Editor’s Page: An Island Way

Finding common threads.
Photo: Adam Jung 

Traveling to New Zealand recently to document the return of a Hawaiian chief’s cloak and helmet made me think there’s an Islander identity that reaches across oceans, borders and ethnic groups.


This March, I found myself in Wellington, a busy capital city of more than 200,000 people, a mix of European, Māori, Pacific Island and Asian cultures nearly 5,000 miles from our Island home.


While I love to travel, this was my first time in this part of the world. And yet it felt fairly easy to navigate. Maybe it’s the ethnic mix, not quite as diverse as ours but with some similarities. Maybe it’s the city’s coastal location, where you’re never more than 150 miles from the sea. And that everyone speaks English. But, more than that, it felt like there was an Islander affinity. And that makes sense when we think how many of us are descended from people who came to Hawai‘i from other islands: in the Pacific, the Azores, Madeira, Okinawa, the Philippines.


I was in New Zealand at the invitation of a delegation from Hawai‘i traveling there to collect two priceless artifacts given in 1779 to Capt. James Cook by Kalani‘ōpu‘u, a chief of Hawai‘i Island. The return of these royal garments was made possible by a partnership between the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Bishop Museum, with the support of Hawaiian Airlines. 


The cloak on the mannequin is a paper replica that shows the size of the cape as worn.
Photo: Robbie Dingeman 


Wherever we traveled in New Zealand, the people we met seemed genuinely interested in the idea of returning cultural treasures to their homeland. As guests of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs delegation, we visited the Koraunui Marae in the Lower Hutt Valley, a 40-minute drive from central Wellington. Here, the delegation was reconnecting with Māori friends and contacts. Yet they welcomed visiting Hawai‘i journalists into their community center as readily as we’d add another plate to the table for friends at home. Here, they set out a lunch of meat pies, tea sandwiches, fresh fruit and desserts (these included a brilliant version of banana bread, baked round and frosted with chocolate). The next day, in the more formal setting of the conference rooms of the national museum, the welcome was equally warm, and once again accompanied by fruit and tiny baked goods.


In some ways, it reminded me of a family vacation in Ireland, which also feels like a very big island. We stayed in dorms at Trinity College, where the young dorm clerks offered up advice on ice cream and driving tips, and encouraged us to go outside the urban center. Each time we returned, they greeted us warmly, asking about our adventures. 


Sure, sometimes being an Islander means life in a smaller pond, where people prefer to get along than shake things up. But this trip, bringing home royal treasures, offered immersion into the cultural history of two Island communities while renewing my appreciation for Islanders and all our diverse journeys.