Hawaii Pono’i — The Only Reason I Know The Words


“The only reason I know the words to the state anthem, “Hawaii Pono’i,” is because we were required to sing it, along with “The Star Spangled Banner,” every Monday morning at flag assembly in elementary school. I knew the words; but the meaning behind them escaped me. Out of rebellion, I mouthed the words instead of audibly singing them.

The only other time outside of St. Elizabeth School that I sang the state anthem was during a University of Hawaii football game in 2007. It was the game that would propel the team to the Sugar Bowl on an unprecedented undefeated season.

All the criticisms the football program had ever received were flipped that night. The brown rusty stadium, product of years of repairing corrosion to its metal structure, was a symbol of Hawaii’s humble, working class roots. The upper deck, known for swaying back and forth because it was originally designed to be multi-use before mismanagement locked it in the football state was rocking, shaking back and forth from the stomps of ardent locals. Those aggressive fans known for starting fights in the middle of the stands were not confrontational, but passionately defending their home turf.

UH’s normal lack of collegiate identity was instead replaced by a fervent, regional fanaticism that completely overtook the island. You could start a conversation with the grocery clerk, your bus driver and your uncle about who we deserved to play in the Sugar Bowl.

This was the closest we got to something resembling what we’ve all seen on television in the south every Saturday morning. This was the closest thing we’ve seen that had the ability to modify people’s daily life. Hawaii, for the most part, is apathetic to things that require hours of commitment, spending money on expensive beer and sitting in traffic. Maybe those who don’t live with perfect weather all year around can tolerate those things, but Hawaii residents can’t be bothered with something that can easily happen in their garage — the Heineken is cheaper and you don’t need sit in traffic for two hours on Salt Lake Boulevard.

Aloha Stadium looked different that afternoon. I’ve seen stadiums packed to the brim, complete with coordinated school colors and ritualistic call-and-response cheers inside of the arena, but Aloha Stadium didn’t look like what you see on College Game Day. There was no identifiable student section and there really wasn’t a clear understanding of what our colors actually were. The classic UH Rainbows wore green and white. The new school Warriors wore black and green, but that night they were in silver and gray. Despite the lack the lack of uniformity, the stadium being sold out was beautiful. Old folks with their UH Volleyball polos on, dudes with tank tops waving ti-leaves, dudes without shirts waving ti-leaves and families who looked like they left behind a really comfortable garage to be here.

This game was so special, everyone had left their tailgate and was actually in their seat for kickoff, a minor miracle for any sporting event, much less one on a warm Saturday evening on Oahu. We sang the obligatory national anthem, but it felt antsy. The school was only four quarters away from crashing college football’s party, something that’s teased us for fifty years, no one thinking we would even be in kicking distance of playing a big southern school on New Year’s Day.

Amongst the cheering and yelling and the screams, “Hawaii Pono’i” started. And instead of the eye rolls and indifference I threw at it in elementary school, I started singing — along with the entire stadium. Fifty thousand people doing anything at the same time is always awesome. But 50,000 people singing about a song about where they’re from, well, that’s just magnificent. The low baritone of the crowd was formidable. I felt proud. And fired up. And angry. And happy. I got goosebumps then and I get goosebumps anytime I think about it. This was for every time a map of the USA left off Hawaii! This was for every time someone asked if I lived in a grass shack! This time we weren’t too late for mainland TV viewers, we were prime time. We made it.

This wasn’t about BCS rankings or a soft non-conference schedule, this was about the people of Hawaii getting together and being proud of where we’re from. Yes, we’re a five hour flight from the closest mainland city. Yes, we only have four electoral votes. Yes, we back our cars into parking stalls.

As tight knit as we think we are and despite all of the “ohana” rhetoric, people in Hawaii are no different that our mainland counterparts. We bicker over a rail because it doesn’t serve our personal daily interest. We can’t figure out how to lower the astronomic cost of living. We can’t agree on a telescope on top of Mauna Kea. And we can’t figure out why there are so many self-storage units here.

So, let’s agree on the ‘Bows (or Rainbow Warriors). Football in Hawaii will never be like it is in Alabama or Texas because our priorities are different, so let’s agree to support our only university’s football team. Let’s agree to get together a handful of Saturdays in the Fall to drink expensive light beer, wave around a ti-leaf and remind the rest of the country what we’re all about.

Because when else we going to get to sing “Hawaii Pono’i?”


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Published in Honolulu Civil Beat (2016)
by Nickolaus Sugai