Although Pacific Islander immigrants have probably received less attention than most other immigrant communities, more Pacific Islanders reside in the United States–including the Pacific Island state Hawaii–than remain in many of their island homelands. Coming from many separate islands with many very different cultures and languages, Islander immigrants are almost impossible to identify in early U.S. censuses, in which they were typically counted under the category of “others” or lumped with Asians.
Pacific Islander immigration to the United States is best understood by recognizing that Pacific Oceanic peoples have a long history of long-distance ocean voyages. Prehistoric inhabitants of South Pacific islands–especially the widespread archipelagoes of Melanesia and
Over the ensuing centuries, the Pacific Islands and their inhabitants came increasingly under the domination of Euro-American political rule, economic expansion, and religious beliefs. With increasing contacts came increased population movements, including European settlements on many islands. Many indigenous inhabitants moved away from the islands; some relocated within the Pacific region, others went as far as Europe and the Americas. Most of these population movements were sporadic, small scale, and poorly documented.
By the mid-nineteenth century, American whaling ships were operating regularly in the Pacific Ocean, and Samoans and Hawaiians began to work in the whaling industry. Ultimately, some of these people ended up far from their island homes. Oceanic people were further incorporated into American spheres by the sudden U.S. colonial expansion into the Philippines,
Extensive military, missionary, and trading links between the United States and its Pacific Island possessions helped prompt large numbers of Islanders to immigrate to the mainland United States. During World War II (1941-1945), the presence of American military bases on many of the region’s islands brought the U.S. war with Japan directly into the homelands of Pacific Islanders. The result was tremendous carnage and destruction that would contribute to postwar migration.
Pacific Islander immigration can be understood broadly as the product of several push factors that operated across the islands, and also several pull factors that made the United States a compelling migration destination. Push factors have included local political conditions, such as
The most important pull factors that have drawn Islanders to the United States have been relief from all the Islanders’ push factors: nonoppressive government, greater safety from natural disasters, higher wages, and almost unlimited educational and professional opportunities. Moreover, established Pacific Islander communities within the United States provide kin networks that ease adjustments to immigration by giving newcomers places to stay on their arrival and strong support groups. Local contacts also assist new immigrants with health, educational, and work opportunities.
The hundreds of populated islands spread across the Pacific Ocean, particularly in the South Pacific, are made of independent nations, European dependencies, and American possessions. A sizable number of Pacific Islanders live on territories that were incorporated into the United States during the late nineteenth century. Some sporadic Pacific Islander immigration to the mainland United States probably occurred before that time, but large numbers of Islanders did not begin coming to the United States until the 1950’s and 1960’s and particularly during the 1970’s.
At the time of the 1990 U.S. Census, 365,000 Pacific Islanders lived in the United States. This figure compares with about 30,000 Islanders living in Australia and 531,000 in New Zealand. Only ten years later, the U.S. Pacific Islander population had jumped to 874,000. However, a variety of changes in the methods used in the 2000 U.S. Census mean that the 2000 data are not directly comparable to earlier census information. For example, the 2000 figure for total Islanders includes some people who also reported some non-Pacific Islander ancestry.
Approximately 58 percent of the 2000 U.S. Census group counted as “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” were living in
In the mainland United States, significant proportions of Pacific Islanders lived in urban locations, with major concentrations in California (especially Hayward, Vallejo, Oceanside, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Daly City), Utah (West Valley City, Salt Lake City), and Washington (Tacoma). Much of this population concentration has occurred as the result of
The 2000 U.S. Census also reported that the largest Pacific Islander group in the United States was
Census data have also shown that members of these immigrant groups are young, on average. They include large numbers of individuals in their child-bearing years, and children. Because Oceanic peoples favor large families, it seemed that the U.S. Pacific Islander population would continue to grow rapidly through natural increase, along with ongoing immigration from the islands. Another projected trend was a growth in the number of Pacific Islanders who identify with more than one ethnic group. There are already high levels of
Intermarriage and other intercultural links are also facilitated by participation in church activities. Many Christian congregations offer services in Pacific Islander languages, and some have Pacific Islander ministers in areas with high numbers of Oceanic people. Pacific Islanders living in the United States tend to identify socially through their memberships in specific church congregations, much as people living on the islands identify themselves as originating from specific villages on specific islands.
Although Pacific Islander groups originate from different island archipelagoes, and their members possess different cultural practices, and speak different languages, certain broad cultural norms prevail across the islands that have been imported to the United States in varying degrees. For example, in contrast to the American cultural emphasis on individualistic traits, Oceanic peoples place greater value on collectivism, which encourages them to subordinate their personal interests to those of the family or wider kinship network. This trait may often be described by members of the Pacific Islander community as the respect owed by young people to their elders, and there are many cultural ideals about how it should be expressed, including lack of questioning of the older generation by youngsters, and the lowering of one’s eyes and body height before elders. Differences between American and Islander styles of socialization sometimes result in conflicts between generational groups. Elder immigrants believe in greater levels of communal involvement and decision-making power by family networks, while their American-born children tend to focus more on their individual needs and desires and personal decision-making.
Divisions between the younger and older generations also may be exacerbated by
At the same time, non-English-speaking family members may find their employment opportunities are limited and also have difficulty communicating with mainstream cultural brokers, such as teachers, community leaders, and government officials. Outsiders often do not realize the extent of these language problems when they interact with Pacific Islanders, whose cultural norms encourage politeness that may be expressed through head nods, or other body language that seems to indicate agreement or understanding to Americans.
Accustomed to a communal way of life, Pacific Islanders often cook and eat together and live in close proximity to one another. This sometimes translates to situations in which members of extended families share American houses designed for small nuclear families. Their non-Islander neighbors and local social workers and health authorities may find it difficult to understand why so many people would wish to live together. Pacific Islanders also tend to view kinship ties in a more expansive manner than non-Islander Americans. For example, they are more likely to include all their extended family members in their conception of “family,” not merely members of their nuclear families, as Americans are more likely to think of “family.”
These broader conceptions of family may also include
Pacific Islanders typically settled in towns in the United States that already have sizeable Pacific Islander populations. This allows them to replicate much of their island lifestyles if they so desire. Older immigrants especially wish to retain important aspects of their home cultures. For example,
Many Pacific Islanders living in the United States during the early twenty-first century believed that they would one day
Members of the Brigham Young University football team performing a Polynesian war dance under the leadership of one of the team’s many Polynesian American players before a 2006 game. For many young Pacific Islanders, football has provided a ticket to college education in the United States, and some of them have achieved prominence in professional football.
More immigrants return to the islands for temporary visits than ever return permanently. There is much prestige in visiting, and providing gifts for those who remain. Moreover, maintaining links to the homelands and their people are important for community well-being and self-identity.
In addition to taking gifts with them on visits home, people in the United States often send
An issue for all ethnic community members living in the United States is the prevalence of
Duranti, Alessandro, Elinor Ochs, and Elia K. Ta’ase. “Change and Tradition in Literacy Instruction in a Samoan American Community.” In Many Pathways to Literacy: Young Children Learning with Siblings, Grandparents, Peers, and Communities, edited by Eve Gregory, Susi Long, and Dinah Volk. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004. Study of Samoan methods of instruction and how these may be incorporated into American educational institutions. Halualani, Rona Tamiko. “Connecting Hawaiians: The Politics of Authenticity in the Hawaiian Diaspora.” In Intercultural Alliances: Critical Transformation, edited by Mary Jane Collier. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2003. Discussion of cultural authenticity, or what it means to be Hawaiian for people living outside Hawaii–a study that has implications for all Pacific Islanders. Lee, Helen Morton. Tongans Overseas: Between Two Shores. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2003. Anthropological study of the lives of Tongan community members living in Melbourne, Australia that provides insights into the challenges that Pacific Islanders face when they immigrate to the United States. McGrath, Barbara Burns.“Seattle Fa’a Samoa.” The Contemporary Pacific 14, no. 2 (2002): 307-340. Discussion of how Samoan immigrants living in Seattle, Washington, have structured their lives to maintain Samoan culture while adapting to the United States. Small, Cathy A. Voyages: From Tongan Villages to American Suburbs. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. Anthropological study of twenty-five years of migration from Tonga to Northern California viewed from the perspectives of both the immigrants to the United States and people who remained in Tonga. Spickard, Paul R., Joanne L. Rondilla, and Debbie Hippolite Wright, eds. Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002. Broad history of Pacific Islander migrations across the Pacific Ocean with an emphasis on their contemporary incursions into the United States. Wurtzburg, Susan J. “Households and Families: Micronesia and Polynesia.” In Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women’s Studies: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge, edited by C. Kramarae and D. Spender. Vol. 1. New York: Routledge, 2000. Brief outline of commonalities in family structures and social organization across the Pacific Islands that is applicable to understanding the challenges that Pacific Islander families face in the United States.
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Australian and New Zealander immigrants
Remittances of earnings