Montana State University

A different kind of Native: Hawaiian finds purpose and passion at MSU

May 6, 2009 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News


Rain, slush and Montana's spring snows do nothing to cool down Josh Mori's passion for Native Hawaiian rights and his intention to return to the islands as an activist and professor. Mori will graduate from Montana State University Saturday with a degree in philosophy and a minor in Native American Studies. He will return to MSU in the fall to begin a master's degree in Native American Studies. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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It might be said that Josh Mori has a smile that could melt a snowman, and he needs that on this late spring day in Montana when slush two inches deep slurps over Mori's rubber flip-flops and a frigid wind whips at his board shorts.

"The weather never bothers me because I know it's one thing I can't control," says Mori, who despite the spring blizzard is dressed more appropriately for his native Molokai than Montana.

He folds his arms against the cold, his left arm one huge Native Hawaiian flag tattoo from just above the wrist to the elbow ("The original Hawaiian flag," Mori emphasizes.), the snow falling so hard now it sticks to his nose and eyelashes, just like in the Julie Andrews song. Mori says what he can control is who he is and how he sees himself. And of one thing he is certain. "I'm Hawaiian."

Mori, who plans a career as a professor and Native Hawaiian activist, obviously knew his origins long before he came to Montana State University two years ago in search of adventure. And while Mori didn't necessarily find the diversion he was seeking in this icy land thousands of miles from the islands, he did find a greater sense of himself and what he wants to do with his life.

"I've made some great connections here. I've met a lot of really smart people, and they have allowed me to focus on my culture," says the senior who will graduate Saturday with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a minor in Native American Studies.

"I've definitely grown up here. Sometimes, it's just easier to see where you are going when you have some perspective when you are far away."


Mori is one of a handful of Hawaiian students at MSU, including a few Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders who came to MSU to play on the Bobcat football team. Even though Mori is a former athlete, that wasn't what lured him to Bozeman. As he explains it, he was at loose ends and set to enroll at the University of Hawaii-Hilo when a former girlfriend encouraged him to leave Lihue on the garden island of Kauai for a northern latitude.

His tenure as an MSU student far outlasted the romantic relationship, although the two are still good friends. And Mori said it sometimes still surprises him that he stayed, not only because he had some tough times, but because he has moved so many times and lived in so many places in his life that his journey would tire Odysseus.

"They call me Manuela Boy," Mori said. "In Hawaii, that's someone who jumps from place to place."

Mori was born on Oahu ("In the same hospital as Barack Obama," Mori says proudly), to a family that traces their cultural roots to the mixture of Hawaiian, Asian, Welsh, German and even American Indian heritage that characterizes most Hawaiians. Soon after, his family left the islands for the Mainland in search of a future. He has lived in Colorado, Oregon, New York and California.

Mori said he was a poor student but excelled in both the pole vault in track and field and as a receiver and defensive back in football. After graduating from high school in Corvallis, Ore., he enrolled at Eastern Oregon on a football scholarship, but dropped out his first year. He then began a number of brief, connect-the-dot athletic experiences. He was back in Hawaii, not even playing but helping coach high school football, when a coach recommended him for a football scholarship at California's Merced Community College. It was there that Mori first became interested in philosophy. After he graduated with an associate's degree, he was set to enroll at the University of Hawaii-Hilo when he realized that he might not be strong enough to do the kind of activism he envisioned. Then came the act of serendipity that led him to Montana.

Mori said his first months at MSU were tough and isolating. One of the first things that warmed up his experience was meeting fellow philosophy student Nicholas Ross-Dick, a Yakima Indian from White Swan, Wash. and a student leader in MSU's American Indian Council. Ross-Dick brought Mori to the Indian Club Room in Wilson Hall.

"I just felt at home there," Mori said. "The students looked a little like me."

Soon, he began pitching in at various Indian Council activities and taking Native American Studies classes. In the process he became acquainted with his essential self, playing in the local Hawaiian reggae band, "Landlocked," and dressing in the Hawaiian uniform of shorts, flip-flops and shirts with Hawaiian sayings and a big smile. He is chill about many things except his culture and teaching, both passions.

"There is a fire to (Mori)," says Shane Doyle, a doctoral student in education. Doyle, a Crow, has come to know Mori in the American Indian Council Room.

Mori said while MSU's Indian students may have an entirely different history, they grapple with some of the same issues as Hawaiians such as blood quantum, poverty, displacement, land issues and health problems.

"While I see parallels in the two cultures, I don't try to equate them," Mori said. "We are completely different people. We have completely different struggles, but there are a lot of similarities in timelines and policy. And Native American tribes have been battling with the government for a lot longer than we have, so we have a lot to learn from them."

Mori said that while at MSU he met people who have inspired him, including Henrietta Mann, MSU professor emeritus in Native American Studies, Bill Yellowtail, who sits in the NAS endowed chair professorship, and Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center. Coulter thought so much about Mori's insights into the parallels of Native Hawaiian and Native American culture that he mentioned him by name in a recent talk on the MSU campus.

"Josh is an inspiring character to have around," said Kristin Ruppel, MSU professor of Native American Studies. "Personally, I really appreciate his sense of urgency and social justice because, along with some of our other students whose life histories sometimes illustrate what we read in our text books, he helps to make the issues we discuss real."

Mori said his family is coming to Bozeman to watch him graduate this weekend. They will celebrate with a traditional Hawaiian pig roast. Mori will return to Hawaii for the summer, where he plans to learn to farm taro. But come fall, when the air chills in Montana, Mori will exchange the trade winds for chinooks for at least two more years. He was accepted into MSU's master's program in Native American Studies and will teach a 100-level Native American Studies course under Ruppel's supervision.

"He inspires his fellow students as well as his teachers to think with our hearts as well as --and as deeply as -- we do with our heads," Ruppel said. "It might sound cliche, but in my experience it's true."

Mori said he couldn't have imagined even a year ago that he would be looking forward to returning to Montana. Now, he knows the road to his future in the land of the rainbows goes right through the Big Sky State.

"My time here has been hard, but one thing that it has done is to challenge me to look at myself and the way I go about things," he said. "I have matured a lot in my thinking here. I know I'm going to be better for it."

Jim Burns (406) 994-4880, jburns@montana.edu