This is America: It's not just Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month anymore

Eve Chen
Members of the Kamehameha Schools Choir prepare for the 2011 NFL Pro Bowl pre-game show at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was already a lot to take in.

There are so many distinct cultures and disparate experiences within these two massive identity groups, so often seen as one. But something changed in the framing last year that matters this month and always.

In 2021, the White House singled out Native Hawaiians in proclaiming May as Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Welcome to "This is America," a newsletter centered on race, identity and how they shape our lives. I’m Eve Chen, a Travel reporter with USA TODAY and co-chair of Gannett's Asian American employee resource group.

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How AAPI Heritage Month first started

Ever since its earliest incarnation in the late 1970s, May has marked some variation of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week or Asian American and Pacific Islander Month

Lawmakers chose May in recognition of the first Japanese immigrants arriving in the U.S. in May 1843 and the first transcontinental railroad being completed in May 1869, largely by Chinese laborers who risked their lives for far less pay than other workers while navigating hostility and discrimination

Fun fact: Filipinos were actually the first Asians to settle in North America in the 1500s.

The 1992 law establishing Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in perpetuity honors how "Asian and Pacific Americans have contributed significantly to the development of the arts, sciences, government, military, commerce, and education in the United States."

It didn't go into detail about Pacific Islanders.

An outrigger canoe is seen off the shore of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii.

A new addition

Now Native Hawaiians are being recognized.

Krystal Ka‘ai, the first Native Hawaiian to serve as executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, told USA TODAY:

"Since day one, the Biden-Harris Administration has made it a priority to bring visibility to the needs of the Native Hawaiian community, especially as they face significant COVID-19 health inequities. Furthermore, Native Hawaiians’ rights, resources, and lands are often affected by federal actions – and we are actively engaging with and elevating Native Hawaiian voices throughout all aspects of our work.

The steps we have taken so far – including the explicit recognition of Native Hawaiians in the Administration’s initiatives and celebrations – demonstrate our commitment to honoring Native Hawaiians as partners as we strive to build a more inclusive government." 

This May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Kamehameha Schools is honored that Native Hawaiians are specifically named this year in AANHPI Heritage Month and grateful for the opportunity to highlight our history and culture," said Kau‘i Burgess, director of community & government relations with Kamehameha Schools, the prestigious Hawaii-based private school system for Native Hawaiian youth. "We celebrate with our AANHPI cousins across the country the unique and diverse heritages of our peoples and the shared experiences that unite us.”

As an Asian American, I couldn't be more thrilled for Native Hawaiians to have the spotlight.

Don't get me wrong. Each Asian American and Pacific Islander community deserves recognition for its unique heritage and history within the U.S.

We are not a monolith.

But Native Hawaiians (and the people of Guam, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and various other islands) have the specific experience of having their homelands become part of the U.S. There is a whole lot of history and baggage there.

That deserves to stand out.

Read more about Native Hawaiians and the issues impacting them

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