians in 1843 and Fijians in 1874. The next small wave of immigration was from Micronesia and Melanesia immediately after World War II, followed by larger numbers of Polynesians from Samoa and Tonga in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Many Samoans had been recruited into the U.S. military and later immigrated to the United States seeking jobs and education. They largely settled in the urban areas of California. By 2000 there were 50,000 Samoans in Los Angeles County alone.

A number of Pacific Islanders began to migrate when the Mormon Church sent students to Hawaii for higher education, and then to the United States, particularly to Utah. From 1889 to 1917, hundreds of Pacific Islander converts to Mormonism were brought to Utah, where they founded the tiny village of Iosepa in the remote Skull Valley, about 75 miles southwest of the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City. Although almost all of the Iosepa immigrants returned to the islands by 1917, Pacific Islanders continued to come to Utah to be close to the Mormon church, and non-Mormons came to be near relatives who had already made the move. Pacific Islanders were also attracted to Utah by the promises of economic opportunities and better educations for their children. By 1990 there were 7,700 Pacific Islanders living in Utah, according to a state report. Life in dry, cold, landlocked Utah was a struggle. About half of Utah's Polynesian families were living below the poverty line in 2000, with many parents working long hours at menial, low-paying jobs. The immigrants' children, caught between two cultures, were overrepresented in gangs and dropped out of high school at twice the rate of Utah's white students. Still, Pacific Islanders continued to come to Utah. By 2010 there were 37,000 Pacific Islander Americans in Utah.

Waves of Pacific Islanders continued to arrive in other areas of the United States as well. During the 1970s, Fijian immigration to the United States ranged from 132 admissions in 1976 to 1,000 in 1979. The record year for French Polynesian migration was 1975, when 47 people were admitted. Tongan immigration ranged from 133 admissions in 1976 to 809 in 1979. Fijian migration jumped during the 1980s, when admission ranged from 712 people in 1983 to 1,205 in 1987. French Polynesian immigration ranged from 19 admissions in 1986 to 59 in 1984.

In 1996 a record 1,847 Fijians immigrated to the United States. The record year for the other groups was 1991, when 1,685 Tongans and 31 French Polynesians entered. During 1997, admission was granted to 1,549 Fijians, 21 French Polynesians, and 303 Tongans. Also during the 1990s, the cost of living in Hawaii increased due to the growing tourism, and many Native Hawaiians moved to the mainland. By 2010 there were more Native Hawaiians living in Page 405  |  Top of Articlethe mainland United States, mostly California, than in Hawaii. Other states in which significant numbers of Pacific Islanders live are Arizona, Florida, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, and Washington.


With over one thousand distinct indigenous languages, the Pacific Island region hosts the highest ratio of languages per population of any region in the world. French and English are also widely used, with English often the language of school instruction. It is not unusual for people to speak several languages. The indigenous languages spoken by Pacific Islanders are descendants of two language groups, the Austronesian and Papuan, although there are so many Papuan languages that cannot be shown to be linguistically connected that they may best be referred to as “Non-Austonesian.” For instance, 500 different languages are spoken in the interior of Papua New Guinea. On the coastal areas of Papua New Guinea and near islands offshore, there are 220 different Austronesian languages spoken. The 30 different Polynesian languages are all part of the Austronesian family, about half of these are spoken outside of Polynesia on small islands in Micronesia and Melanesia. Polynesian, American, and European missionaries developed written forms of Pacific Islander languages that were previously nonexistent in the predominantly oral culture.

In 1990, 25 percent of Pacific Islander Americans spoke their native language at home, and 11 percent were linguistically isolated, meaning no one in the family over fourteen years old spoke only English or spoke English very well. Among these, Tongans were by far the most likely, 72 percent, to speak their native language at home, and 21 percent were linguistically isolated. Only 8 percent of Native Hawaiians spoke Hawaiian at home. In 1990, 33 percent of Pacific Islander Americans judged themselves as not speaking English very well. As might be expected, people over the age of sixty-five had the least English proficiency. In 2000 nearly 30 percent of elder Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders did not speak English as their first language, and 28 percent reported not speaking English at all or not proficiently. By 2010 less than 9 percent of Pacific Islander Americans said they did not speak English very well, though about the same percentage spoke their native language at home. In 2010 there were at least 39 different Pacific Islander languages spoken in homes in the United States.


The religious practices of Pacific Islander Americans reflect blends of the missionary activity on their home islands with indigenous cultural beliefs and practices. Polynesian indigenous religion was not separate from culture, and even when Christianity was accepted, Polynesian culture was retained and incorporated into religious practice. Polynesian religious culture emphasizes beauty, reciprocity with the material universe, the basic goodness of humans, and the fundamental importance of family, clan, and community. Christian missionaries to the Pacific Islands preceded political colonization, cooperated with colonization, and sometimes supported the post–World War II independence movements. The Protestant churches trained indigenous leaders for self-sustaining island ministries, and many of Pacific Islander American religious leaders were trained in their home countries. Each of the twenty-two countries of the Pacific Islands has its own particular religious history and tradition. Among the Christian missionaries who worked in the Pacific Islands were Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, French Reformed, Lutherans, and Seventh-day Adventists. For instance, Guam and the Federated States of Micronesia are predominately Roman Catholic, while the Marshall Islands, also in Micronesia, are predominately Protestant, with only 8.9 percent Roman Catholic.

Polynesian indigenous religion was not separate from culture, and even when Christianity was accepted, Polynesian culture was retained and incorporated into religious practice. Polynesian religious culture emphasizes beauty, reciprocity with the material universe, the basic goodness of humans, and the fundamental importance of family, clan, and community.

In 2012 the San Francisco Bay Area had over a hundred Christian congregations of Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians. The denominations include Assemblies of God, Congregationalist, Methodist, Adventist, and Roman Catholic. In 2012 the United Methodists adopted a comprehensive plan for Pacific Islander ministries in the United States.

Roman Catholic Samoans in the Los Angeles area also combined their island traditions with Catholicism. Because of their sense of community, different parishes come together to celebrate in the Samoan language. Christmas, Easter, and patron feast days are celebrated in uniquely Samoan ways: people wear native costumes, and a lei may be draped around the Bible when it is placed on the pulpit.


With all their diverse ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, most Pacific Islander Americans from the Austronesian/Polynesian cultures share values that include deference to the authority of elders, appreciation for reciprocal labor and time, and appreciation of communal and family connection and responsibility. The family extends to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives, as well as the community. Family members looked after one another, respected their elders, and shared with Page 406  |  Top of Articlethe community. Their history and traditions were relayed through songs, dance, poems, and stories.

For Pacific Islanders, language is both a cultural heritage in which history and tradition are relayed and also a barrier to adjusting to life in the United States. A limited knowledge of English has caused difficulties for islanders seeking housing, employment, health care, and legal representation. Although Pacific Islanders sometimes face intimidating challenges to assimilation, their cultural concept of community provides valuable support. For instance, family members can be relied upon to help find housing and work, and, just as their home villages were organized to support the community members, Pacific Islanders in the United States formed organizations such as the Utah Office of Polynesian Affairs and other religious and self-help groups to give assistance.

Dances and Songs One of the shared cultural aspects of Pacific Islanders is the expression through songs and dance of origins, journeys, connection to the spiritual world, and major life events. New songs and chants may be created for occasions such as the birth of a child. For Pacific Islander American religious congregations and other cultural organizations, the performance of songs and dances is a central activity. Musicians play the guitar and traditional Polynesian instruments like the pahu (a wood drum), ukulele, uli uli (small gourds), ipu (larger gourds), puili (split bamboo). In traditional Polynesian culture, drums hold sacred power and have important cultural/religious

A Pacific Islander woman stands in the doorway of a traditional grass hut in a tourism photo. A Pacific Islander woman stands in the doorway of a traditional grass hut in a tourism photo. KEVIN FLEMING / CORBIS

uses. In Tahiti and Melanesia, drums made out of hollowed logs are used. Drums in the Pacific Islands tend to have only one playing head, often made from fish, shark, or lizard skin. Hourglass shapes are common in Melanesia, and cylindrical types are widespread in Polynesia. The Hawaiian ceremonial Mele Hula dances utilize two drums: the larger pahu hula of wood, played with the hands, and the smaller pūniu made from a coconut shell, played with a braided fiber “stick.” Although other instruments are also used, the drums are reserved for the most important dances.

Traditional Dress Like song and dance, Pacific Islander dress carries a lot of cultural tradition and is particular to each island's heritage. In Tahiti, people wear a tiare (a hibiscus blossom) behind one ear. A flower worn behind the right ear means the man or woman is available. When placed behind the left ear, the wearer is spoken for. The tiare is also added to a crown of braided palm fronds and greenery. Fijian dancers wear skirts of shredded leaves and paint their faces for war dances.

Cuisine While language and traditions changed as Polynesians migrated to other islands, many Pacific Islanders still hold communal feasts. In an outdoor pit that Tongans and Hawaiians call an umu (“oo-moo”), food is roasted/steamed wrapped in taro or banana leaves or in aluminum foil. Chicken, fish, pork, sweet potatoes, and taro (a starchy tuber) may all be cooked in the umu.

Pacific Islander cuisine includes numerous types of fish, breadfruit, cassava (a starchy plant), sweet potatoes, and fresh fruit such as bananas and coconut. Corned beef is also popular, and in Tonga it is cooked with taro leaves. Tongans also combine taro with other meats or serve it with onions or coconut milk. A favorite Tahitian dessert is gateau a la banane (“ga-tow a la bah-nan”), which is French for banana cake.

Kava (pronounced “kah-vah”), a nonalcoholic drink made from the ground root of the pepper shrub, is a ceremonial beverage throughout the Pacific Islands, and particularly among Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians. Called yaqona (“yanggona”) in Fiji, the mildly intoxicating beverage is consumed during important occasions such as births, weddings, deaths, and the arrival of a dignitary. Kava is also drunk socially. Etiquette requires visitors to Fijian villages to bring it to the chief.

Holidays Most Pacific Islander Americans celebrate Christian holidays, including Christmas and Easter. Tahitian Americans in the United States may also observe the French Polynesian celebration of Bastille Day on July 14. This date is known as France's independence day in French-speaking countries. July 4 is celebrated by Tongan Americans as King Taufa 'ahau Tupou IV's birthday and a national holiday.

Health Issues For centuries, Pacific Islanders regarded obesity as a sign of wealth or nobility. Such Page 407  |  Top of Articleexcess weight can lead to diabetes. Hypertension is another concern for Pacific Islanders. A 1998 California Department of Health Services report indicated that Pacific Islanders living in the state were “less likely to be aware of their hypertension [or] to be under treatment with medication” than people from other ethnic groups. The report concluded that Asians and Pacific Islanders were likely to rely on traditional remedies, perhaps because of the lack of health care providers of from their ethnic background.

Pacific Islanders face other health issues. Pacific Islander Americans have the highest mortality rates for most cancers and incidences of chronic diseases, smoking, and binge and chronic drinking. In addition, they have the lowest rates for prenatal care and immunization of children.


Among Pacific Islanders, ancestry determines a large part of an individual's identity. Pacific Islanders trace their genealogical roots and relationships with others as a way of developing personal and community identity. The Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, tells the story of the world's creation and also the genealogy of the Hawaiian royal families. Through such chants, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander ethnic groups establish the importance of ancestry to present identity. However, genealogy and ancestry are much more than genetic relationships; people who come into a Pacific Islander community through adoption or marriage take on the cultural characteristics of the adopting family and are recognized as kin.

Pacific Islander children are taught they are part of an extended family, one that works together for the good of the community. Tongans call this nofo a'kainga, which means “everyone counts on one another.” The Samoan word for extended family is aiga. Immigrants may rely on their extended family for social and economic support. Events such as marriages, funerals, and births call for the extended family's participation. Among Pacific Islanders, it is common to make long visits to family members, during which the visitors are expected to consider themselves at home.

Gender Roles Gender roles and relations vary widely in Pacific Islander communities; however, all have been affected by the disruption of traditional societies by colonization and by increasing urbanization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Colonial governments and the effects of some Christian missionaries exacerbated inequalities between women and men, particularly in relation to land ownership, decision-making, and governance. In some areas of the Pacific Islands, land ownership, decision-making, and governance were traditionally matrilineal. In Guam, even though matrilineage was abolished by American rule, Chamorro women have continued to hold positions of authority as

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The whaling community of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, has a history of Pacific Islander crewmen who settled in their community. The 1840 and 1850 U.S. Census counted, respectively, 793 and 593 “non-resident mariners or seamen,” many of whom were Pacific Islander. A boardinghouse in those years in Nantucket's New Guinea section (the African American neighborhood), had a sign reading “WILLIAM WHIPPY CANACKA BOARDINGHOUSE,” Canacka being a variation of kanaka, the Hawaiian word for “man.” The character of the harpooner Queequeg in Herman Melville's renowned 1851 novel Moby-Dick is based on such Pacific Islander mariners. A native of a fictional South Pacific island, Queequeg meets the narrator in Nantucket before they set out to sea on a whaling ship.

guardians of kinship knowledge. In the United States, Pacific Islander American women are more likely than other American women to work outside the home and also to have unusually high risk factors for cardio-vascular disease and cancer. Among Native Hawaiian women, there are multiple stress factors, such as high divorce rates, single-parenting, low income, and high mortality. At the same time, Native Hawaiian women are inheritors of a culture with female cosmic forces and with chiefly women claimed as genealogical ancestors.

Education There is almost universal literacy in the Pacific Islands (except in Papua New Guinea, where the literacy rate is about 57 percent), and a higher percentage of Pacific Islander Americans graduate from high school (88 percent) than Americans overall (85 percent). Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, significantly lower percentages of Pacific Islander Americans completed a bachelor's degree or higher. In 2010, 5 percent of Pacific Islander Americans had a graduate or professional degree, compared with 10 percent of Americans overall. In 2008 Washington State, where Pacific Islanders made up 0.4 percent of the population, published an impressive report on Pacific Islander student achievement. The researchers found that, even though students and their parents expected the students to attend college, a high percentage of students did not graduate with the degrees they hoped for.


Pacific Islanders have the highest percentages of population in the workforce of any ethnic group in the United States, with about 70 percent of those aged sixteen or older in the workforce. Pacific Islander women, are also more likely to be in the workforce (66 percent) than all American women (59 percent). Page 408  |  Top of ArticleHowever, in 2010, Pacific Islander Americans were also more likely to be unemployed (10.4 percent) than Americans overall (7.9 percent). Pacific Islander Americans are almost three times more likely to serve in the military (1.5 percent) than other Americans (0.5 percent); they were somewhat more likely to be in service occupations; and they were less likely to be in management jobs than other Americans. Although compared to other Americans, there were lower percentages of individual Pacific Islander Americans at the lowest earnings levels, Pacific American families were not as well off. Analysis showed that Pacific Islanders lived in larger households than the American average, with wage earners supporting more people.


In 2010 over 25 percent of Pacific Islander Americans were foreign-born or born in an island territory of the United States. As with other communities with large numbers of new immigrants, politics in the home country are typically more engaging than politics in the United States. The Los Angeles Times noted in a 2000 article, “Samoan Americans at Crossroads,” that “Many older people born on the islands remain registered to vote there, often by absentee ballot, which has stymied efforts to win political power in Carson. Candidates for the governorship of American Samoa regularly campaign in Carson, but no person of Samoan ancestry has ever served on the Carson City Council.” In the early twenty-first century, the U.S. government's practice of categorizing Asian Americans along with Pacific Islander Americans was beginning to be challenged. Pacific Islanders' unique contributions and strength, as well as their challenges, were obscured by this practice.


Academics Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo'ole Osorio is professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a historian of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and a practicing musician and composer. He writes about the sovereignty movement in Hawaii.

Haunani-Kay Trask (1949–), born in the San Francisco Bay Area, is a Native Hawaiian academic, activist, and writer. Trask is a professor of Hawaiian studies with the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and has represented Native Hawaiians in the United Nations and various other global forums. She is the author of several books of poetry and nonfiction.

Activism William P. Afeaki is a Tongan American lawyer and director of the Utah Office of Pacific Islander Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed to the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by President George W. Bush.

Politicians Daniel Kahikina Akaka (1924–), born in Honolulu, was the first Native Hawaiian United States senator; he served in the U.S. Senate from 1990 to 2013.

Eni Fa'aua'a Hunkin Faleomavaega Jr. (1943–) was born in American Samoa and educated at the University of Houston and the University of Hawaii.

Pacific Islander Americans Sione Pouha, New York Jets; Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh Steelers; Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin, American Samoa Congressman; Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins; Maake Kemoeatu, Washington Redskins at a public appearance for the 2011 USA Pacific Islander Americans Sione Pouha, New York Jets; Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh Steelers; Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin, American Samoa Congressman; Paul Soliai, Miami Dolphins; Maake Kemoeatu, Washington Redskins at a public appearance for the 2011 USA Seven. EVERETT / PHOTOSHOT

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He is the non-voting delegate to the United States House of Representatives from American Samoa's at-large congressional district.

A. P. Lutali (Aifili Paulo Lauvao; 1919–2002) was twice elected governor of American Samoa, in 1984 and 1992. He was a founder of the American Samoa Bar Association and the U.S. commonwealth's Democratic Party.

Stage and Screen Dwayne Johnson (1972–), better known as “The Rock,” is a former football player and wrestler turned actor. He was born in California to Samoan and Canadian parents and grew up partly in New Zealand and Hawaii. After a long wrestling career, Johnson began acting on television and in films, starring in Hollywood action blockbusters such as The Scorpion King (2002) and Faster (2010).

Joseph Jason Namakaeha Momoa (1979–), an actor born in Honolulu and raised in Iowa, starred first in the TV show Baywatch and then broke out as the star of the remake of Conan the Barbarian (2011) and as a key character in the hit television show Game of Thrones. He and actress Lisa Bonet are the parents of two children.


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Asian Pacific American Law Journal

Run by students at the UCLA School of Law, the journal seeks to facilitate discourse on issues affecting South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the United States.

Box 951476
UCLA School of Law
Room 2416
Los Angeles, California 90095-1476
Phone: (310) 206-2201
Fax: (310) 206-6489


This news magazine, published by the University of California–Berkeley, is created by students and focuses on Asian Pacific American issues.

University of California
112 Hearst Gym
MC 4520
Berkeley, California 94720-4500


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KPOP-AM (1360)

“Ports of Paradise” is a weekly syndicated one-hour radio program featuring South Seas music from the 1920s to the present. Syndicated broadcasts are heard in: Albany, New York, on WLAL-AM (1190); Las Vegas, Nevada, on KLAV-AM (1230); and Anchorage, Alaska, on KKHAR-AM (590).

J. Hal Hodgson, Executive Producer
P.O. Box 33648
San Diego, California 92163
Phone: (619) 275-7357


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The Pacific American Foundation

The foundation was established in 1993 as a national organization dedicated to improving Pacific Islanders' lives by helping them to help themselves. The foundation educates and provides information to decision-makers and leaders about areas of public concern and policies that affect Americans who trace their ancestry to the Pacific Islands.

45-285 Kaneohe Bay Drive, #102
Kaneohe, Hawaii 96744-2366
Phone: (808) 664-3027
Fax: (808) 212-9509

Pacific Islanders' Cultural Association

Supports Pacific Islanders in Northern California. Includes information on all Pacific Islands, links, the Northern California Outrigger Canoe Association, and Pacific Island News sources.

1016 Lincoln Boulevard #5
San Francisco, California 94129-1721
Phone: (415) 281-0221


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Center for Pacific Islands Studies

Part of the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa's School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the center's goal is to “promote an understanding of the Pacific Islands and issues of concern to Pacific Islanders.”

University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
1890 East-West Road
Moore 215
Honolulu, Hawai'i 96822
Phone: (808) 956-7700
Fax: (808) 956-7053

Polynesian Cultural Center

This organization, founded in 1963, seeks to preserve Polynesian cultures, and it provides information and education about arts, crafts, and lore. It also sponsors several recognition awards and funds the Institute for Polynesian Studies at the Brigham Young University—Hawaii campus. The 43-acre site has re-creations of the villages of Tonga, Tahiti, Fiji, and four other Page 410  |  Top of ArticlePolynesian islands. An open-air shopping village features arts and crafts. Cultural demonstrations include dance performances.

55-370 Kamehameha Highway
Laie, Hawaii 96762
Phone: (808) 293-3333


Charlot, John. “Towards a Dialogue Between Christianity and Polynesian Religions.” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 15, no. 4 (1986): 443–50.

Kirk, Robert W. Paradise Past: The Transformation of the South Pacific, 1520–1920. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012.

Lai, Eric Yo Ping, and Dennis Arguelles. The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity and Change in the 21st Century. San Francisco: AsianWeek, 2003.

Lal, Brij V., and Kate Fortune. The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

Lebo, Susan. “Native Hawaiian Whalers in Nantucket, 1820–60.” Historic Nantucket 56, no. 1 (2007): 14–16.

Miley, Sarah. “Remembering Iosepa.” Honolulu Magazine, November 2008.

Osorio, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo'ole. “All Things Depending: Renewing Interdependence in Oceania: Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania 2011 Distinguished Lecture.” Oceania 81, no. 3 (2011): 297+.

Small, C. A. “Pacific: Fiji, Tonga, Samoa.” In The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965, edited by M.C. Waters, et al., 534–41. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Takeuchi, D., and S. Hune. Growing Presence, Emerging Voices: Pacific Islanders and Academic Achievement in Washington. A Report Submitted to the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. Seattle: University of Washington, 2008.

Trask, H. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300137