Despite the ubiquity of “Hawaiiana” in California, little attention is paid to the stories or history of the people who participated in building the diverse Pacific communities that we now enjoy. Currently, California has the largest population (282,000) of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) in the United States (US Census 2008). Between 2007 and 2008 the Pacific Islander population increased by 6,000 people, overtaking the number of Islanders in Hawai‘i. These families arrived into an existing network of kin and community who had established both Pan Pacific and island specific organizations and events. Through talk story sessions with ten Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Chamorro, and Marshallese elders (two elders from each group), the project proposes to explore the successes, struggles, and legacies of these elders as have manifested in community building practices. Talk story is a way of speaking that draws on the history, the struggles, and the strength of revitalized knowledge and reveals the mana, the life force, of the Pacific and its peoples. Talk story is an appropriate way to to collect oral histories from these elders. In our project, their stories will be supplemented with still images, contextual narrative and archival research. The oral histories will be supplemented with an additional 10 talk story sessions conducted by Pacific Islander young adults. The stories of the elders, supplementary stories and images will be disseminated in public presentations at one Pacific Islander event, one university event, and through an interactive website. Bringing the story of Pacific Islander elders’ to California audiences will enhance Californians’ understanding of the efforts in maintaining cultural knowledge and practices for these migrant communities. Furthermore, a larger goal is to present an understanding of the cultural integration and revival that intimately connects Pacific Islanders to California environments and cultures.
There are two levels of interest for the migration and community building stories of Pacific Islander elders. The first interest is intergenerational while the second is in its elaboration of NHPI contributions to California’s history and the diversity of the state. As an intergenerational project the stories are of great interest to both the community elders and the young adults. The past three decades have seen an increased emphasis on preserving and reviving Pacific Islander knowledge and practices. Much of this effort has taken place on the home islands themselves. A number of Pacific Islander youth, however, rarely have the opportunity to travel and have little awareness of the efforts of the elders in California who, for example, have built gardens sustaining the foods and practices of Tonga or sustained for 17 years one of the largest hula competitions, E Hula Mau, outside of the Islands. The collection of these stories then, not only gives voice of the elders to the larger community in California and on the Pacific Islands, but intimately connects a younger generation with the legacy of their elders.
On another level, the interest and relevance of Pacific Islander elder’s talk story is in its contribution to the increasing effort to disaggregate Pacific Islanders’ experience from that of Asian migrant experiences. Because the population of Asians in the United States and California is larger than Pacific Islanders, many of the needs and voices of Pacific Islanders have been obscured. As one community member told us, “we [Pacific Islanders] are the invisible population.” And yet, Pacific Islanders have played an important role in the building of California. Many early migrants, arrived in California in the early 1800s setting up small villages across the west coast. A new wave of migrants came during the gold rush era, and in the 1950s more Islanders migrated to California as part of their military service or for religious reasons. Some of the largest populations of Pacific Islanders reside in Orange County, San Diego, Long Beach, and in the San Francisco Bay Area reflecting their long history with oceanic trade and the military in California. These unspoken contributions do not even begin to touch on the influence of Pacific Islanders to the creative arts and sports. Surfing, hula, and paddling as iconic images are associated with Pacific Islanders. Their relationship to and maintenance of specific knowledge forms such as gardening, weaving, and dance are manifested through their ties to community and personal cultural identities as Pacific Islanders. While their migration may have afforded a wider array of possible achievements it may have also created complications in their movement between Pacific and US ideals and spaces. Exploring the stories of Pacific Islander elders in California provides a unique opportunity to give voice to an important, yet invisible population.
This project was a collaboration with Pacific Islander Health Partnership, Victor Kaiwi Pang and Jane Ka’ala Pang, and videograph Christen Marquez director of Paradocs Productions. The Talk Story project was funded by Cal Humanities, California Story Tellers Fund 2011. Our funded proposal is here CSF – Proposal Narrative – Look to the source.
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