In Hawaii, there is a common question asked in the Pidgin language of the islands: “Where did you go to graduate?”
Knowing where someone went in high school has long been an important marker of identity for residents of Hawaii and helps connect people in the state’s close-knit communities. It’s an affiliation that goes much deeper than cheering for a certain team or rivalries between cities.
“This is how you understand your place in Hawaii and your belonging,” said Ty P. KÄ wika Tengan, a professor in the departments of ethnic studies and anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “He tells all these stories of race, class and other things that are somehow implicit in the school and communities you imagine going there.”
But for some, answering this question becomes complicated when the school bears the name of President William McKinley, whom many Hawaiian natives despise for his role in annexing the Hawaiian Kingdom to the United States. And now a proposal to change the name of Honolulu’s McKinley High School has divided graduates sharply, often along generational lines.
Sautia Tanoa, a 2005 graduate, said changing the name to Honolulu High – the name the school bore before it was changed to McKinley in 1907 – is appropriate and would help rekindle her pride in the school.
“As I got older and became more educated about history … all of these names that were chosen or celebrated were the very ones that took the place,” he said. “In the sense of historical justice, if I can be one of the many voices calling for the name to be restored, I can be a little more proud to be part of the effort and also to be part of that school.”
But even talking about changing the school’s name makes Suzanne Chun Oakland, who graduated in 1979, cry.
“It was like stabbing myself in the heart,” the former state lawmaker said after hearing about the effort. “It’s like joining your family and saying you have to change your surname.”
The debate arises amid a growing movement across the islands to restore traditional Hawaiian place names to honor and respect Native Hawaiian culture and history.
What used to be known as Barbers Point in western Oahu is now Kalaeloa. On Kauai, Fort Elisabeth State Historical Park was renamed Pa’ula’ula. The iconic Diamond Head is increasingly being referred to as Leahi and some people prefer to say Puuloa instead of Pearl Harbor.
The movement to return to traditional names extends beyond Hawaii, with efforts underway in the United States. One of the most high-profile name changes also involved McKinley: North America’s tallest mountain, named after the former president for more than a century, was returned to its former name, Denali, in 2015 to honor the natives of Alaska.
But the attachment many in Hawaii feel towards their high school is proving an unlikely obstacle in the growing search for authenticity on the islands, where some public schools are named after their location and some are named after people, including men. businesses that have dominated during Hawaii’s sugar plantation past.
Less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from McKinley High, Central Middle School changed its name to Princess Ruth Ke’elikÅ lani Middle School – a change that some say was easy because “Where you go grad” is always refers to high school.
The Hawaii State Public School Teachers Union supported plans to change the name of McKinley High.
The “name of the school glorifies a man who illegally annexed a country against the will of his queen and her people,” the union wrote last year urging members to support a legislative resolution on the issue.
The resolution stalled in the last legislative session, as did another calling for the Big Island Captain Cook’s community to be restored to its original name of Kaawaloa.
“I think we are in this period of time where people are really starting to recognize only the changes that need to be made, the historical misdeeds that have been done against native and indigenous peoples and the importance of restoring place names. “said State Rep. Jeanne Kapela, who introduced the resolutions on the name change.
Kapela said he understands that people might resist changing the names of places they feel connected to.
“I have my affinity with my alma mater, but the reality is that regardless of the school name, that school is in one place,” said Kapela, who graduated from Konawaena High School, which means central Kona, where is located located. “It is the community that built us. And that community is based on the name of a place. To honor that community, we must honor where it is located ”.
Claiming to keep the name, McKinley High principal Ron Okamura also cited the connection between identity and high school, saying it “goes deep into the composition of who we are.”
“We are often asked ‘Where do you graduate from?’ and the answer is always the name of our high school, “she wrote in a testimony opposed to change. “It is not the name from which the school takes its name, but the ‘brand’ of the school culture that is connected to that school.”
Keeping the name also ensures that the story is learned and not erased, he said.
Efforts to change the name of the school still continue.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner who did not attend McKinley, said it was offensive to keep a name in honor of a man who “was not friends with Hawaiians.”
“It would be one thing if I had to say, get rid of school,” he said. “But changing the name is about the dignity of a people”.
The importance of the “Where did you go graduate” question has roots in Polynesian culture, which places an emphasis on knowing where someone comes from, but has also been co-opted by foreign colonizers who have become Hawaiians, he said.
“Because when you say, ‘Oh, where are you from’, they can’t claim the land itself because they know it’s not where their family originated,” Wong-Kalu said. “But you can claim the school.”
Nanette Kaiwi, a Native Hawaiian graduate of the class of 1967, said she meets weekly with some of her classmates and discuss plans for their upcoming 55th reunion and their strong feelings against the name change.
Kaiwi said she and her classmates worry about how they would respond when asked, “Where did you go to graduation,” a question Kaiwi addressed numerous times at a recent family reunion. They even worry about how their descendants will remember them.
“We didn’t want our grandchildren, great-grandchildren to say, ‘What school did Tutu go to? Oh McKinley, where is that? ‘”Kaiwi said using a Hawaiian term of endearment for grandfather. “It was the thought of losing the identity of the school we went to.”
Kaiwi said he also wants to keep the name and a statue of McKinley on campus so that past injustices are not forgotten.
“I want him to stay because I don’t want people to forget that the book he is holding is not a treatise,” he said of the statue. “That is all a lie and that our lands have been stolen.”
Catherine Anderson Orlans, a 2005 graduate, said she learned of McKinley’s true place in Hawaiian history not from school but from her kupuna, or elders.
“It’s kind of like that awkward elephant in the room,” she said she attended McKinley. “As a Hawaiian student, you always know the true meaning of who he is … but he wasn’t actually taught in school.”
Although she is still proud to have graduated from the school, she believes that changing her name will help heal a deeper loss of identity for her fellow Native Hawaiians.
“I have no problem saying in the future, ‘I graduated from Honolulu High School, formerly of McKinley High School,'” she said.