Children's Playground, c. 1926 UHM Library Digital Image Collections, fil4038

Native Response

Far from passive, many Native Hawaiians resisted Americanization efforts in the public schools. Each in their own way, Native Hawaiian students, teachers, lawmakers, and members of the community fought to preserve and protect their language, culture, and identity through their active participation in the very institution trying to assimilate them: schools. Explore their stories.

“I do not want to become a sorry imitation white man,” wrote Native Hawaiian Charles W. Kenn in 1933. “Superimposition and education were brought about without regard for the elements in my peoples’ culture that were worth saving. I want to know something about my own people…I am still a Hawaiian and proud of it.” [i] Published in the national travel magazine, Paradise of the Pacific (precursor to Honolulu Magazine), Kenn’s essay, titled “I am a Hawaiian,” conflicted with the common belief among haole (White) educators and policymakers during Hawaiʻi’s territorial years (1900-1959) that Native Hawaiians made “quite good Americans.”[ii] History clearly showed, in their minds, that Natives benefited from the civilizing and modernizing influence of American schools introduced by missionaries from Boston over one hundred years earlier. Their “lovable disposition[s]” made them excellent students, naturally “curious, receptive, and hospitable” to new ideas.[iii] In addition, their “great socializing influence” made them effective teachers for spreading the “gospel” of Americanization across the islands.[iv] By the 1930s, Native Hawaiians were considered so thoroughly Americanized, that territorial governor, Wallace Rider Farrington, proudly boasted that America had “ceased to worry over the Hawaiians.”[v]

I do not want to become a sorry imitation white man... Superimposition and education were brought about without regard for the elements in my peoples’ culture that were worth saving. I want to know something about my own people...I am still a Hawaiian and proud of it.”

Native Hawaiian Charles W. Kenn in 1933

Kenn’s essay disputed this view. A graduate of President William McKinley High School, the islands’ first public high school, Kenn exemplified the ways in which many Native Hawaiian students resisted assimilation during Hawaiʻi’s pre-statehood years. Like many of his people who attended the territorial public schools, he refused to replace his Native culture, identity, and history with America’s. Proud and defiant, he penned several essays from the 1930s through the 1950s rejecting the familiar and idyllic image of happy, passive natives. Instead, he presented an oppositional Indigenous voice critical of Americanization. As a product of the same public schools he criticized, Kenn utilized his command of the English-language and knowledge of Native Hawaiian history to broadcast to the nation that he was “still a Hawaiian” and “proud of it.”

Kenn’s writings were only the tip of the iceberg. Native Hawaiian assertions of cultural pride and resentment towards Americanization were widespread during the territorial period and Kenn’s essays represent a clear public example of these sentiments. But his tone and style of response were not the only ones. Native Hawaiian resistance to Americanization took many forms and ranged in intensity depending on the needs, experiences, and expectations of various Hawaiians towards public education. This website explores the diversity and pervasiveness of their resistance to Americanization in the public school system by highlighting the complex ways three different groups actively participated in public schooling.

[i] Charles W. Kenn, “I Am a Hawaiian,” Paradise of the Pacific, November 1936, 21.
2 William Atherton DuPuy, Hawaii and Its Race Problem (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1932), 124.
[iii] Ibid., 99, 12.
[iv] Benjamin O. Wist, “Making School Teachers in Hawaii,” Paradise of the Pacific, December 1921, 73.
[v] Wallace R. Farrington, “How Can the Schools Help Preserve Self-Government in Hawaii?,” Hawaii Educational Review 21, no. 6 (February 1933): 173.