Reclaiming their traditions and cultural identity
The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) prison population in the U.S. skyrocketed 250 percent in the 1990s, while the country’s overall prison population grew by only 77 percent. AAPI is now counted within a group called “Others” by the prison tracking system. Among “Others” released from state prisons across this country in 2005, the recidivism rate for the AAPI community is sobering. Seventy-two percent were arrested for another crime within three years. For the AAPIs that return to San Quentin’ there is hope through spiritual services called the Native Hawaiian Religious Group (NHRG).
In San Quentin, one of the few remaining native Hawaiians is perched in his cell, meditating and reading about returning to the place he now understands is his home — Hawaii. Travis Vales, 28 years old, has his sights set on returning to the Islands, “to go home,” after his prison term is complete. “Being at San Quentin has allowed me to touch my familial roots like I would never have done on the streets. Now, I want to utilize my knowledge and skills to provide affordable housing, and to teach basic work skills and money management. If I can assist in fighting the epidemic of homelessness and drug usage at home, I believe Hawaii can be more than a tourist attraction. To me, it all starts with a willingness to encourage people to be and do more by leading.”
The San Quentin Native Hawaiians and members of the AAPI community together make up the NHRG. The group assists in the rehabilitation of the incarcerated men. The group’s mission is helping participants connect with their roots and culture through traditional dance and chants, while encouraging a spiritual journey. Some of the men were disconnected from their culture before incarceration. As a result, they gravitated towards gangs, drugs and violence. Through the NHRG these men are able to hold them for their actions. Unfortunately, the NHRG has been on a year and a half absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the NHRG resumes, Vales will have an opportunity to study his culture, which he believes will make him “one with the earth and all of its peaceful aspects.” He continued, “I pray I can be touched by the spiritual teachings of Kumu Patrick Makuakāne, the way my incarcerated brothers here before me were touched. I can look forward to seeing my family come in to watch me perform in this holy ritual.”
Kumu Patrick Makuakāne, a spiritual leader, is the cultural anchor of San Quentin’s NHRG and is assisted by Adel “Auntie Adel” Serafino and Jun “Auntie Jun” Hamamato. Their goal is to build a bridge between the outside local AAPI community and the incarcerated AAPI community. Adel teaches ukulele. Hamamoto teaches origami classes.
History of the AAPI struggles
The economic boom of American and Japanese commercialism, both before and after WWII, diminished the footprint of native Hawaiian tribes. Today they are a shadow of what they were. Since 1918, when Queen Lili‘uokalani exchanged Hawaiian sovereignty for a paltry sum of money, Hawaiians have seen their homeland gentrified and their native identity fade.
As was the experience of natives on the mainland whose land was incorporated into the United States, Hawaiian native culture became blended with the mainland’s White, European-rooted culture. This relationship led to an erosion of native cultural values.
As investments from the mainland accelerated following WWII, including a building boom in the ’70s and ’80s, the “progress” that it represented was never fully shared by the native people whose culture contributed so much to the appeal of the islands. Don Ho’s Tiny Bubbles thrived, as the island culture became merely a tool to promote tourism. Pacific Islanders believe that they have witnessed the destruction of their communities and now are contemplating reparations.
“To my knowledge the Homestead program and an educational grant are the only reparations currently available — I hope to help change that. For my family’s just rewards, I intend to take advantage of the reparations currently in place. I believe the state program supports native Hawaiian ownership of land and property if you are at least 50% legitimate — if DNA proves me legit,” Vales said. “Unfortunately, the current Homestead program gives land to those eligible, but the land is underdeveloped for the next 20 years and one must pay one dollar per year for property tax. Essentially this delays real ownership rights until my next generation, when we can actually build.”
Native Frankie Sierra added, “I am not 100 percent pure Hawaiian and am called a Howlie by my people, yet I know my Great Aunt Lu who is still alive and has 11 children, speaks generationally for my family,” He continued, “I would love to go back to my country, now that I understand the history of my native country. Yes, we were a country — and it was stolen from us. In the age of amends to races, where people have grown away from tradition, I pray our heritage is not forgotten at the time of reparations.”
Vales’ attitude toward America’s takeover of Hawaii is peaceful and passive. He believes that although Hawaii’s traditional ways are forgotten or deemed obsolete by the White man, Hawaii’s culture has not become extinct; instead it has morphed and adapted to survive — even if by a thread.
But Vales also assumes the stance of a peaceful warrior, stating, “Like all conquerors in war, the worst of the war is always overlooked and hidden by propaganda — in this case the propaganda of America. Because of this, people aren’t aware of how my homeland and our culture became part of the United States.”
Following Queen Lili‘uokalani’s forced submission to the United States in 1893, a failed 1895 insurrection led to her arrest for treason, and her detainment under house arrest in her own palace. In protest, Lili‘uokalani declined an invitation to watch the annexation ceremony as Hawaii was officially absorbed by the United States in 1898. For the rest of her life, the deposed queen fought to preserve native Hawaiian rights and traditions.
As Hawaii became a territory, the U.S. penal system was brought to the islands. Reports by The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Amerasian Journal provide the following details about the impact of the system:
- Native Hawaiians disproportionately impact the U.S. prison system and share in the statistic that, in this country, Native youth, which are only 1% of the total national youth population, account for 70% of youth taken into federal custody
- Native Hawaiians make up 24% of Hawaii’s population yet account for 39% of its incarcerated population
- Native American women are incarcerated at six times the rate of White women
- Native American men are incarcerated at four times the rate of White men
The Makahiki Celebration
“Makahiki originated hundreds of years ago during a three-month moratorium agreed to by all Pacific Island cultures during their ancient and historical cultural battles. All warring parties agreed on this cease-fire to allow their warriors time to reflect, replenish and celebrate life,” said Makuakāne, who reminded us that the assault on the islands was not just on the people, but on the environment as well. He also spoke of environmental protections in Hawaii to thwart over-development in the tropical paradise, adding, “If we come together as a community and think as one, there is so much more that we can do.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, October 2019 was the last time the NHRG was able to celebrate the feast and, more importantly, conduct services throughout the year. Native Louis Sale reflected on the importance of the healing that happens in the group. Sale, who performed a solo at the last Makahiki, had five family members drive from San Diego to see how his hard work paid off.
“I’ve been to a lot of prisons and there is nothing like San Quentin,” Sale’s wife said. “We are thankful they instill our culture deeper into our men. This program shows that the miracle of rehabilitation includes interacting and healing with and through family, even in a land that may not be considered paradise. Here, it’s all about family and community.” The family members lovingly called themselves “Louie’s masters.” The show had a relaxing Polynesian feel. They were amazed.
Moving forward with purpose
The AAPI incarcerated culture’s reemergence is assisted through the hard work of NHRG and support from the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). Supporters like Ngheip Ke Lam have returned to help the incarcerated AAPI community in San Quentin and Solano state prisons transition back to society. As a formerly incarcerated man, Lam understands their transitional needs, and can assist them in their transition. He works for Oakland’s chapter of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). This is an important part of their cultural revival.
The men of NHRG can take what they’ve learned to help teach their families, children and the community their traditional roots and cultural values. Through the NHRG, men like Vales, Sale, and Sierra learn about the “Kealapono” — the righteous path —and adapt its principles into their daily lives. Sale adds, “It’s beyond learning about Kealapono; it’s living and breathing it in all aspects of our lives. I intend to give back to my family and the community because it’s the Kealapono way.”