The State of Aloha
The story of Hawaii and its history tends to be told as a series of migrations and immigrants coming to the islands. Seldom do we think about those who left and brought a piece of Hawaii with them. But it’s there. Hawaiians have been exploring the greater world for nearly 200 years. Islanders are adventurous.
It didn’t take long after European explorers came to Hawaii for Native Hawaiians to join crews and see the world. Whaling ships with their long voyages were a popular pick for Hawaiian men. At the close of the 18th century, many Hawaiians — mostly commoners — opted to see foreign shores and ports of call.
Up until 1819, the kapu system had become for many a highly regimented and strictly regulated society. Once they left the islands, chiefs, kahuna and other societal norms melted away. It was a taste of unrestrained freedom for the first time.
The Pacific Northwest soon became popular place for Hawaiians to see, explore and even relocate. They joined the Americans and Europeans in exploring that frontier. A high chief was among the first nonindigenous people to see the mighty mouth of the Columbia River in 1792.
When the industrial revolutions in England and the United States transformed Western society, frontiers like the Pacific Northwest had become valuable for their natural resources. An early industry was the fur trade.
Seals, otters and beavers populating the Pacific Northwest fueled the fur and trapper trade. Hawaiians were recruited by the companies to join the hearty crews that sailed to places that would later become Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to trade furs with the native tribes. They would join settlements among the thick forests of trees and ice-cold streams and rivers.
The companies preferred Hawaiians because of their skills in the water and canoeing. They were ideal for the fur trade, which depended heavily on good mariners. In the 1820s, the Hudson Bay Co., an English trading company dating back to the 1600s, became the primary company of the Pacific Northwest.
In his famous account of life at sea, Richard Henry Dana wrote about the Sandwich Islanders in 1834. He noted that the Hawaiian names were difficult for Anglo-American tongues. Instead, they had swashbuckling names like Ban-yan, Foretop, Ropeyarn and Pelican.
The HBC, as it was known, started to employ Hawaiians on a regular basis. In the 1840s, HBC evolved. The fur trade had died out. Lumber, salmon fishing and farming were now profitable industries. It is estimated that 300 to 400 Native Hawaiians were working in the area. The center of operations for the HBC was Fort Vancouver near the Columbia River, north of what is now the city of Portland.
When their service with the company ended, a few stuck around. Some had married with the indigenous tribes and started a new life there. Their influence can still be found in a few place names.
One example is John Kalama. He was sent as a liaison with the Native American tribe, the Cowlitz, as the company moved into southern hinterlands to set up a hog farm. It was a smart move. Kalama was a good representative for the company and operations continued in harmony with the tribe. A river in southern Washington was named after him — the Kalama River. That river later became the namesake of a town today called Kalama.
Then there’s Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in the northern part of the state. The harbor is named after an HBC sheepherder named Joseph Poalie Friday. He had one of those colorful names described by Dana.
The Hawaiian migration to the northwest began to ebb in the 1840s. Kamehameha III worried about the decline of the Native Hawaiian population. A new law was passed that required island governors to consent to captains recruiting laborers to send abroad. That was designed to keep Hawaiian workers at home.
The laws in the United States also served as a deterrent. Authorities imposed taxes on Polynesian laborers. Soon thereafter a legal question emerged out of Washington. Were Native Hawaiians allowed to vote and become citizens of the United States? The answer from the white settlers of the Oregon and Washington territories was a firm and resolute no.
By the 1850s the connection had severed. Most Hawaiians that remained in the area moved to Canada. A few stayed behind. Many returned to the islands.
When they did, they brought their love of smoked salmon with them. It soon became a staple food that we know today as lomi-lomi salmon. Perhaps that’s the only evidence left of the once-thriving and enterprising kanakas who ventured to far-off places.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”