HONOLULU (AP) — In Hawaii, there’s a common question in the islands’ pidgin language: “Where did you go?”
Knowing where someone went to high school has long been an important identifier for Hawaiians and helps connect people in the state‘s tight-knit communities. It’s a sense of belonging that goes much deeper than just promoting a particular team or cross-city rivalries.
“It’s how you understand your place in Hawaii and your affiliation,” said Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, professor in the departments of Ethnic Studies and Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It tells all these stories about race, class and other things that are implied by the school and the communities that you imagine going there.”
But for some, answering that question becomes complicated when the school bears the name of President William McKinley, whom many native Hawaiians despise for his role in the Hawaiian Kingdom’s annexation to the United States. And now a proposal to change McKinley High School’s name to Honolulu has sharply divided graduates, 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 — was appropriate and would help reignite his pride in the school.
“As I grew up and became more informed about history … all these names that were chosen or celebrated were the very ones that overtook the place,” he said. “In the spirit of historical justice, if I can be one of the many voices calling for the name to be restored, I can be a little prouder to be a part of the effort and also a part of this school.”
But even talk of changing the school’s name makes 1979 graduate Suzanne Chun Oakland cry.
“It was like getting my heart stabbed,” the former state legislature said upon hearing about the effort. “It’s like going to your family and saying you have to change your family name.”
The debate comes amid a growing movement in the islands to restore traditional Hawaiian place names to honor and respect Native Hawaiian culture and history.
What was formerly known as Barbers Point on western Oahu is now Kalaeloa. On Kauai, Fort Elisabeth State Historical Park has been renamed Pa’ula’ula. The iconic Diamond Head is increasingly called Leahi and some people prefer to say Puuloa instead of Pearl Harbor.
The movement to return to traditional names extends beyond Hawaii, and there are efforts in the United States. One of the most notable name changes also affected McKinley: North America’s tallest mountain, named for the former president for more than a century, was reverted to its previous name Denali in 2015 in honor of Alaskan Native people.
But many Hawaiians’ ties to their high school are proving to be an unlikely stumbling block in the growing quest for authenticity on the islands, where some public schools are named for their locations and some for people, including the businessmen who dominated during Hawaii’s sugar plantation past.
Less than 2 miles from McKinley High, Central Middle School changed its name to Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani Middle School — a change some say was easy because “where you were grad grad” always changed relates to high school.
Hawaii’s statewide public school teachers’ union has backed plans to change McKinley High’s name.
The school’s “name glorifies a man who illegally annexed a country against the wishes of his queen and people,” the union wrote last year, urging members to support a legislative resolution on the matter.
The resolution stalled in the last legislative session, as did another call to restore Captain Cook’s Big Island congregation’s original name to Kaawaloa.
“I think we’re in a time where people are really starting to see the changes that are needed, the historical wrongdoings against Native Americans and Indigenous peoples, and the importance of restoring place names,” said State Rep. Jeanne Kapela, who is responsible for the presented resolutions to change the name.
Kapela said she understands that people may refuse to change names of places they feel connected to.
“I have my own affinity with my own alma mater, but the reality is that no matter what the name of the school, it sits in one place,” said Kapela, who graduated from Konawaena High School, meaning that it is located in the center of Kona. “It’s the community that built us. And this community is based on a place name. To honor this community, we must honor the place it stands.”
McKinley High principal Ron Okamura argued to keep the name, also citing the connection between identity and high school, saying that it “goes deep into the makeup of who we are.”
“We’re often asked, ‘Where did you graduate from?’ and the answer is always the name of our high school,” he wrote in his statement against the change. “It’s not about who the school is named after, it’s about the ‘branding’ of the school culture that is associated with that school.”
Keeping the name also ensures history is learned, not erased, he said.
However, efforts to change the school’s name are ongoing.
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian cultural worker who did not attend McKinley, said it was offensive to keep a name honoring a man who “was no friend of Hawaiians.”
“It would be one thing if you said get rid of the school,” she said. “But a name change is about the dignity of a people.”
The meaning of the question “Where did you graduate from?” has roots in Polynesian culture, which values knowing where someone is from, but it was also co-opted by foreign colonizers who became natives of Hawaii, she said.
“Because if you say, ‘Oh, where are you from,’ they can’t claim the land themselves because they know that’s not where their family originated from,” Wong-Kalu said. “But you can claim the school.”
Nanette Kaiwi, a native Hawaiian graduate of the Class of 1967, said she met weekly with some of her classmates and they discussed plans for their upcoming 55th reunion and their strong feelings against the name change.
Kaiwi said she and her classmates worried about how they would respond when asked, “Where did you go?” a question Kaiwi had asked herself numerous times at a recent family reunion. They even worry about how their offspring 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 grandparents. “It was the thought of losing the identity of the school we attended.”
Kaiwi said she also wants to keep McKinley’s name and a statue that stands on campus so that past injustices are not forgotten.
“I want it to stay because I don’t want people to forget that the book he’s holding is not a contract,” she said of the statue. “That everything is a lie and that our country has been stolen.”
Catherine Anderson Orlans, a 2005 graduate, said she learned McKinley’s true place in Hawaiian history not from school but from her kupuna, or elder.
“It’s kind of like this awkward elephant in the room,” she said of attending McKinley. “As a Hawaiian student, you always kind of know what it really means…but it really wasn’t taught in the school.”
Though she’s still proud to have graduated from school, she believes the name change will help heal a deeper loss of identity for other native Hawaiians.
“I have no problem saying in the future, ‘I graduated from Honolulu High School, formerly McKinley High School,'” she said.