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You and your ‘ohana count, so be sure to complete the Census online at by the October 31 deadline!

Data’s impact on our Native Hawaiian community

Jul. 29, 2020

  • Esther Kiaʻāina KSK’81

If there is a lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that data collection and dissemination, especially regarding health care and community well-being, is critically important.

This is especially true with policy makers and their work regarding disproportionately impacted communities so that everyone can best gauge how to use such data to better serve those groups with the greatest need – including members of our community who are affected by the coronavirus.

The good news is that groundwork has been laid for us in that we are included in a better minimal category under federal guidelines entitled “Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.” Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant at directing the State of Hawaiʻi to disaggregate data specifically for Native Hawaiians and other subpopulations for our Pacific Islander and Asian communities who make up a significant percentage of Hawaiʻi’s population.

This is the story about empowerment by and for our Hawaiian community.

Led by the efforts of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka KSK’42 and Kamehameha Schools alumni from across the country, in 1997 the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) modified an important regulation governing the manner of how the federal government collects racial and ethnic data. Commonly referred to as the OMB 1997 Standards, the effective date for full implementation was January 1, 2003.

Under previous federal guidelines (OMB Directive No. 15), Native Hawaiians were included under a collective category with Asians:

  • Asian or Pacific Islander: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, or the Pacific Islands. This area includes, for example, China, India, Japan, Korea, the Philippine Islands, and Samoa.

The OMB 1997 Standards broke this category apart and established a new category for Native Hawaiians:

  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawai‘i, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

But for the concern of some KS alumni at Stanford University in the early 1990s, the successful efforts to establish a more suitable racial category likely would not have come to fruition. While working for Sen. Akaka during this period as a legislative assistant, I was directed to help these college students who sought to have all colleges in the country modify their application forms since Native Hawaiians were considered over-represented in higher education because they were categorized under the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category.

After initially contacting the U.S. Department of Education to inquire about what guides higher education institutions in the collection of racial and ethnic data, I was informed that the OMB sets the guidelines for the U.S. Department of Education and all federal government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau. After securing OMB Directive

No. 15, that is when I learned that there were four minimum racial categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Asian or Pacific Islander. Data on ethnicity included “Hispanic.”

This information was then utilized by Sen. Akaka and our team to mobilize a national strategy to have Native Hawaiians moved out of the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category. These efforts included working with Kamehameha alumni and other Native Hawaiians across the country, Alu Like, KS, Papa Ola Lōkahi, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and other Hawaiian-serving institutions.

Round 1: Advocacy efforts initially included participating in 1993 Congressional oversight hearings and 1994 nation-wide OMB hearings in Boston, Denver, San Francisco, and Honolulu. The Honolulu hearing was added and held at Ke‘elikōlani Auditorium at KS Kapālama upon the request of the Sen. Akaka, whose former colleague in the House, Leon Panetta, was the OMB director at the time. I remember that out of 22 people who showed up in Boston to testify, nine were Native Hawaiians.

While I felt that we were the most effective and mobilized community in the nation to fight for change to OMB Directive No. 15, a Federal Inter-Agency Committee concluded in a July 9, 1997, Federal Register announcement that there will be no changes in the manner of how the federal government would collect data after these national hearings and other nationally conducted tests on the issue. The OMB was asking for public comments.

Round 2: Needless to say, Sen. Akaka and other Native Hawaiian advocates were stunned. I was dispatched to Hawai‘i to mobilize the Hawaiian community to provide comments. I still vividly remember the meeting at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Merchant Street in downtown Honolulu for the diversity and support of our community that was represented. There were about 20-30 of us.

Jobie Masagatani KSK’82 hosted the meeting. Other prominent alumni in the meeting included Mililani Trask KSK’69 and Haunani Trask KSK’67. After expressing that we had our work cut out for us and that we needed their kōkua, OHA Trustee Billie Beamer stood up and said that she would work to get the necessary funds to mobilize the community for written testimony. We all left the meeting energized to fight. The outcome is that out of 7,800 letters of public comments submitted across the country to OMB, 7,000 were from Native Hawaiians, primarily from Hawai‘i.

The last stand: Before the final decision was made by OMB, Sen. Akaka appealed one last time to reverse the Federal Inter-Agency Committee’s decision not to move Native Hawaiians out of the “Asian or Pacific Islander” category. In his final in-person meeting with OMB’s top officials, he reiterated how federal officials got it wrong and how Native Hawaiians were being disserved under federal data guidelines. At the time, the United Nations was considering the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and he cited its article on self-identification on why the United States had to do more.

Article 33 in the final declaration states: “Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions.” That is when OMB counter-offered to the senator that the federal government will propose a new racial category, or fifth category entitled, “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander,” and that was included in the 2000 Census, and required by all federal agencies by January 1, 2003.

Since this important decision was made, the initial call by Kamehameha Alumni at Stanford University to modify racial data collection on college applications has had a tremendous positive impact on higher education opportunities across the country. But, the longer-lasting impact of the OMB 1997 Standards is that the U.S. Census, all federal agencies, and all institutions that comply with these standards also disaggregate “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” data.

While we are better off than we were before, we must continue to remind the State of Hawai‘i that they have the discretion to disaggregate Native Hawaiian and other data beyond the minimum federal guidelines and that they should do so because we are the indigenous people of the Hawaiian archipelago, we are one of the most diverse states in the nation, and that it is the right thing to do to better serve our communities.

Are you down for the count?

The 2020 Census is the most inclusive civic activity involving our country, which covers each person in every household. The data collected affects our nation’s ability to ensure equal representation and equal access to government resources. Census results are used to allocate seats and draw district lines for the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures and neighborhood boards. Census results are also used to allocate more than $800 billion annually in federal assistance to states, localities and families, and to guide decisions affecting schools, housing, and health care services.

According to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, every person counted equates to about $2,600 in federal funding flowing into the State of Hawai‘i per year for 10 years. During this critical time of COVID-19, Census data could also help identify areas and communities where medical and food resources are needed most.

You and your ‘ohana count, so be sure to be counted. Complete the census online at by the October 31 deadline.

civic engagement, community and government relations, data, native hawaiian advancement, census

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