Data is a powerful resource, informing the policies that impact our community; but, too often, indigenous populations have no control over the data that describes them, creating a disconnect between on-the-ground needs and top-down policy proposals.

This past summer, the Hawaiʻi Budget & Policy Center was privileged to work with Lilinoe Kauahikaua, a master’s degree student in the University of Hawaiʻi School of Social Work. Lilinoe was a summer intern here, thanks to a grant from Papa Ola Lokahi, and collected and analyzed data on some of the ways that the state of Hawaiʻi invests in Native Hawaiians. Our plan was to look at a handful of state programs to see the extent of resources devoted to helping indigenous Hawaiians and what kinds of results they were getting.  What we found was a more fundamental problem: Lack of ethnic and racial data.

“One of the ways that there is a continuing genocide against American Indians/Alaska Natives is through data. When we are invisible in the data, we no longer exist,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, an organization committed to decolonizing data. The same is true for Native Hawaiians who are often hidden in data clumps that include Asians and other Pacific Islanders.

Disaggregating data—in this case, collecting, analyzing, and reporting on the individual ethnic groups often reported nationally as “AAPI”—has been identified as a key civil rights issue for Asian Americans,  and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. This is because the collection and use of data is political. Data can be used to maintain the current balance of power. Data informs policy. It defines problems and solutions and is used to determine who is deserving of resources and how much each group is allocated.  

In other words, Data can be used to make indigenous people disappear. One could argue that lumping Native Hawaiians into a cluster that includes all Asian Americans and other Pacific Islanders shows that federal and state data decision-makers lack interest in the significant distinctions among these groups.  If race or ethnic groups are beneath notice, it’s an easy next step to divert funding and policy support away from them.

Decolonizing data, by contrast, has been described as the act of reclaiming the purpose and value of data collected, analyzed and used by and for native peoples. Putting data decisions in the hands of indigenous peoples acknowledges their inherent strengths and puts them in control of what data is gathered, how it’s interpreted, and what it will be used for. It gives indigenous people the right to their own stories and information. For instance, western researchers may collect data that describes Native Hawaiians in terms of needs or problems to be solved. The narrative emphasized by Native Hawaiians, themselves, might rightfully focus on their people’s strength, resilience, wisdom to solve problems, and contributions to the greater society instead.  

Here in Hawaiʻi we surely know the importance of collecting data in numerous racial and ethnic categories. And yet in our project we found that state programs and departments collected racial and ethnic data inconsistently if they collected it at all. As a result, the programs can’t tell if they’re using their funds to meet the greatest needs in the community or if they’re getting good, bad, or no results.  The lack of ethnic data allows program directors and policy-makers to skip asking Native Hawaiian (and other groups) about better ways to solve problems and invest funds.

In honor of Indigenous Peoples Day, we endorse putting Native Hawaiians in the forefront of developing data collection policies for the State of Hawaiʻi. Hawaiʻi’s State agencies, in consultation with Native Hawaiian stakeholders, should develop and follow standards to collect and report on disaggregated ethnic data that describes the people they serve. This kind of information is indispensable for designing, funding, and evaluating effective programs.

This is also a great opportunity to share the recommendations from the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum and from the Native Nations Institute that will move us toward data decolonization and disaggregation: 

  1. Identify indigenous data sovereignty as a priority and start incorporating it in public policy.
  2. Standardize the collection of data on race, ethnicity, primary language and sociodemographic factors.
  3. Build resources and support for indigenous data governance to guide data collection and use by both indigenous groups and others. Ensure adequate resources needed to collect disaggregated data for Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and a variety of Asian American ethnic groups.
  4. Increase the capacity of indigenous groups to take control of data collection, analysis and use to affect overall governance.
  5. Foster strong relationships between the stewards of indigenous data and the many public and private groups that collect and use data.
  6. Connect with national and international native and indigenous groups to share strategies, resources and ideas. Partner with funders and advocates to advance data equity at the local, state, and national levels.