As she grew up and carved out a life in Washington State, Malie Chanel remembers filling out forms and applications and having to identify herself as Asian, or at best, Asian Pacific Islander.
The thing was, as a Samoan American, she wasn’t Asian and certainly didn’t feel that way. Asian Americans didn’t consider her such, even though much of larger society considered her to be.
“It really destroys who you are as your indigenous self,” said Chanel, elder services director for the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, in Federal Way. “It’s an honor to call myself Pasifika.”
The growing use of the term Pasifika reflects a push within the community to recognize Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as distinct from Asian Americans – not only as an expression of identity but as a means of addressing inequities between the two populations. Lumping them together, advocates say, places Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at a disadvantage when it comes to health and economic resources given the community’s small numbers and unique concerns.
According to the U.S. Department of Human and Health Services, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders comprise just 0.4% of the U.S. population, including about 355,000 in the state of Hawaii.
Where did the term originate?
Pasifika – a transliteration of “Pacific” – has its roots in New Zealand, where government agencies created the term in the 1980s to describe growing communities of indigenous migrants representing the Pacific diaspora – places like Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and other areas of Oceania.
“For the purposes of census counting, Pasifika is a significant category of people in New Zealand, behind Europeans, Maori and Asians,” said Roland Hwang, a professor of Asian/Pacific Islander American studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
While the term has also been adopted in Australia, its use in the U.S. is in part a statement of identity reflecting a broader trend of Americans questioning the terms thrust upon them by outsiders. For instance, the Pacific Ocean, as well as the Oceanian subregions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, were all named by European explorers.
“For so long, Pacific communities have been – and continue to be – framed by other people looking in,” said Lana Lopesi, an assistant professor of indigenous race and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “It’s really important for Pacific diasporic communities in the U.S. to take control of their own representation. The growing use of the term Pasifika is part of that.”
Where is the term being used?
Pasifika is largely a West Coast phenomenon, reflecting where the NH/PI population is mostly concentrated.
“I don’t hear it a lot out here on the East Coast,” said Stephen Sheehi, director of the Asian & Pacific Islander American studies program at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
It’s been used by organizations serving the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population and by community advocates. In its 2022 report about how immigrants are portrayed on American television, Los Angeles-based Define American noted that while Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrant characters were on the rise, “Pacific Islander, of Pasifika, representation is lacking and often erased from broader AAPI discourse.”
Brandon Fuamatu, development manager for United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, or UTOPIA, an organization serving queer and transgender Pacific Islanders in South King County, Washington, said the word is a beacon signaling those who recognize and acknowledge Pacific Islander identity.
“It encompasses us as people of the Pacific,” Fuamatu said, adding that from his observation, the word has been embraced mostly by those of Polynesian background. “It’s not a perfect word; it won’t be adopted by every single Pacific Islander culture. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to connect to each other that don’t erase the differences we have that are unique.”
Why is the distinction important?
Community members say that beyond being a statement of identity, Pasifika is a term of empowerment differentiating Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans, with whom they have often been lumped ever since the U.S. Census Bureau broadened the Asian American category to “Asian Pacific Islander” in the 1980s.
The community has fallen under umbrella terms such as Asian Pacific American and Asian American Pacific Islander. Meanwhile, said Hwang of the University of Michigan, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, headed by Native Hawaiian Krystal Ka’ia, has popularized use of the term AANHPI.
Such groupings, while initially designed to promote inclusivity, have instead produced disparities.
“The amount of funding that goes to AAPI groups is small, and the amount that goes to Pacific Islanders is even smaller,” said Fuamatu, who is both Chinese and Samoan. “A lot of groups receive funding that is supposed to go to both, but there’s no NH/PI representation. Not to fault those groups, but it’s because of those terms that the funding is uneven. It’s an uphill battle.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, too, illustrated the disparity as Pacific Islanders faced vastly higher mortality rates than most populations – but with little data to illustrate the crisis because of the overlap.
In June 2021, the National Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Policy Council – a group of state-based Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander coalition leaders advocating for community health and social justice, issued a statement calling disaggregation of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander data from that of Asian American communities one of its main priorities.
The group asked other entities with such umbrella terms to consider rebranding and noted that President Joe Biden last year renamed the country’s AAPI Heritage Month celebration as “Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month.”
Last February in Seattle, leaders of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival apologized to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community for using the term in its programming as an umbrella description of the overall Asian American community when it had no actual “meaningful equitable relationships with Pasifika communities.”
“We deeply apologize for not doing our due diligence and are committed to being supportive allies to the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community,” the organization’s statement said.
Ellison Shieh, the festival’s co-director, said that while the gesture inspired similar self-examination among other organizations serving the Asian American population, it also prompted backlash from other community members who felt strongly about the historic activist efforts that had brought recognition to both populations.
The response, while largely local, “still serves as a steppingstone into a larger conversation with the work the Asian American community needs to do to help uplift and support NH/PI folks both locally and nationally,” Shieh said.
What can Pasifika mean for the NH/PI community?
Fuamatu acknowledges the historical challenges faced in order to gain recognition for the AANHPI community.
“Before that, there was nothing,” he said. “But we’re at a time and space where disaggregation of that term needs to happen, because we see so much inequity in funding.”
Chanel, of the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, said that before the organization launched three years ago, many in the community refrained from seeking necessary services because they felt uncomfortable going to Asian-focused agencies.
“They felt neglected,” she said. “A lot of people were being marginalized and not feeling able to find resources to strive and survive. When this organization opened, it was a like a beacon of light for the diaspora of Pacific Islander people here. We were bombarded.”
Chanel said for those like her, who recognize the partnership they share with Asian Americans but at the same time seek a separate identity, embracing the term Pasifika is a powerful step toward shedding the damage of colonialism.
“Here on the West Coast, it’s where the land meets the sea, and the sea is us,” Chanel said. “When we look to the Pacific Ocean, that’s home. That’s where our ancestors navigated and windsurfed, so Pasifika is a wonderful way to embrace our identity.”