Words by Samantha Pak
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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For many not living on the islands, the word “paradise” is often associated with Hawaii, but a beautiful setting doesn’t mean everything’s perfect.
Throughout her career, Haunani-Kay Trask (1949-2021) worked to highlight these imperfections. An activist, educator, poet, and author, she made it her mission to educate others nationally and internationally on the experiences of Native Hawaiians. As a leader of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement—a grassroots political and cultural campaign with the goal of establishing an independent kingdom of Hawaii—she was most well known for promoting the rights of Native Hawaiians.
Born in California and raised on the island of Oahu, Trask burst onto the Hawaiian political scene in the late 1970s. She was outspoken against U.S. imperialism and its colonization of Hawaii. According to NBC News, she called out the “devastating effects of military occupation and tourism on the Indigeneous people,” and was respected for her “rejection of American occupation of Hawaiian lands and the hypocrisy of U.S. policy.”
An example of this was during an episode of the TV show “Island Issues” in 1990. On the show, Trask educated a caller who had a problem with rallies being held at the time, against white people owning land. In addition to clarifying that she had a problem with anyone owning Hawaiian land (the Japanese were used as another example), Trask compared the United States to the Soviet Union, calling both “bad, bad” places. She didn’t hold back, telling the caller, “you are not in America, you are in a colony that is in Polynesia that was forcibly taken,” before listing other places the United States stole and took, such as Alaska and Puerto Rico. “You had better learn that history,” Trask finished, “because you are the recipient of an imperialist tradition.”
Three years later—on the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom—Trask famously spoke in front of Iolani Palace, the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs.
During her speech, she declared, “We are not American. We will die as Hawaiians. We will never be Americans...They took our land. They imprisoned our queen. They banned our language. They forcibly made us a colony of the United States.”
Trask also made a point of saying Americans were the enemies of native peoples in general—not just Hawaiians.
When she wasn’t educating people about Hawaiian history through her writing or activism, Trask was doing it in a more formal setting. She began working at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Mānoa in 1981 as an assistant professor. Trask went on to co-found the school’s contemporary field of Hawaiian studies, became the first tenured professor in the field in 1986, and was the founding director of the school’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. She retired in 2010. In a memorial piece in UH News, Jonathan Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio, dean of the university’s Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, said Trask not only inspired people to attend UH, but also inspired Hawaiians to embrace their ancestry and identity.
Trask’s advocacy for indigenous peoples extended beyond Hawaii as she worked with leaders from indigenous communities throughout North America, the Māori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Basque people of Spain, and others.
In April 2021, Trask was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies.
Trask died July 3, 2021 after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years.
Published on July 3, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.