Wednesday, October 13, 1999

University of Hawaii

Indigenous students
silent no more

The native Hawaiian voice at
UH has awakened in recent years,
creating a wave of change

Students learning more about themselves

By Susan Kreifels


Go to most any gathering on matters of import to the University of Hawaii, and you'll see them -- tough and tenacious, testing the system.

They're organized, passionate and outspoken. Sometimes it appears they're the only students who care.

The native Hawaiian voice at UH-Manoa has awakened in recent years as more students of indigenous line research their past and decide that speaking out will bring the most change. Still small in number, students of Hawaiian lineage are leading battles on several fronts, and not just native issues of tuition waivers or payment for the use of ceded lands. They've been loud advocates for saving the UH-Manoa School of Public Health, and for more accountability from the administration and regents.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Pi'ilani Smith, left, president of the Associated Students of
UH, and Mamo Kim, who leads the Graduate Student
Organization, are passionate about native Hawaiian
issues at the University of Hawaii.

One of their biggest achievements this year: Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments are led by native Hawaiian women, a first at UH-Manoa. And they're women who don't mince words.

"We feel passion and raise our voices," said Pi'ilani Smith, president of the Associated Students of UH and a 31-year-old junior in Hawaiian studies. "We are very aggressive when we argue issues, and we are very confrontational. We want to deal face to face."

Smith follows in the wake of Mamo Kim, who was the first to break native Hawaiian ground at UH-Manoa. She was elected ASUH president in 1997, the first candidate, she said, to identify herself as an indigenous woman. She led the fight to rename Stanley D. Porteus Hall, named after a UH professor decades ago who was known for his contributions to psychological testing. He also voiced opinions on racial characteristics that were offensive to many and considered baseless today.

This year, Kim, a 49-year-old graduate student in political science, leads the Graduate Students Organization.

"I made it (identity) an issue because of the very low representation of Hawaiians on campus," Kim said.

Kim said student government elections in the past were "elitist," led by sororities and fraternities and decided by a few hundred votes. So she mobilized native Hawaiians. Ten of them won on Kim's ASUH slate in 1997. Three won in the GSO election. Since she first ran, the number of voting students has jumped from 2 percent to almost 10 percent, a high rate nationwide, she said.

The two women leaders are the fruit of a decade of encouraging native Hawaiian students to speak up, said Haunani-Kay Trask, a professor of Hawaiian studies and an outspoken activist herself. "By asserting leadership, they are examples to others that they can effect change," Trask said.

Kim and Smith are known as agents of change, and neither is shy before the public. Smith was Miss Aloha Hula 10 years ago. Kim acted in movies and television here and in Hollywood.

Disparity on campus

Both have fought what they call "institutionalized racism" -- disproportionately low numbers of native Hawaiian students and faculty. Last spring's indigenous enrollment at UH-Manoa: 1,425 students, or 8.7 percent of the total. Yet part Hawaiians make up about 21 percent of Department of Education enrollment, and Hawaiians 4 percent. They make up less than 2 percent of the UH-Manoa faculty and staff.

The two women also want tuition waivers for all native Hawaiians -- to them an unquestionable issue given the fact that UH sits on ceded indigenous lands. Now there are 250 waivers.

And they want more buildings, beyond dorms and eateries, with Hawaiian names.

"We read between the lines," Smith said. "What they're saying to the Hawaiians is 'you're as good as being fat and sleeping.' "

But the two make it clear they are not just advocates of native Hawaiian issues. They want more student participation in general -- more access to student government, more people voting in elections, more awareness of legislative bills that affect UH -- and they've created Web sites to do that.

Kim also has attacked the administration for "plantation-style" management that is "very stratified and very inefficient. We have a crisis. It's not about budget. The school for years has been mismanaged."

Kim believes she and five other students helped shape a critical accreditation report at UH-Manoa that was released last summer. As ASUH president, she sat on the accreditation steering committee but felt that, beyond the budget crisis, only "rosy" news was going to the accreditation team.

The students submitted reports about the problems they perceived on campus and met with the accreditation team for more than two hours.

"We know we turned the committee," Kim said.

Uncharted territory

The stronger Hawaiian voice is a development that makes many students uncomfortable, said Smith, who worked for eight years at the Hawaiian language immersion school in Palolo before returning to studies. She believes students "are afraid of change. But what they will find is, that as Hawaiians, we are very open to the needs of the population."

"What's important in Hawaiian leadership is that now Hawaiians have a voice to lobby for our needs," she said.

Others have learned from the native Hawaiian example. Wilisoni Fatafehi, a senior in economics and a student senator for three years, sees Kim as his role model.

"It's take-charge leadership," said Fatafehi, who is not Hawaiian. "She knows exactly what she wants. Anything less and she won't have it."

Some student senators, he said, are intimidated by such leadership and, being unfamiliar with Hawaiian issues, are afraid to jump in.

"We need to be outspoken, we need to be heard by legislators," Fatafehi said. "They've tried to tackle the issues that are taboo, such as opposing the president. We are the consumers."

Activism encouraged

Stanford Togashi, ASUH president last year, said he would also like to see more activism among all students. But he said native Hawaiians must "watch themselves and make sure they're not perceived as fighting for one cause."

Amefil Agbayani, who heads up the administration's equity and diversity programs, agrees that indigenous activism is good.

To address such concerns, UH President Kenneth Mortimer and the regents have named diversity as one of five major strategic goals. They also have focused on increasing numbers of native Hawaiian students and faculty. One way is working more closely with DOE schools.

Agbayani believes native Hawaiians get a fair share of financial support, including money from Kamehameha Schools-Bishop Estate and federal funds. But she'd still like more. On tuition waivers for all native Hawaiians, she said there are pending legal concerns.

But Agbayani also warned that there can be "a lot of misunderstanding and steps backward" in the growth of native Hawaiian activism. "People can talk about Hawaiian pride and come off as exclusive and putting down other ethnic groups. There can be a backlash."

Trask, however, sees nothing but success in the growing indigenous voice. "I hope it carries over to the political world -- the Legislature, executive branch, perhaps even Congress. Being actors in the political scene, not people who are oppressed."

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