By the mid-1970s the Hawaiian language was nearly extinct. Today Native Hawaiians, like indigenous peoples throughout the world, experience the lowest levels of education, income, and life expectancy and the highest levels of incarceration, drug use, homelessness, infant mortality, and obesity in Hawaiʻi.
The Hawaiian Sovereignty movement evolved as the political manifestation of a larger Hawaiian movement called the Hawaiian Renaissance. Aspects of Hawaiian culture such as hula and Hawaiian language, formerly banned and on the brink of extinction, emerged into the public eye. At the same time, land struggles such as Kaho‘olawe, where young Hawaiians occupied an island used for military target practice, politicized a culturally based movement.
In Turning Tide: The Ebb and Flow of Hawaiian Nationality, University of Hawai‘i professor Claus Schweizer views the Native Hawaiian movement as an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, process. Hawaiian movement participants are rebuilding the institutions of the Hawaiian nation largely within the existing societal structure. The virtual restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy through nonprofit community organizations such as Friends of ‘Iolani Palace is one example. Another is the public Hawaiian immersion schools, where 1700 students are educated in Hawaiian.
The land struggles of the 1970s were immediately followed by two movements that catalyzed the Hawaiian renaissance. In 1976, the traditionally designed voyaging canoe Hokule‘a sailed to Tahiti using ancient, and nearly lost, techniques of navigation. Hokule‘a captured the imaginations of many Hawaiians and instilled a sense of pride in, and fascination with, their own culture, which had formerly been marginalized.
A movement to reclaim the island of Kaho‘olawe, which was used since World War II for naval bombing exercises brought attention to the issue of Hawaiian land and created a political consciousness among native Hawaiians and a generation of Hawaiian activists. George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, young leaders of the Kaho‘olawe movement, lost their lives in the Kaho‘olawe struggle and became symbols of Hawaiian resistance to the American militarypresence.
Kaho‘olawe and Hokule‘a were followed by a tremendous upsurge in participation in Hawaiian cultural practices. The University of Hawai‘i in 2001 offered forty-five courses in Hawaiian language, which was once banned from schools. The Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i, itself a product of the renaissance, hosted a forum on Hawaiian practitioners, which brought to light the true extent of this resurgence. Participants included practitioners of arts such as dry stack rock wall building, fishpond construction, and lua, a Hawaiian martial art. Many of these practices were rescued from near-extinction.
Organizations and individuals in the late 1980s and early 1990s established the framework that the movement revolved around. A major force was Ka Lāhui Hawai‘i (the Nation of Hawai‘i), which convened a constitutional convention and elected leaders in 1987. Claiming 22,000 members, Ka Lāhui is the largest sovereignty group and has remained a major player in movement politics, often dominating the discussion. Ka Lāhui advocated nation-within-a-nation status for Hawai‘i.
This name was later changed to nation-to-nation in order to emphasize the diplomatic equality of such a government vis-à-vis the US. Ka Lāhui argued that independence was not a realistic goal in the existing political environment. Nation-to-nation status is akin to that of Native American nations, and is based on indigenous rights to self-determination within existing states under a growing body of international legal norms.
Recent activity in the sovereignty movement has focused on the Akaka Bill, which would presumably grant nation-to-nation status to Kanaka Maoli. Proponents view the legislation as a means of bypassing judicial branch authority, thereby protecting current entitlements from attack in the courts. Opponents assert that no provisions for a land or resource base exist, that it subjects the “nation” to Congressional plenary power, and that it does not constitute genuine sovereignty.
Some advocated a state-within-a-state model, an entity under the jurisdiction of the state government with which it would negotiate its claims. The independence wing of the movement, in contrast, is based on the imperative of nation-states themselves and their right to sovereignty, in this case, the imperative of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The Kingdom was illegally overthrown, a fact recognized by the Federal government in the Apology Law. According to many, including the US Department of Justice, Hawai‘i was also illegally annexed. Some claim that the plebiscite on statehood in 1959 was illegal as well. On these bases, the independence movement seeks nation-state status for Hawai‘i separate from the United States.
Groups within the Hawaiian sovereignty movement disagree over the definition of the term “Hawaiian,” when applied to citizenship or membership in a hypothetical Hawaiian nation. Some, such as Ka Lāhui Hawai‘i, forward a cultural definition, including criteria such as race, culture, language, and values. Other groups such as Pōkā Laenui’s Institute for the Advancement of Hawaiian Affairs forward a legalistic definition of “Hawaiian” that holds that citizenship in the Hawaiian Nation is not tied to race but rather to legal citizenship as in the US. The difference is inherent in the methods employed by the two groups for achieving sovereignty: Ka Lāhui seeks sovereignty through an indigenous rights regime in which race and ethnicity are critical factors. Pōkā Laenui employs an international legal approach, emphasizing nationality rather than race.