HONOLULU (KHON2) — In most continental US states, locals are referred to by the state in which they were born. In Florida, they are called Floridians. In California, they are known as Californians and in New York, residents are referred to as New Yorkers. So why can’t this same rule be applied when referring to a resident of Hawai’i? It has a bit to do with the history of the island chain.

Long before becoming a state in 1959, Hawai’i was a kingdom and home to a population of people that consisted of majority Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

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Hawai’i’s government stems back to the establishment of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1810 by King Kamehameha I who unified the island chain under one rule. Hawai’i enjoyed decades of monarch rule and a thriving culture built on sustainability, a powerful, and often spiritual, connection to the land and traditions that deeply tied the community together.

In 1893, the kingdom’s last reigning monarch, Queen Liliuʻokalani, was illegally overthrown by American and European businessmen. This moment in history, along with the continued introduction of foreigners and growing business ventures in the islands by those abroad, is what led to Hawai’i’s annexation five years later. Following annexation, Hawai’i became a territory of the US in 1900, and in 1959, the 50th state.

But this journey to statehood did not come without opposition from the majority of the kingdom’s population.

It was not until 1993, when Congress adopted the “Apology Resolution,” that many Native Hawaiians received official and public acknowledgment from the federal government that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to inherent sovereignty to the United States of America.

The wounds of these battles sit deeply with many Native Hawaiians today who carry their history proudly. And some are still fighting to protect and preserve their culture to this day.

While the introduction of foreigners has transformed the types of people Hawai’i is home to, it remains important to be a mindful visitor and resident of the islands by understanding why the terms American, Hawai’i Resident and Native Hawaiian are so important to use correctly.


An American is used to refer to someone who is a citizen of the United States. In some instances, and unofficially, it can also be used to refer to green card holders and other non-citizens who have either grown up in the U.S. or have taken up residency in the U.S. for a long period of time and consider this country home.

The term “American” should be used to describe U.S. citizens and those who consider the U.S. to be their permanent home. They will often refer to themselves as an “American” when describing their identity.

It is important to note that many Native Hawaiians who live in Hawai’i and the U.S., especially if they are U.S. citizens, are considered Americans in their own right. However, for some natives this term is a sensitive subject largely due to the history of how Hawai’i became a territory and later a state.

When in doubt, the best way to refer to a Native Hawaiian is to use the terms “Hawaiian” or “Native Hawaiian.” In ʻŌlelo Hawai’i, the Native Hawaiian language, the terms “Kanaka ʻŌiwi” and “Kanaka Maoli” can also be used.


A Native Hawaiian, or Kanaka ʻŌiwi and Kanaka Maoli, is someone who has Native Hawaiian blood in them and whose ancestors are Native Hawaiian. Unlike the term “American,” which is a nationality, Hawaiian is an ethnicity and one that many natives are proud of.

Many Hawaiians are welcoming of non-natives and will show aloha to visitors and residents of Hawai’i alike. But Hawaiian culture is one built on mutual respect and many will expect the same aloha to be granted to them, their customs and the land in return.

Hawai’i resident

A Native Hawaiian can be and is likely to be a Hawai’i resident if they still reside in the 50th state, however a Hawai’i resident is not automatically considered a Hawaiian just because they were born, raised or currently live in the islands. This is because they are not ethnically Hawaiian.

It is important to note that Hawai’i residents still consider Hawai’i to be their home. Many have generations of families interwoven within their local communities, work lives that have a direct impact on the society they live in and a deep connection to the land. Hawai’i residents carry the aloha spirit proudly and are very protective of their state’s culture. Hawai’i residents are not treated as lesser simply because they are not ethnically Hawaiian.

However, the term “Hawaiian” is powerful in the cultural, spiritual and historical sense. For Native Hawaiian people, it is respectful to recognize that the term “Hawaiian” should NOT be used to describe any resident of Hawai’i. Instead, it should ONLY be used to describe people who are ethnically Hawaiian.

Hawai’i, as we know it today, is a unique home to a diverse group of people that celebrate their differences in an atmosphere of respect, care and kindness. Whether you’re visiting the islands for vacation, or living here, be mindful of its history and the people who came before you. Practice aloha and mālama ka ʻāina (take care of/care for the land).