Ethnic Studies Anniversary : Celebrating 50 Years of Our History Our Way

“Our History, Our Way!”


Ethnic Studies for Hawaiʻi’s People

Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor and Ibrahim Aoudé[1]

No Marion Kelly

Hiki mai ka hōkū ʻai ʻāina Hoʻolehua ke ‘au loa
Hiki mai ka wahine
Ke kama a Teanu Atu mai Tongareva mai Ma o Waialua, ‘āina kū pālua i ka laʻi
Ua ‘au ‘ia ‘oia i nā kai loa I ka pae ‘āina Hawai‘i
A i ka Pakipika mānoaCopy of
He hoaloha o nā mamo a nā kipi Nā mamo i ka halo o kua
Eia ka wahine
He ‘aʻali’i ‘oia kū makani ‘Aʻohe makani nāna i kulaʻi
Eia ka wahine
Eia ka makuahine Eia ke kumu aʻo
Eia ke kupuna aloha
E mau ana kona hana kūpono o ka ‘āina
Aloha e, aloha e, aloha e[2]

This chapter shares an overview of the evolution of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) as a center of knowledge about social justice and Hawaiʻi’s multiethnic peoples. From its inception, the ethnic studies faculty and students focused on strengthening Hawaiʻi’s communities, protecting island cultural and natural resources, supporting democratic processes and helping grassroots people cope with the pressures of a society in crisis. As the broader social movements developed in Hawaiʻi, ethnic studies faculty and students interacted and engaged with these movements at various levels.

The establishment of the Ethnic Studies Department at UHM was itself a significant social movement of students, faculty, and community, and at the forefront was Marion Kelly (June 4, 1919–November 12, 2011), who is honored in the opening oli. As we begin this moʻolelo, telling the story of ethnic studies in Hawai‘i, we want to acknowledge the compassionate leadership of Marion Kelly as indispensable in the establishment of the department. Marion Kelly was the preeminent authority on land tenure use and change in Hawaiʻi. Through her extensive ethnographic work at the Bishop Museum, she contributed significantly to the development of Hawaiian anthropology. She dedicated her research to perpetuating Kanaka ʻŌiwi culture and supporting the Kanaka ʻŌiwi national struggle for self-determination. Marion was clear that the Kanaka ʻŌiwi struggle for self-determination is at the heart of achieving social justice for the multiethnic communities of our Hawaiʻi nei.

In 2010, the Ethnic Studies Department celebrated forty years at UHM. At its inception, there was no guarantee that it would survive, much less flourish for four decades.


Ethnic studies was conceived at the end of the tumultuous 1960s, as an outgrowth of the civil rights, anti–Vietnam War, ethnic empowerment, and students’ rights movements. Individuals influenced by all four movements converged into an alliance to support ethnic studies and defeat attempts to homogenize the history of Hawaii’s immigrants into the Department of American Studies, whose textbooks focused on European migration. The formation of the Ethnic Studies Department occurred at a time when there was no redress for Japanese Americans illegally interned during World War II, the United States was using Kahoʻolawe for military exercises, and Native Hawaiians were losing thousands of acres of land in adverse possession proceedings. While ethnic studies was conceived at UHM, its supporters extended beyond academia.

Massive evictions of poor ethnic, farming, and working-class communities across the state due to urbanization prompted the formation of minority rights organizations in the early 1970s. Groups such as Kōkua Hawai‘i in Kalama Valley and Third Arm in Chinatown helped to organize ethnic communities against evictions at a time when there was little appreciation for preserving the history of Hawaiʻi’s peoples. These communities later played a key role in successfully supporting the continuation of ethnic studies by actively participating in an occupation of the UHM administration building in 1972 when the uh administration announced its plan to dismantle the program.

The demand to establish an Ethnic Studies Department at UHM was first raised in a 1968 Bachman Hall sit-in as part of a list of twenty demands by student activists protesting the Vietnam War, racism, and university governance issues.[3]  

Throughout 1969, consultant English Bradshaw worked with students, faculty, and community supporters to develop a proposal for an ethnic studies program that would focus on Kānaka ʻŌiwi and the primary immigrant ethnic groups and their descendants in Hawaiʻi. Then in fall 1970, the Ethnic Studies Program was launched as a twoyear experimental program, offering classes on the history of Hawai‘i’s ethnic groups.[4]  From the outset, the ethnic studies faculty actively engaged students in the community issues in which they themselves were involved. Prominent among these was the Kalama Valley struggle led by the Kōkua Kalama organization, which later transformed into Kōkua Hawaiʻi. Kalama Valley was a local political struggle that challenged U.S. control over Hawai‘i in general and sparked organizing among other communities facing eviction as well as the Native Hawaiian community. Other community issues that the ethnic studies faculty and students helped support through 1972 included a broad range of organizations such as the Hawaiians, seeking reform of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands; the Hālawa Housing eviction struggle (residents opposed to being evicted for the construction of the Aloha Stadium); the Legislative Coalition of Welfare Recipients; the Committee to Appoint a Hawaiian Trustee and its successor, the Congress of Hawaiian People; the Ota Camp eviction; and the People against Chinatown Eviction.

In spring 1972, then UHM president Harland Cleveland set up the Ad Hoc Committee on Ethnic Studies to make recommendations on the “continuation of the Program, its organization, curriculum, personnel and governance.”[5] The political activism of the ethnic studies faculty and their students had drawn the attention of a critical and conservative university administration. Thus, it came as no surprise when the committee made a recommendation to terminate the program and disperse the courses and the faculty into existing departments—Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, and Filipino Americans into American studies and Hawaiians into anthropology.

Immediately, faculty and students began to organize with the community to establish a permanent, unique, and distinct ethnic studies program. Over two hundred students marched on Bachman Hall and after seven hours of discussion got nowhere. This gave rise to a larger campus-wide movement, organized around the slogan “Our history, our way,” which culminated in a three-night sit-in at Bachman Hall. At the end of the sit-in, the university administration agreed to establish the People’s Committee on Ethnic Studies, comprising five students, five faculty, and five community representatives to review the program, recommend a core curriculum, and determine the future of the program. After members worked continuously throughout the summer, the report of the People’s Committee on Ethnic Studies was finalized and accepted by the university administration. In fall 1972, the Ethnic Studies Program continued to offer its original courses and began to develop curriculum for an expanded set of upper-division courses.

This set a pattern that would be repeated throughout the next six years. The Ethnic Studies Program offered courses and developed curriculum as a provisional program and underwent academic reviews every two years. At the end of each review, the administration wanted to dismantle the program, but the faculty and students mobilized campus and community support for its continuation. Finally, the program gained permanent status with the appointment of a full-time director, Dr. Franklin Odo, in 1978.[6] 

Throughout the period that the program was provisional, the ethnic studies faculty, lab leaders, and students functioned as an organizational and ideological center for the broader political movement engaged in multiethnic local struggles of land and housing. Ethnic studies faculty, lab leaders, and students organized and participated in independent study groups in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-Tung Thought. Inspired by this theory, they engaged in the social practice of developing strategy, tactics, and educational materials for local grassroots communities facing evictions.

It was an exhilarating era when youthful idealism achieved significant victories. Working with ethnic studies faculty and students, the communities of Waimānalo, Old Vineyard St., Young St., Ota Camp, and Mokauea Island all obtained long-term leases and funding for the construction of affordable housing through a combination of state and county funding. The residents of Niumalu-Nāwiliwili and Chinatown eventually negotiated their relocation into alternative housing and rental units. He‘eia Kea residents successfully stopped construction of a windward electric generation plant and retained their rental units. In 1971, Save Our Surf organized one of the largest rallies ever held at the state capitol to protest the evictions from and the threats to Oʻahu’s surfing sites. The Waiāhole-Waikāne struggle escalated into the largest antieviction struggle in the history of Hawai‘i and resulted in long-term leases for the farmers and the residents. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 seem to confirm the popular slogan of these serve-the-people initiatives, “The people united can never be defeated!”

In 1976, the ethnic studies faculty and lab leaders organized students around the call to stop the bombing of Kahoʻolawe—setting up informational tables, organizing rallies, selling T-shirts, getting petitions signed. The Kahoʻolawe movement signaled the beginning of the Kanaka ʻŌiwi renaissance and a focus on the quest for sovereignty and self-determination distinct from that of the multiethnic local grassroots movements. Organized around the slogan Aloha ʻĀina or Love Our Land, the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana evolved into an islands-wide grassroots movement that not only stopped the bombing of Kahoʻolawe but, more importantly, revived and restored Kanaka ʻŌiwi religious and cultural practices.[7] 

Another development in 1976 was the shift of the organizational and ideological nexus with the broader political movement outside of the Ethnic Studies Program and into various Marxist-Leninist–Mao Tse-Tung Thought formations from the U.S. continent, which began to establish Hawaiʻi branches. These included the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Workers Party, the Union of Democratic Filipinos, the Communist Labor Party, and the Line of March. This led to an exodus from the program of activists who saw their role as integrating into the working class and broader social and political organizations.

The activist faculty who remained within the program saw their role as training a new generation of critical thinkers and compassionate leaders grounded in their communities. They engaged in research on Hawai‘i, national and international political and economic trends, and the intersection of these trends with the dynamics of race, class, and gender. Their research involved and benefited the community and resulted in an expanded upper-division curriculum and notable publications.[8]

Developing Institutional Presence

Throughout the 1980s, the part-time UHM ethnic studies faculty focused on developing the program and completing their own doctoral programs of study. By 1991, the program was able to double its number of faculty positions. That June, the program celebrated its twenty-first anniversary and the faculty initiated a series of steps in a focused campaign to develop a national and international academic reputation. The program hosted the Eighth Annual National Conference of the prestigious Association for Asian American Studies. The faculty developed a working relationship with the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs with headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. Professor Marion Kelly worked with Dr. Kekuni Akana Blaisdell to launch and sustain the Pro-Hawaiian Sovereignty Working Group as part of the Ka Pākaukau coalition of Kanaka ʻŌiwi organizations committed to sovereignty for Hawaiʻi. In 1993, the Ka Pākaukau organized Ka Hoʻokolokolonui Kānaka Maoli, the People’s International Tribunal, and Professor Kelly helped to publish its lengthy findings. Faculty published a special issue of Social Process in Hawai‘i , volume 35, The Political Economy of Hawai‘i , which spotlighted the role of ethnic studies in creating and publishing analytical information about political and economic issues in Hawaiʻi. Professor Kelly continued to provide her expertise in land use and tenure in Hawaiʻi and Kanaka ʻŌiwi cultural customs, practices, and rights for Kanaka ʻŌiwi communities from Mokauea Island, Hālawa Valley, and Mākua on Oʻahu to Kaʻū on Hawaiʻi Island.

In 1991–1992, members of the ethnic studies faculty helped launch the Hui Na‘auao Sovereignty Education Project to prepare the Hawaiian community for the one hundred-year commemoration of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. In conjunction with this project, Professor McGregor helped develop a draft of the 1993 Apology Law, Public Law 103-150. McGregor helped work on legislation providing for the return of Kahoʻolawe to the people of Hawai‘i, whereby the island was set aside as a trust for the sovereign Hawaiian nation and commercial activities were banned.

Finally, in 1995, the uh board of regents transformed the program into a department offering a bachelor of arts in ethnic studies. In summer 1995, the department hosted the Institute for Hawai‘i History Teachers in conjunction with the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The goal of the institute was to recognize the best secondary education teachers in Hawai‘i history and provide them with the most exciting and important information and perspectives in the field. The institute inspired twenty-six teachers to return to their schools throughout the islands and transmit new knowledge and teaching methodologies to approximately three thousand students in the 1995–1996 academic year alone.

The 1993 Apology Law and activities commemorating the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy a hundred years earlier thrust the Hawaiian movement into the forefront of issues related to race, social justice, and peace in Hawai‘i. The Hawaiians course together with courses on land tenure and use in Hawaiʻi were cornerstones of the department’s curriculum. The courses, Hawai‘i and the Pacific, Economic Change and Hawai‘i’s People, Social Movements in Hawai‘i, and Change in the Pacific, designed by Marion Kelly, all foreground the experiences and culture of Kanaka ʻŌiwi.

Engaging students in service learning evolved from the community activism of the 1970s into a key component of the Program for Engaged Scholarship and Service Learning and a hallmark of the ba in ethnic studies. In particular, the Mālama i nā Ahupuaʻa program, originally called Adopt an Ahupuaʻa, involves students in cultural, historic, and environmental learning at various sites including Ala Wai Canal and Watershed, the Oneʻula Limu Project, Hālawa Valley Heiau, Loko Iʻa ʻo Heʻeia, Kahana Valley, Kanaloa Kahoʻolawe Island, Kaniakapūpū in Nuʻuanu, Ka Papa Loʻi ʻo Kānewai, Kawainui, Keāiwa Heiau, Mākua Valley, Mokauea, Pālehua, Pālolo Valley, Ulupō Heiau, Waiheʻe Loʻi, Loko Iʻa Waikalua, and Wāwāmalu Beach Park/Ka Iwi Shoreline. Another service learning program that has gained national recognition is the Pālolo Pipeline Program, a long-term, broad community involvement program focused on improving life and education for housing residents who are low-income immigrant Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians. The service learning program also involves ethnic studies students in the Kakaʻako Next Step Shelter for houseless families, primarily from Micronesia and other Pacific Islands and with low-income families at the Kūhiō Park Terrace.

In 1998, the Ethnic Studies Department hosted the Fifteenth Annual Conference of the Association for Asian American Studies, with a critical focus on the expansion of the American empire into the Pacific and Asia with the Spanish American War and the colonization of Hawaiʻi, Guam, Samoa, and the Philippines.

Our Future, Our Way

The Ethnic Studies Department entered the twenty-first century with the hiring of a second generation of faculty and the development of a strategic plan that focused on the development of a program of study for the master of arts degree. Reflecting the positioning of Hawai‘i in the era of a global political economy, the ma program projected an interdisciplinary curriculum of advanced courses focused on racial and ethnic formations, indigenous peoples, migration, diaspora, and transnationalism. While having a particular emphasis on Hawai‘i, the Pacific, and the continental United States, the courses would examine global trends and would focus on three major thematic areas: racial and ethnic formations; indigenous peoples; and migration, diaspora, globalization, and transnationalism. Unlike other comparable academic ma programs, students would be required to undertake service learning activities for at least one semester as part of their core course requirements.

A new generation of ethnic studies faculty are engaged with Hawaiʻi’s community, including Professors Ty Tengan with the Hawaiian community, Monisha Das Gupta with Local 5 and Hawaiʻi’s immigrant communities, Rod Labrador with the Filipino community, and Brian Chung with the Chinese community. Dr. Ulla Hasager coordinates the service learning and civic engagement program for the Ethnic Studies Department and the College of Social Sciences.

The saga of the UHM Ethnic Studies Department and Hawaiʻi’s social movements will continue to unfold and develop. Despite global economic and political forces, Kanaka ʻŌiwi and the people of Hawaiʻi continue to organize as agents of change to shape our own destiny in our beloved islands—Ka Pae ʻĀina Hawaiʻi. A department at the University of Hawaiʻi dedicated to research and teaching about Hawaiʻi’s people and the intersections of ethnicity, race, class, and gender in Hawaiʻi, the Pacific, the continental United States and other areas of the world provides a historical perspective and a critical analysis to scope out future trends.

In a globalizing world, Hawai‘i cannot afford for its new generations not to be fluent in this new language of diversity. As public intellectuals, ethnic studies faculty have offered their research for the benefit of the community in its struggle for justice and equality. It is in this way that the university could say that it actually is a public university, serving those sections of the community that have often been neglected in the rush to connect with money and power.

Given the precarious nature of the economic recovery and, more importantly, the global economy, the future will be fraught with considerable challenges that social movements will have to contend with and compel the public and private decision makers to find solutions in the interest of the overwhelming majority of the people, not only the powerful few. To be resolved, those challenges would require a polity informed about the dynamics of ethnicity, race, class, and gender as main dimensions of social motion. Here is where the value of ethnic studies is located, and it is here that ethnic studies will serve the cause of social justice and equality.



[1]  Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor and Ibrahim Aoudé "'Our History, Our Way'" in A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land, and Sovereignty. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Ikaika Hussey & Erin Kahunawaikaʻala Wright, editors, Photographs by Edward W. Greevy. Duke University Press Durham and London 2014, used with permission.


[2]   Epigraph: This chant was composed by Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor in honor of Marion Kelly upon the occasion of Kelly’s receipt of the Association for Asian American Studies Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award, June 26, 1998. The English translation is as follows:

Of Marion Kelly

The star ruling land rises (navigator’s star) The current runs strong and swift
The woman arrives
Child of Teanu Atu from Tongareva Through Waialua in the calm
She traveled the distant seas In the Hawaiian Archipelago And the wide Pacific
Friend of the descendants of rebels (of Kaʻū) Descendants in the gills of kua (shark ‘aumakua of Kaʻū) Here is the woman
She is an ‘a‘ali’i standing in the wind There is no wind which can blow her over
Here is the woman Here is the mother Here is the teacher
Here is the beloved kupuna
May her good and upright work for the land continue always
Love, honor, respect


[3]  Students for a Democratic Society organized a sit-in to protest what they felt was a politically motivated denial of tenure to their faculty advisor, political science professor Oliver Lee.


[4]   While we could not locate the fall 1970 schedule, the fall 1971–spring 1972 academic year class schedule listed the following thirteen classes and eleven instructors: es 101 Ethnic Groups in Hawai‘i, Ian Lind; es 121 Introduction to Hawaiian Studies, Marion Kelly; es 200 Japanese Americans, Dennis Ogawa; es 201 Chinese Americans, Nancy Young; es 202 Filipino Americans, Rick Trimillos; es 205 Black Americans, Katherine Brundage; es 221 Hawaiian Americans, Larry Kamakawiwoole; es 301 Ethnic Identity, Glenn Grant; es 320 001 Dominant and Minority Culture, Thomas Gladwin; es 320 002 Dominant and Minority Culture, James Anthony; es 390 Study of Social Movements, Herbert Takahashi; es 397 Field Experience, Larry Kamakawiwoole; es 499 Directed Research, Dennis Ogawa.


[5]   The members of the committee were Professors Stephen Boggs, David Cromwell, James Linn, Seymour Lutzky, and Fritz Seifert.


[6]   The interim directors included: 1972, Larry Kamakawiwoole; 1972–1973, Nancy Young; 1973– 1974, Jerrold Chung; 1974–1977, Davianna Pōmaika‘i McGregor; 1977–1978, Miriam Sharma.


[7]   Aloha ʻĀina also means Patriotism, as in Hui Aloha ʻĀina or the Hawaiian Patriotic League organization that the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana claimed as a predecessor. At a deeper level, Aloha ʻĀina also means to love and honor the life forces of the land that Kanaka ʻŌiwi ancestors honored as deities.


[8]   Alegado, Sinking Roots; Aoudé, “Public Policy and Globalization in Hawaiʻi”; Aoudé, “Ethnic Studies Story”; Aoudé, “The Political Economy of Hawai‘i”; Kelly, Loko Iʻa o Heʻeia ; Kelly, Historical Study of Kawainui Marsh Area; Kelly, Nā Māla o Kona; Barrère, Kelly, and Nakamura, Hilo Bay, a Chronological History; Barrère and Kelly, Background History of the Kona Area ; Kelly, Majestic Kaʻu ; Kelly and Quintal, Cultural History Report of Makua Military Reservation; Kelly, “Changes in Land Tenure in Hawaii”; Kent, America in 1900; Kent, Hawaiʻi; McGregor and Revilla, Our History, Our Way; McGregor, Nā Kuaʻāina; Odo, No Sword to Bury; Odo and Sinoto, Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaiʻi; Fujikane and Okamura, Asian Settler Colonialism; Okamura, Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawaiʻi; Okamura, The Japanese American Contemporary Experience in Hawaiʻi; Okamura, The Japanese American Historical Experience in Hawaiʻi ; Okamura, Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora; Okamura, Filipino American History, Identity and Community in Hawaiʻi; Tengan, Native Men Remade. Conversion note: for full citations, please consult the book.


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