Early Life and Lineage
Born in 1949, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask grew up in Hawaii on the island of O’ahu. Describing her lineage, Trask wrote, “When I meet another Hawaiian, I say I am descended of two genealogical lines: the Pi'ilani line through my mother, who is from Hana, Maui, and the Kahakumakaliua line through my father’s family from Kauai.”
Education and Intersectionality on the Mainland
She attended Kamehameha Schools — a Hawaiian private school system established by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate under the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop (1831–1884), who wanted to see her people flourish through education after experiencing their decline. (An analysis estimates there were 683,000 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii when British explorer James Cook arrived in 1778. By 1840, the Native Hawaiian population declined 84%.)
Trask earned her bachelor’s degree in 1972, master’s degree in 1975, and Ph.D. in 1981 in political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. During her studies on the mainland, Trask developed an intersectional understanding of racism, capitalism, Indigenous beliefs, and transnational feminism. She also became a supporter of the Black Panther Party and anti-war movements, protesting the Vietnam War.
Academic Career and the Founding of Hawaiian Studies
In 1981, Trask began her academic career at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa as an assistant professor in the American studies department with expertise in feminist theory and Indigenous studies. She was the first Indigenous woman hired as a lecturer at UH Mānoa and is credited with co-founding the field of Hawaiian Studies, later becoming the founding director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa — a position she maintained until retiring in 2010.
The establishment of Hawaiian Studies resulted in part from the growing Hawaiian sovereignty movement and Aloha ʻĀina, which progressed alongside the civil rights movement, global decolonization struggles, and anti-imperialism movements, and the American Indian Movement. To further educate people on cultural and political Hawaiian issues, Trask began hosting and producing a monthly public-access TV series, First Friday, in 1986.
Grassroots Organizing and Anti-Tourism
Trask was also a founding member of Ka Lahui Hawaii, a grassroots initiative that advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination for Native Hawaiians, which held its first convention and adopted its constitution in 1987. Ka Lahui Hawaii in part defined sovereignty with the following elements: a common culture (including language), a land base, a government structure, an economic base, and self-sufficiency.
Likewise, Trask opposed tourism in Hawaii, writing, “In Hawai'i, the destruction of our land and the prostitution of our culture is planned and executed by multi-national corporations, by huge landowners, and by collaborationist state and county governments.” For context, the 2021 US Census estimates that Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders make up 10% of the population in Hawaii; however, they make up 51% of people facing homelessness in Hawaii.
Oppression and Endangerment of Hawaiian Culture
A critical aspect of any culture, language was championed by Ka Lahui Hawaii in their mission for Hawaiian sovereignty, in particular, because the Hawaiian language nearly died out. In 1896 — three years after the overthrowing of the Hawaiian monarchy — the provisional government declared English the official language used in education. This “English-only” law was modeled on broader assimilation policies to eradicate the indigenous languages of Native Americans. Though Hawaiian was not outright banned, it was effectively forbidden from being spoken in schools, as teachers punished children speaking Hawaiian on school grounds and even reprimanded parents for speaking Hawaiian at home. By the 1970s, reports estimate only 1,000-2,000 Native Hawaiian speakers remained, most of whom were part of older generations.
During the 1978 Constitutional Convention, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was created, and the State Constitution was amended to mandate that the State promote “the study of Hawaiian culture, history, and language’ and recognize Hawaiian as an official language. This political progress contributed to the eventual founding of the field of Hawaiian Studies by establishing educational courses around Hawaiian culture, history, and language. Today, Olelo Hawai’i, the Native Hawaiian language, is still considered an endangered language, as also listed by the United Nations.
Making National Headlines As a “Racist” and Hawaiian Nationalism
In 1990, Trask made national headlines when Joseph Carter, a white student majoring in philosophy at the University of Hawaii, wrote a letter to the student newspaper about “Caucasian bashing” and argued that “racism is not an exclusively white endeavor.” To exemplify his point, Carter claimed that the Hawaiian word “haole” — which means “foreigner” but is often associated with white people — was a pejorative for Caucasians. Trask responded through her own letter to the newspaper in which she explained the white oppression of Native Hawaiians and asserted that “Mr. Carter does not understand racism at all” and should leave the state. In addressing the use of “haole,” Trask stated, “Only new arrivals resent it because they have not had experience in a numerical minority.” At the time, the island’s racial population was 33.4% white, 12.5% Native Hawaiian, and nearly 50% Asian.
After Trask’s response, Carter did, in fact, return to Louisiana (though he later returned and re-enrolled), and critics began calling Trask “a racist who abused her position by lashing out at a student.” The philosophy department even condemned Trask in a unanimously approved resolution calling for her removal. However, the Center of Hawaiian Studies denounced the philosophy department’s use of “plantation tactics of threat, reprisal, and intimidation.” As reported by the New York Times, people of various ethnic backgrounds deemed Trask’s vehemently raising these issues “un-Hawaiian,” claiming that the Hawaiian way “is to be gentle, patient, and circumspect.” To this criticism, Trask declared, “I am not soft. I am not sweet, and I do not want any more tourists in Hawaii.”
She later defended her stance that same year on an episode of “Island Issues” and responded to callers who took issues with her views, including referring to Hawaii as “stolen land.” In one response, Trask compared the forcible colonization of Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Native lands, Guam, Micronesia, and Pulau by the US to the taking of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, declaring Americans the recipients of imperialist traditions.
Protests for Hawaiian Sovereignty and Notable Works
On January 17, 1993, the Centennial of the Overthrow — the 100-year anniversary of the overthrowing of the Hawaiian monarchy — Trask led a march of 15,000 Native Hawaiians and famously delivered a speech on the steps of Iolani Palace about Hawaiian sovereignty, one of the first major protests calling for the return of native lands in Hawaii. Hawai’i Public Television also broadcasted the award-winning documentary, “Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation,” co-written and co-produced by Trask, during the centennial.
A few months later, Trask published her most notable book, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i, a “well-reasoned attack against rampant abuse of Native Hawaiian rights, institutional racism, and gender discrimination.” In the book, Trask also discusses Ka Lahui Hawai'i’s plan for Hawaiian self-government and the 1989 Hawai'i declaration of the Hawai'i Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism. Accordingly, From a Native Daughter is considered a foundational text in indigenous rights.
Beyond her work in Hawai’i, Trask advocated for indigenous rights and represented Native Hawaiians at the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, as well as in Samiland (Norway), Aotearoa (New Zealand), Basque Country (Spain), and Indian nations throughout the United States and Canada. She also participated in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
In 2004, she opposed the Akaka Bill — which proposed a process for US federal recognition for Native Hawaiians similar to Native American tribes — because it prohibited Native Hawaiians from receiving benefits available to federally recognized Indian tribes.
In 2021, Trask died due to cancer at age 71. Nevertheless, Trask's fight to champion Hawaiian sovereignty and educate new generations as a scholar, poet, and activist directly lives on through the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa.