Today’s post is written by Larry Shockley, Archives Specialist in the Office of Innovation.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Covering the entire continent of Asia as well as multiple Pacific islands, the origins of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month originated with late 1970’s era congressional activity. Passed via a joint resolution of congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978, House Joint Resolution 1007 designated that a week in May be proclaimed as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.” This week eventually became “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month” via Public Law 102-450 in 1992.[i]
Commemorating both the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States in May, 1843, as well as the completion of the transcontinental railroad by a majority of Chinese immigrants in May, 1869, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been used to honor the accomplishments of many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. [ii]
Just as Jessie Owens’ four gold medal wins in the 1936 Olympics are considered both ground breaking feats in sports and barrier breaking for African Americans, Duke Kahanamoku represents a similarly transformational figure for Pacific Islanders.
Born in Hawaii on August 24, 1890, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was a five time Olympic medalist who won three gold medals for the United States after competing in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, the 1924 Olympics in Paris, and being an alternate in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. There is little doubt that Kahanamoku would have retired with even more medals had the 1916 Berlin Olympics not been canceled. By 1917, he had set three world records in 100-yard freestyle swimming. [iii] [iv] [v]
This World War I Era Draft Registration Card for Duke Kahanamoku (above) lists his age as 26, shows his occupation as “Diver” and his employer as Public Works Department of Honolulu.
In 1927 Kahanamoku traveled from Los Angeles to Honolulu to take part in the opening ceremonies of War Memorial Natatorium. Promoted as “the first “living” war memorial in the United States,” Kahanamoku took part in the ceremonies by taking the first 100 meter swim and was credited as “the man who symbolized the Hawaiian people to the rest of the world.”[vi]
In addition to his exploits in swimming, Kahanamoku was also known in some circles as “the father of modern surfing.” According to Surfer Today magazine, Kahanamoku was referred to in the surfing world as “The Duke,” and “The Big Kahuna.” He is credited as starring in the first ever surfing exhibition in Sydney, Australia. One of the many books written about him and his exploits on a surfboard is titled Surfer of the Century: The Life of Duke Kahanamoku.
Although he appeared as an actor in at least fourteen films and took part in several documentaries[vii], his passion for both swimming and surfing suggests that his proudest career moments probably would have been his induction into the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965 and, had he lived to see it, his posthumous induction into Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 1994 as a surf pioneer.[viii]
After his professional athletic career ended, Kahanamoku continued to serve his beloved state of Hawaii as sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961 and shortly after Hawaii was named the 50th US State, he was named as State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha. Shortly after his passing in 1968, a bronze statue was erected in his honor at Kuhio Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii. [ix]