Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander Heritage Month

The month of May is dedicated to celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage. The reason May was chosen to celebrate Asian Pacific American communities is because in May of 1843, the first Japanese people immigrated to the United States. And, Golden Spike Day, which commemorates the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 that was largely built by Chinese workers, is also celebrated during this month.

Every year the Federal Asian Pacific American Council (FAPAC) designates a theme to the month, and this year they’ve chosen “Advancing Leaders Through Innovation” to commemorate the trailblazers of the Asian Pacific American community that have influenced history. The theme is a continuation of the “Advancing Leaders” series that began in 2021.

Please join Think Together in uplifting these innovative leaders, the history of these communities and the influence they’ve had on American culture.

The Origins of AANHPI Month

AANHPI month started as AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) with Chinese American Jeanie Jew, who was a former Capitol Hill staffer. It was a personal mission for her to advocate for Asian Pacific representation. Her great-grandfather immigrated from China in the 19th century and had contributed to the building of the transcontinental railroad. He was later killed due to growing anti-Asian sentiment when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed. Jeanie saw this injustice with not only her family history, but others of the same cultural community.

AAPI month started as a week-long celebration in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter issued the first presidential proclamation for Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. It wasn’t until 1992 that May was officially designated as a celebration for AAPI heritage. The Asian Pacific community encompasses diverse cultures that expand all over the continent of Asia and the Pacific Ocean, including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and many more. The Native Hawaiian community was added to the group in 2021 by the Biden administration.

Asian American Innovators and Leaders

An Asian American trailblazer in the U.S. Senate is Ladda Tammy Duckworth, who is the first disabled woman and second Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. She is Thai American and is an Iraqi War Veteran that lost both her legs and partial use of her arm when she was flying a helicopter that was hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) in 2004. In 2009, she was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs by President Obama and currently serves as a senator for the state of Illinois. Senator Duckworth also made history again in 2018 when she announced she was expecting a baby, making her the first senator to give birth while holding office.

Another innovative individual from the Asian American community is Indian-born American computer architect Ajay Bhatt. He invented the Universal Serial Bus or what it’s most widely known as, USB, in 1996. He was an employee at Intel when he came up with the design for USB, and the idea came to him when his wife had difficulty printing something for their daughter. Today it is considered a universal standard plug-in and is used in a range of electronic products that power our daily lives.

Skating her way through glass ceilings is Asian American Judi Oyama, who’s a revered leader for female skateboarders. She is a California native who rose through the ranks of the male dominated pro-skater world in the 70s and was the only female competitor at the inaugural Capitola Classic in 1977. She was a teenager when she competed and ended up finishing in eighth place. In 2015, Oyama was the first woman to ever win the N-Men Icon Award, which is given to Northern California skaters who’ve left an impact in the sport. She was also the former Vice President of Board Rescue – an organization that provides skateboards and safety equipment to organizations that work with underprivileged and/or at-risk kids.

Breaking barriers in the field of literature is Laotian American poet Bryan Thao Worra. He is leading the way for his community as the first Laotian American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. Worra was also selected to represent Laos as a Cultural Olympian during the 2012 London Summer Olympics’ Poetry Parnassus. He is an advocate for the Laotian American community and has worked to uplift other Asian Pacific American writers.

A recent win for the Asian Pacific American community occurred in 2022 when Sokhary Chau became the first Cambodian American to be elected as mayor in the U.S. He holds office in Lowell, Massachusetts, which is home to the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community; Long Beach, California is the first. Chau and his family left Cambodia during Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule and settled in Lowell in the 80s.

Native Hawaiian Innovators and Leaders

Before it came a worldwide sport, surfing—or “he’e nalu” in Hawaiian — was a common cultural practice and can be dated back more than 2,000 years to ancient Polynesia. Duke Kahanamoku, a renowned gold medal Olympic swimmer, popularized the sport when he won in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. He demonstrated surfing in places like Australia and the U.S. where it took off and gained headway around the 1930s to 1940s. Today surfing continues to influence not only action sports, but worldwide tourism trends and environmental awareness.

Hawaii has many ancient roots, one of them being hula. With colonization, many traditions have been lost and forgotten, but it was Native Hawaiians like ʻIolani Luahine who fought for the ancient traditions to be revived in the 20th century. She was known as the “high priestess of ancient hula” and created schools dedicated to teaching the ancient art of hula. ‘Iolani is credited with reviving hula kahiko, which is the ancient style of hula dance, for future generations and preserving Hawaiian culture.

Before the abolishment of the Hawaiian monarchy, there were royals like Princess Pauahi. She was a notable philanthropist that established the Kamehameha School system to improve future generations of Native Hawaiians, academically and culturally. Upon her death in 1884, the schools were founded as they were one of her wishes she left behind in her will. Today, the Kamehameha Schools have grown into a statewide educational system serving more than 48,000 learners annually at 30 preschool sites, K-12 campuses on Hawaii, Maui and Oahu and a range of community outreach programs.

Pacific Islander Innovators and Leaders

A notable trailblazer who opened the door to the Pacific Islander community in literature was Sia Figiel, the first Samoan woman to be a published author in the U.S. It was her first novel, “Where We Once Belonged” that gained her notoriety in the states when it was published in 1996. Figiel’s novel depicts a coming-of-age story that surrounds the topics of gender, identity, and Samoan tradition of 13-year-old Alofa Filiga. Much of her writing is derived from traditional Samoan storytelling and she has garnered many awards.

In 2023, the Pacific Islander community celebrated another win when 18-year-old Iam Tongi became the first Pacific Islander to win American Idol. He is of Tongan and Samoan decent and secured the win with his original song, I’ll Be Seeing You”. Many other artists in the Pacific Islander community have praised Tongi’s win for bringing national recognition to Islander music. He dedicated his win to his father, who died a few months before his first audition.

Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen is another leader in the Pacific Islander community. She is the first woman to hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa and the first woman of Samoan descent to be part of the Republican Party in Congress. Part of her legislative efforts have been to effectively pass the American Samoa Economic Development Credit (ASEDC) in 2017. The legislation established economic growth and job stability for almost 3,000 workers in the American Samoa tuna industry. Congresswoman Radewagen has also led efforts to nominate a high percentage of woman to military service academies.

Fun Facts about the AANHPI Communities

Contrary to popular belief, fortune cookies are not actually Chinese. They are from Japan and aren’t a common staple in China. Japanese immigrants first brought the cookies over in the early 20th century to San Francisco, from there key events played a role in shifting the cookies to Chinese restaurants. Once Japanese immigrants were sent to internment camps in 1942, their businesses closed giving Chinese immigrants the chance to adopt the fortune cookie we know today. We know the fortune cookie as having a vanilla taste, but it was originally larger and made with sesame and miso paste, having a savory taste rather than sweet.

Many years ago, Polynesian voyagers would make journeys across the Pacific Ocean to trade goods and establish relationships with neighboring islands. One of these voyages led to the influence of the lei in Hawaii. It was introduced to Native Hawaiians by early Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti. A lei is a garland or wreath made of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, or feathers and it was occasionally given between chiefs to symbolize a peace agreement. The lei can mean many things like love, honor and respect, and it’s important to always remember proper “lei etiquette.” It can be considered rude if someone is to immediately take it off once given, since it can be a gift of admiration. Today, Hawaii tourists are adorned with leis once they arrive to the islands and Native Hawaiians will throw leis into volcanoes to honor Pele, the volcano goddess.

Moving further across the Pacific Ocean, South Asia is home to the largest human population in a single country, which is India with 1. 43 billion people, China comes in at a close second with 1.42 billion people. Having such a vast population has led India to reach many milestones, one of those being the birthplace of four major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. India also has many spiritual practices, a popular one being yoga which is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” meaning “to unite” and is over 5,000 years old, making it one of the oldest physical disciplines in the world. While the physical aspect of yoga is the most practiced, it is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. There is Yama (ethical conduct), Niyama (personal practice), Asana (physical practice), Pranayama (breathwork), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (meditation), Dhyana (being present), and Samadhi (interbeing).

The Asian Pacific American community is a vast group, filled with rich and diverse heritages. We have only highlighted a fraction of all the innovating leaders and history. Think Together makes it our mission to provide expanded learning opportunities to diverse students across the state of California and ensure bright futures are created. Please join us in keeping the learning going and experiencing new cultures!

Want to learn more? Explore the links below to continue to expand your knowledge on all the amazing contributions and milestones the AANHPI communities have made in history!