Traditionally, the lines between Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia never existed.
Contrary to popular belief, Micronesians are not recent immigrants to Hawaii. They actually predate even the arrival of the Japanese to Hawaii, but one will notice in particular that in the state’s narrative of celebrating different waves of immigrants to the plantations, Micronesians are left out, though they have a long history with Hawaii and with Native Hawaiians.
Besides being related by Austronesian linguistics and DNA evidence, the line between Polynesia and Micronesia was not imposed by either Micronesians nor Polynesians, but by competing colonial powers in the Pacific. The truth of the matter is that there are Micronesian cultural outliers in what is now thought of as the “Polynesian triangle” and there are Polynesian cultural outliers in what is now regarded as Micronesia and Melanesia.
Traditionally, the lines between Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia never existed. We were all connected by the ocean of Kanaloa, or as my kupuna would say, the womb of Hina-i-ka-moana. They, like other Pacific Islanders, are our cousins.
Although one can suspect that there were voyages and exchanges between Hawaii and Micronesia periodically as noted in the Kualii genealogy chant of the 17th century, Hawaii and Micronesian historical ties — as far as written accounts — go back to the 1850s. In 1852, the American Board of Foreign Missionaries — the same Calvinists that came to Hawaii in 1820 — set up a mission station in the Carolines (now in the northwestern Marshall Islands). A group of a couple of American missionaries along with a half dozen Native Hawaiian missionaries initially set up the mission. Native Hawaiian missionaries slowly created missions in Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshalls and Kiribati (then called the Gilberts Islands).
Those long skirts that local people in Hawaii make fun of Micronesian women are products of Native Hawaiian missionary teachings in that time period of the 1850s and who themselves got it from American missionaries a generation prior. Niihau women in fact, until recently, dressed similarly.
One of the more famous Hawaiian missionaries was Bennett Namakeha, uncle to Queen Emma and first husband of the future Queen Kapiolani, who became one of the mission administrators for these Christian missions in Micronesia. He and his wife stayed in Kiribati and visited Pohnpei and Kosrae before he died in 1860. So Queen Kapiolani herself was acquainted with Micronesia having stayed there for several months with her first husband.
In 1877, 55 Kiribati (which is part of Micronesia) and 31 Rotuma (which is part of Melanesia but are closer to Samoan culturally) immigrants were brought in as plantation laborers on The Stormbird. This marked the first wave of Micronesian immigrants to Hawaii — which is almost never mentioned in Hawaii history books. Fifty-five Micronesians from Kiribati arrived and were greeted by King Kalakaua at the pier. The following year, The Stormbird would bring 124 Micronesians to Hawaii along with three Rotumans.
For the next eight years, over 1,500 Micronesians were brought to Hawaii along with about a thousand Rotuman, Fijians, Solomon Islanders and Papuans. So there was a substantial population of Micronesians and Melanesians in Hawaii in the 1880s. Many of these early Micronesians did not return to the homelands but mixed with Hawaiians and adopted Hawaiian names. Sometimes, they would adopt the Hawaiian wifeʻs last name or the last name of a Native Hawaiian missionary who baptized them or chose a last name that began with the letters “e” or “p,” similar to how the Chinese adopted Hawaiianized last names starting with the letter “a.”
Another byproduct of this exchange is the introduction of certain hair comb designs, new lei making designs, the iconic coconut “bras” and the thinner raffia “grass skirts” by the Kiribati workers to Hawaii. Although other Polynesian groups did have coconut bras, it was the Micronesian immigrants who introduced them to Hawaiians and Hawaiians who adopted its use for more modern hula and for tourists.
By 1884, plantation recruitment in Micronesia stopped for various reasons including that Micronesian plantation workers had a habit of running away from the plantation and being hidden by Hawaiians. Hence why Portuguese and Japanese were brought in as they would have a harder time running away and blending with the Native Hawaiian population — so the plantation owners thought. Another reason was that Spain and Britain and later Germany began to take more of an interest in colonizing Micronesia and that caused diplomatic issues with the Hawaiian government. This, however, did not stop the chiefs of Butaritari and Tapiteuea in Kiribati from requesting a Hawaiian protectorate or complete annexation as their chiefs believed that they would be treated more fairly by King Kalakaua than some European colonial administrator. Nothing came out of this as Britain would decide to annex Kiribati.
Instead of dehumanizing Micronesians, we need to find ways to bridge cultural misunderstandings and create safe spaces for dialogue.
As a side note to show the aloha that King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani had for these Micronesian plantation laborers, their chiefs and community leaders were normally invited to his birthday celebrations at Iolani Palace and the electrification of Iolani Palace celebration on June 1, 1887.
This history does not include 20th-century immigration, the infamous role of U.S. colonialism in that region nor the phenomenal contributions that Satawal navigator Mau Piailug made to the Hokulea.
Every new wave of immigration will always face problems and be stereotyped. When groups such as the Samoans, Filipinos, Portuguese and Chinese arrived in Hawaii, they were stereotyped and made fun of. But by embracing them into our community and learning from each other, these same groups became a fabric of modern Hawaii and provided us with scholars, politicians, entrepreneurs and delicious food. Instead of dehumanizing Micronesians — which I will repeat have historically first migrated to Hawaii in 1877 — we need to find ways to bridge cultural misunderstandings and create safe spaces for dialogue.
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