Category Archives: Hawaiian history

The Ten Most Pervasive Myths about Hawaiian History

10. Hawaiian women in the Kingdom could not vote, so the constitution, and the country, was sexist

While it’s technically true the women couldn’t vote, this needs to be put into context: Lunalilo was thinking of universal suffrage in the early 1870s, but did not live long enough to achieve it (he did achieve universal male suffrage). Had he lived longer, Hawaiʻi may have been the first country to grant women the right to vote, because the official first country to do so was New Zealand in 1893! So, yes, women couldnʻt vote in the 1870s and 1880s – they couldnʻt vote anywhere in the world! In fact, women in the Hawaiʻi legislature (House of Nobles) could vote as early as 1840 – this is calmly reported in the main Hawaiian history textbook as if itʻs not a big deal, but it means that one might be able to argue that Hawaiʻi was, in fact, the first country to allow women (certain women) to vote.

9. Missionaries overthrew Hawaiʻi

Anyone who knows their Hawaiian history well at all knows this isnʻt true – not technically. None of the leaders of the overthrow were themselves missionaries. They were the sons and grandsons of missionaries, and often called the “Mission boys” – the “boys” of the missionaries – and colloquially “missionaries.” But none of them were actually missionaries because that wasnʻt the thing to do in their generation – they all became businessmen in sugar and related industries. The only exception was Hiram Bingham’s son, who became a missionary, but went to the South Pacific, and had no involvement with the overthrow. A related misconception (among those who have only a cursory knowledge of Hawaiian history) is that missionaries helped abolish the kapu system. Since they were climbing aboard a ship in Boston harbor when that happened, it’s impossible for them to have done so.

8. Hawaiians did not resist the overthrow or annexation

OK, this one is pretty well known to be false by now, but itʻs worth remembering that in the 1980s, Haunani-Kay Trask had to defend the idea of Hawaiian resistance, and could only refer to the lyrics of “Kaulana nā Pua” in support of the idea. Now, with the Kūʻē petitions, we see that not only did Hawaiian resist, they resisted nonviolently and violently (with the Wilcox rebellion). In other words, Hawaiians did everything possible to prevent annexation.

Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva depicts the gathering of the petitions against annexation

Aloha Betrayed by Noenoe Silva depicts the gathering of the petitions against annexation

7. Kalākaua was powerless after the 1887 Bayonet Constitution.

Historian Ronald Williams Jr. has uncovered strenuous debates between Kalākaua and the legislature in which he pushes hard for returning power to the throne – quite a different King from the one commonly portrayed as a broken man.

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

6. The 1893 overthrow was “US-backed”

Louis “Buzzy” Agard has found evidence that the US planned the overthrow ahead of time. Agard found an encoded message (and then found the key!) from the State Department telling the USS Boston to attack ports in Hawaiʻi, ending in Honolulu. That makes it a straight-up US overthrow.

5. Kamehameha V was a despot

According to A. Grove Day in History Makers of Hawaii:

[Lot Kapuaiwa] believed that the example of his grandfather, KAMEHAMEHA I, gave him the right to lead the people personally, and favored a stronger form of monarchy that verged on despotism.

Screen shot 2011-12-27 at 7.56.18 AM

This description comes partly from the period, when in 1864 “it appeared that a new constitution could not be agreed on, he declared that the Constitution of 1852 should be replaced by one he wrote himself” (Day, 1984, 70). But the power to do that was in the old constitution, and if one looks at the new Constitution, that power is absent. In other words, Lot had reduced his own power rather than increasing it. Members of the legislature thanked him afterward.

4. Pauahi was the last of the high-born Kamehamehas

The last of the high-born Kamehamehas was Albert Kūnuiakea, son of Kamehameha III. Albert seemed to be a persona non grata since he was “illegitimate” as the son of Kauikeaouli and Jane Lahilahi Young. This made him Queen Emma’s cousin, and the black sheep of that family. He was literally “the man would be be king,” that is, if the missionaries hadnʻt brought the notion of illegitimacy with them.

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 - 1901)

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 – 1901)

Think about it: he could have been Kamehameha IV, rather than Alexander Liholiho, and Albert lived into the twentieth century. So the son of Kamehameha III could have been king for 40 years by the time of the overthrow, making such an event much less likely. He is buried at Mauna Ala, recognition that he was a royal in the 20th century.

There are also many other descendants of Kamehameha – see the book Kamehameha’s Children Today.

3. Hawaiians lost their land in the Māhele

My own research, as well as that of Donovan Preza, Robert Stauffer and Keanu Sai, shows that Hawaiians co-created the “Western-modelled” land tenure system along with advisors, and that many Hawaiians learned the system, and had land (this is why Kamehameha V’s property requirement for voting is not as bad as it might look otherwise). Stuffer shows that they lost land mainly due to foreclosure after 1874 due to the non-judicial foreclosure law, which eliminated judicial oversight. Preza (The Empirical Writes Back, 2010) shows that the Māhele was a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for land dispossession. My research (Kuleana: A Genealogy of Native Tenant Rights, 2013) suggests that the land tenure system embedded Hawaiian rights in land rather than alienation Hawaiians from it.

2. A great majority of Hawaiʻi residents supported Statehood in 1959

Ron Williams wrote that Lamar Alexander, in 2006, expressed the commonly held view: “In 1959,94 percent of Hawaiians reaffirmed that commitment to become Americans by voting to become a State” (Williams, 2). He also shows that, while it may be true that the vast majority of Hawaiʻi residents who voted supported Statehood in 1959, only 132,000 people actually voted for Statehood – about one-fifth of the population at the time (20.7% to be precise). This is a far cry from 94%.

(See Williams, ʻOnipaʻa ka ʻOiaʻiʻo: The Truth is Steadfast)

Dean Saranillio also tracked anti-Statehood sentiment in his dissertation (Michigan, 2009) Seeing Conquest, noting that Kamokila Campbell had opposed statehood and in fact become a kind of mouthpiece for those who opposed it, but feared for the loss of their jobs or other repercussions. Campbell, who was part of the Kawananakoa family and became famous for saying “I am Hawaiʻi,” opposed “forfeiting the rights of natives of these islands for a thimbleful of votes” in Congress.

1. Annexation

That it happened. Without a treaty. Legally or illegally. This isnʻt as widespread these days as the others, but whatʻs at stake is obviously much, much greater than with the others. Those who say there was an “illegal annexation” neglect the fact that annexation is precisely the legal aspect of a conquest, thus it’s an oxymoron. Those who point to Supreme Court decisions neglect the fact (as I said in my debate with Ian Lind) that there were two countries involved, and one country’s court, no matter how supreme, simply does not have a say in the legality of their action – it is an international issue. Those who say international law does not exist fail to consider what other countries think when its understandings are violated (as with Iraq in 2003): could we be next? Whatʻs to stop the US or China from taking us over if there are no rules? That’s why these international norms are in place. China, in fact, seems to be on to the US occupation – in 2011, they said “we could claim Hawaiʻi,” to which then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded “weʻll prove we own it,” showing that she understood it was a challenge to the US occupation, not a threat to simply invade.

While some misconceptions have more impact than others, the cumulative effect of these, and many other myths (when combined with a plain and complete ignorance of Hawaiian history on the part of many) is to distort courses of action and decision-making processes. This is true even, and perhaps especially, among Hawaiians themselves.

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The Five Most Pervasive Myths about Hawaiian History

In this post, I start with the five most egregious misconceptions about Hawaiian history (some are admittedly debatable) – Iʻll be expanding it to ten in the next couple of days.

5. Kalākaua was powerless after the 1887 Bayonet Constitution.

Historian Ronald Williams Jr. has uncovered strenuous debates between Kalākaua and the legislature in which he pushes hard for returning power to the throne – quite a different King from the one commonly portrayed as a broken man.

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

King David Kalākaua (1874-1891)

4. The 1893 overthrow was “US-backed”

Louis “Buzzy” Agard has found evidence that the US planned the overthrow ahead of time. Agard found an encoded message (and then found the key!) from the State Department telling the USS Boston to attack ports in Hawaiʻi, ending in Honolulu. That makes it a straight-up US overthrow.

3. Kamehameha V was a despot

According to A. Grove Day in History Makers of Hawaii:

[Lot Kapuaiwa] believed that the example of his grandfather, KAMEHAMEHA I, gave him the right to lead the people personally, and favored a stronger form of monarchy that verged on despotism.

Screen shot 2011-12-27 at 7.56.18 AM

This description comes partly from the period, when in 1864 “it appeared that a new constitution could not be agreed on, he declared that the Constitution of 1852 should be replaced by one he wrote himself” (Day, 1984, 70). But the power to do that was in the old constitution, and if one looks at the new Constitution, that power is absent. In other words, Lot had reduced his own power rather than increasing it. Members of the legislature thanked him afterward.

2. Pauahi was the last of the high-born Kamehamehas

The last of the high-born Kamehamehas was Albert Kūnuiakea, son of Kamehameha III. Albert seemed to be a persona non grata since he was “illegitimate” as the son of Kauikeaouli and Jane Lahilahi Young. This made him Queen Emma’s cousin, and the black sheep of that family. He was literally “the man would be be king,” that is, if the missionaries hadnʻt brought the notion of illegitimacy with them.

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 - 1901)

Albert Kūnuiakea (1852 – 1901)

Think about it: he could have been Kamehameha IV, rather than Alexander Liholiho, and Albert lived into the twentieth century. So the son of Kamehameha III could have been king for 40 years by the time of the overthrow, making such an event much less likely. He is buried at Mauna Ala, recognition that he was a royal in the 20th century.

There are also many other descendants of Kamehameha – see the book Kamehameha’s Children Today.

1. Annexation

That it happened. Without a treaty. Legally or illegally. This isnʻt as widespread these days as the others, but whatʻs at stake is obviously much, much greater than with the others. Those who say there was an “illegal annexation” neglect the fact that annexation is precisely the legal aspect of a conquest, thus it’s an oxymoron. Those who point to Supreme Court decisions neglect the fact (as I said in my debate with Ian Lind) that there were two countries involved, and one country’s court, no matter how supreme, simply does not have a say in the legality of their action – it is an international issue. Those who say international law does not exist fail to consider what other countries think when its understandings are violated (as with Iraq in 2003): could we be next? Whatʻs to stop the US or China from taking us over if there are no rules? That’s why these international norms are in place. China, in fact, seems to be on to the US occupation – in 2011, they said “we could claim Hawaiʻi,” to which then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded “weʻll prove we own it,” showing that she understood it was a challenge to the US occupation, not a threat to simply invade.

While some misconceptions have more impact than others, the cumulative effect of these, and many other myths (when combined with a plain and complete ignorance of Hawaiian history on the part of many) is to distort courses of action and decision-making processes. This is true even, and perhaps especially, among Hawaiians themselves.

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Reflective Practice #5: History Day

If you havenʻt heard of National History Day (NHD), think of it like science fair, but for history. There are NHD competitions in all the US states and territories, and even foreign US military bases. Hawaiʻi’s History Day program is considered one of the stronger competitions, with students placing high at the National competition most years. Right now the district fairs are happening – Honolulu district History Day was last week. I first competed in NHD in 2004, but there was a long learning curve for me – NHD has its own criteria for which projects move on to the state and national competitions.

This yearʻs NHD theme is "Leadership and Legacy in History"

This yearʻs NHD theme is “Leadership and Legacy in History”

Kamehameha has been an up-and-coming school over the past few years, made up of a core team of teachers including myself. We gained ground on perennial NHD powerhouses Mililani and Kahuku. Last year, KS-Kapālama won first place at state in four of the five categories (research papers, documentary videos, websites and exhibits – the final category is performance) This year, we had our fourth school-level fair with about 300 projects entered. Of these, 40 moved on to the Honolulu District fair. At the fair, Kamehameha took 10 of the 15 available slots to move on to Hawaiʻi History Day (states) – two of those were my students.

History Day is fairly brutal competitively, with many excellent projects left behind as they move up through the rounds. But the skills that are learned along the way, we feel, make it well worth the effort. Students prepare a 20-source annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and gain a level of expertise on their topics that few ever reach. They gain skills in graphic design, computer applications such as Adobe Illustrator, video production skills, acting  and writing. One of the judges at the Honolulu fair on Saturday said she couldnʻt wait to get the NHD students in her classes as they were “light years” beyond the average college freshman in terms of research skills, whether they made it to states or not. If you have a child in 4th to 12th grade, consider having them do a History Day project – the benefits are long-lasting. The future depends on citizens with a strong grasp on history, regardless of the fields they enter. As one of my former NHD students, now in college, stated:

In the two years I participated in History Day, it prepared me for the intensive college research I am currently doing. It takes a lot of detail and attention to formulate a project that encompasses a lot of information into a concise, coherent, and complete argument.

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The State of Hawaiʻi – Part 4: The State without History

This is part four of a series of articles I’ve been drafting for my students in Hawai’i Politics and other courses. Part one deals with rail and other issues andpart two with race and the Democratic machine. The third installment looked at the psychology of development. This fourth installment examines the problems with the transmission of history in books and schools.

In the recently-published book Captive Paradise by James L. Haley, the author essentially brags that he consulted no Hawaiian historians or Hawaiian language sources because doing so would simply be “political correctness.” He claims that English language sources are adequate.

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An independent scholar published by St. Martin’s press (a major publishing house), Haley launched another assault on Hawaiʻi’s history from outside, along with Julia Flynn Siler’s Lost Kingdom. Lost Kingdom was not as blatantly anti-historiography, but contained mistakes, which the author admitted (confusing Liholiho and Alexander Liholiho). One problem was that after four years of research, the author and her research assistant failed to even come across the argument that Hawaiʻi was illegally annexed. It makes one wonder what universe they live in (certainly not the umiverse;). As Makana Risser Chai wrote on Amazon and the umiverse in her review of Siler’s book:

The author gives two sentences to the petitions against annexation sent by tens of thousands of Hawaiians. She makes no mention that as a result of this and other opposition, the treaty of annexation was defeated on February 27, 1898, when only 46 senators voted in favor. She states (284), “a joint resolution on annexation passed Congress with a simple majority,” without noting that annexation, under the U. S. Constitution, cannot take place by resolution. It was a procedural move by Republicans who could not get the two-thirds majority they needed for a treaty.

The worst failing of this book is that it makes the fascinating history of Hawai`i a dry, boring read. If you want to read an accurate, entertaining introduction to this particular part of Hawaiian history, I highly recommend Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes.

Locally, things are not much better, as I’ve repeatedly written. Think of the process of becoming a Hawaiian history teacher in the public schools: you have to pass the Praxis test, which is 40% history (no Hawaiian history) and 60% a wide variety of other social sciences. The chances that someone will know all this and have a deep understanding of Hawaiian history is quite unlikely, though by no means impossible. At the very least, it would take time – a lot of it. And given that the average teacher leaves the profession within five years, those left with a deep understanding of Hawaiian history are quite rare indeed. According to a DOE teacher I know who reviewed the new version of their textbook, the book reflects little, or none of the scholarship from the past 25 years.

This trickles up to politicians with very little understanding of Hawaiʻi’s history. For this reason I support the effort to train politicians in Hawaiian culture. I’ve also suggested to historians that a committee be formed that would give a stamp of credibility to works on Hawaiian history. This would be voluntary, but not  having the stamp could eventually throw such works into question

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Reconciliation revisited

What I would have said at the Hoʻokuʻikahi Reconciliation service on Jan. 17 if I’d had more time:

The great psychologist Carl Jung said:

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything to avoid facing their souls.

I noted in my talk at St. Andrew’s Cathedral that it felt strange at first to be addressing a topic as seemingly secular as sovereignty in that space. But I soon realized that reconciliation isnʻt secular at all – it is about consciousness. Reconciliation is about consciousness because it requires the taking on and consideration of other perspectives. This taking on of new perspectives, according to Integral theorist Ken Wilber, is the very definition of “cognitive,” which is why much of the anti-intellectualism that runs through the spiritual movement is misplaced.

When organizing the service, Kahu Dr. Kaleo Patterson used a phrase that caught my attention: “mindful nationalism.” It caught my attention because Iʻve always found the use of the term nationalism in the Hawaiian movement somewhat alarming. People who are familiar, or who can remember the horrors of the nationalist movements of the early- and mid-twentieth century would find the term even more alarming. So the descriptor “mindful” is absolutely crucial here – it makes clear that ours will not be the mindless nationalism of so many independence and regime changing movements. It sets into the record that we will not use easy lines of division to exclude people from the nation that is being built here (even OHA uses the term nation-building), or perhaps restored.

The consciousness required of such a mindful nationalism requires development: conscious(ness) change over time. Developmental psychology shows that people, given a reasonably healthy social environment, develop (or “evolve”) over time in predictable ways that begin to include larger and larger groups into their “circle of self.” The prevailing mode in the social sciences and humanities – postmodernism – deconstructs hierarchies, and being sequential, development could be considered a hierarchy. This “flattening” of the social landscape creates what Robert Bly has called the “sibling society” – a society in which everyone is on the same level. Without parents, there is no agreement in such a society that some people, over time, gain true wisdom. Our culture’s obsession with youthful bodies has as its parallel an obsession with youthful (immature) consciousness. Witness reality TV, in which self-serving avarice is considered a virtue.

Partly because of this flattening, both sides of the political spectrum have become materialistic, but in different ways. Thought it claims to be spiritual, and likely is (in its own strange way) the right is pretty literally materialistic: it is the party of business, and its God wants you to be rich (this explains why the US is the only developed country that is both wealthy and religious). The left is materialistic in a different way: there is a Marxist thread throughout it that sees historical materialism as a driving force of history. The material history of class struggle is  history itself. “History is the history of class struggle,” as Marx put it.

Because both sides are materialistic, progressive communities of faith are quite rare (religious but not materialistic in either of the ways described above). This is why, in my opinion, they comprise the majority of the small group of people occupying the “higher” levels of consciousness which we would all strive to reach, if only we knew they existed. In other words, science and modernity itself can put up obstacles to development. (This is not true in all cases, in fact, most of the notable quantum physicists were mystics).

When one can be driven by both the naʻau (literally “gut”, intuition) and the naʻauao (intelligence, enlightened consciousness), it is a profound state for effective decision-making and eventual reconciliation.

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The need for a Hawaiian College

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have produced many of the most prominent African American figures in US history, including Martin Luther King (Morehouse, 1948), Spike Lee (Morehouse 1979), Toni Morrison (Howard, 1953), W.E.B. DuBois (Fisk, 1888), and Jesse Jackson (North Carolina A&T, 1964). The inner politics and purpose of a typical HBC are seen in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The idea was that traditional (read: white) colleges either did not admit African Americans or discriminated against them once they were there.

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According to collegecures.com:

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) have been around since 1837, the first one being Cheney University in Pennsylvania.

Today there are 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. A lot of people questions whether they’re necessary or not, but these colleges and universities have done great things for the African American community.

While HBCU’s only make up 3% of the college institutions in the United States, 75% more African Americans graduate from an HBCU than any other school, and over half of America’s African American professionals have graduated from an HBCU.

Similar to Native American tribal colleges, their progressive approach was to create their own institutions, as much racism is institutional and therefore invisible. Similarly, Hawaiians are often discriminated against in institutions of higher education. These instances are hard to see when they happen, but clear when outcomes are examined; Hawaiians comprised at one point only 8% of students at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa and only 2% of the faculty. This needs to be compared to Hawaiians’ 19% in the general population and 40-50% in the prison population. One Hawaiian educator, now in his 60s, relates that when he was in elementary school and said he wanted to go to college, his teacher said “Hawaiians donʻt go to college.”

We are a long way from that now, but many problems remain. Even Kamehameha graduates only complete college at a rate of between 48 – 68%, and as a group these are the highest performing Hawaiian students, as Kamehameha has a 7-10% acceptance rate and a 98% college acceptance rate.

Hawaiians have begun to redesign education at all levels, especially K-12, and experiment with alternative, and specifically Hawaiian pedagogy. The verdict remains out on these experiments, but relatively few have been performed at the tertiary level, partly because of institutional, state and Federal constraints.

This is not to disparage the real progress that has occurred at UHM’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, Hawaiʻinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge or UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani, but merely to offer another alternative. What does not exist is a Hawaiian liberal arts college.

It is beginning to become clear that the explosion in college costs can be attributed to the rise in non-teaching positions. For one college it was recently reported that of 19,000 employees, only 5,000 were teaching positions. Many of these positions were created with good intentions, but it canʻt be argued that it is fair to pass all these costs on to students, who are already drowning in debt.

What is implicated is a college that refocuses on teaching and is light on administration – such a model could keep costs much lower than is currently considered normal. Lecturers are already teaching for as little at $1000 per course at local colleges, so teaching talent is not expensive to attract. 70% of all teaching faculty in US universities today are lecturers, and less than a quarter are tenured faculty.

I am suggesting a private college that could charge tuition under $5000 per year by eliminating non-teaching positions. Its private status could be used to avoid the many restrictions which force public institutions into creating expensive “specialist” and administrative positions.

I grew  up from age 9 around the campus of the only private, non-religious college in the South Pacific, Atenisi University. Atenisi has existed – though several times this existence has been in jeopardy – since 1975, charging tuition of around $100 (Tongan – about $200 USD) per year, with no government or church support, or grants. This brainchild of the great Tongan sage Futa Helu is probably where I got the notion that such an institution is possible. A New Zealand film maker was inspired enough to make a documentary about Helu and Atenisi, linking them to the Tongan democracy movement (Atenisi is a transliteration of Athens):

Similarly, frustrated by the increasingly corporate-driven model of academia, the scholars Creston Davis and my PhD class/cohort-mate Jason Adams started their own university, the Global Center for Advanced Studies. GCAS features on its faculty many of the top philosophers and theorists in the world, such as Slavoj Zizek and Gayatri Spivak. Alain Badiou, formerly chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure and who Zizek has called “Hegel walking amongst us” is its Honorary President.

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Adams formed another school in 2014, the New Centre for Research and Practice, in Michigan.

There is beginning to be a small group of Hawaiian college administrators who could lead such an institution. As Ron Paul has noted, the current college funding system (debt – $1 trillion of it) is broken. This is just an idea of an alternative that could return university study to what it was originally meant to be – a place of teaching, learning and the building of skills, rather than a machine processing the monies from tuition, grants and sports. If nation-building is a serious goal for Hawaiians – and it is – an institution to educate our people our way is crucial.

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My article in The Nation – the original

There were several versions, but you may be able to see the difference between the final version and this one below: The Nation edited it to be more colloquial (I wasnʻt too happy about that) but also had one of the most rigorous fact checking regimens of any US publication (that was good). I didnʻt have many “wrong” points, but had to “tone down” some of the language from this original. Also, some had to be cut for their (restrictive for this topic) 1000-word limit. But The Nation is the oldest weekly newsmagazine in the US. Founded in 1865, it is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year (2015). It is also the most important media outlet of the left, and I was quite proud to write for them. You should see some significant differences in turns of phrase and the way data is presented.

On June 24th, in the conference room of the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu, Native Hawaiians gathered for the first of several hearings held by the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) throughout the Hawaiian Islands as well as on the U.S. continent. The hearings were held to ask Native Hawaiians for input on the formation of a Federally recognized nation. Surprisingly, after decades of endeavoring to achieve such a status, the overwhelming response to the panel of DOI officials was “aʻole” – no. At the Honolulu hearing, Political Science Professor Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua questioned the “reestablishing of a relationship” between the Federal government and the Native Hawaiian community, when no relationship existed other than the treaty relationships with the Hawaiian Kingdom. She asked DOI to recognize that “you are on our land,” proposed “free, prior and informed consent” and neutral international monitoring. Several speakers also reminded DOI that Hawaiʻi was previously a neutral, multi-ethnic country, and stated that the descendants of its non-native citizens were now being disenfranchised. Between two and five percent at all the hearings spoke in favor, including Hawaiian Roll Commissioner Naʻalehu Anthony, who said he did not want to pass the struggle on to his son after watching three generations fight for Hawaiian rights.

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Mainstream media coverage focused on tone, rather than content and missed the real story, which was that a shift in Hawaiian political will and a consensus had emerged over the proper route to sovereignty. In a community known for its divisiveness, this shift was quite stunning. Under the radar, a new view of Hawaiian history had taken hold, one in which debates over the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, overthrown in 1893, were at the center.

Unified in 1810 by King Kamehameha I, Hawaiʻi was recognized internationally as a sovereign, independent country beginning in 1843. Fifty years later, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had treaties with nearly all the sovereign states in existence, including five with the US. In 1893, Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by sugar businessmen backed a company of US Marines. President Cleveland called this unauthorized intervention an “act of war,” withdrew the proposed annexation treaty and agreed to reinstate Liliʻuokalani. On Feb February 9th, 1893, The Nation wrote, “We could not by annexation at the moment gain anything which we do not now possess.” A standoff between the President and Congress over the question of annexation prevented any action for five years.

When William McKinley took office in 1897, he attempted a second treaty, but this failed in the Senate, in part because of petitions opposing annexation. When the Spanish-American war broke out the following year, McKinley and annexationists in Congress led by Alabama Senator (and Ku Klux Klan “Dragon”) John Tyler Morgan decided, in the words of Congressman Thomas Ball of Texas, “to do unlawfully that which can not be done lawfully.” In 1898 they purported to annex Hawaiʻi via Joint Resolution. While the Congress issued a formal apology to the Hawaiian people in 1993 “for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893 with the participation of agents and citizens of the United States,” it is the subsequent annexation by resolution that lies at the heart of the current drama.

Those who accept that Hawaiʻi was annexed, legally or not, have pursued a course of Federal recognition leading to a limited form of “sovereignty.” This view is epitomized by former Governor John Waiheʻe, who said at the University of Hawaiʻi that one “would have to be illiterate” not to recognize the illegality of annexation, but questions how such a position would benefit Hawaiians. Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Trustee Oswald Stender said more bluntly, on film, that Hawaiʻi was illegally annexed, but “so what?” The “domestic” approach to sovereignty first took form in the proposed Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act – the so-called “Akaka Bill” – named after its sponsor, the Native Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka. The bill circulated through Congress for twelve years before expiring with its sponsor’s retirement and the death of senior Senator Daniel Inouye in 2012. A new approach was devised in which the Department of Interior would propose “rule-making” changes that would allow Hawaiians to join the more than five hundred native nations already in existence. Fitting Hawaiians’ unique history into the template for Federal recognition has been a persistent challenge for advocates of this approach.

Others, taking the law at face value, find that if annexation was illegal, it is tantamount to saying that it did not occur at all. As a mere domestic instrument, a resolution, it is argued, cannot have effect in foreign territory. This means Hawaiʻi is under a prolonged military occupation, albeit one that the United States has not yet admitted to. The independence view was buoyed by a case in the International Court of Arbitration involving Hawaiʻi as an independent country. Hawaiʻi will also be listed in the 2013 War Report, a catalog of contemporary international conflicts published in Geneva, Switzerland, as an occupied state. The independence camp was given a further lift when in May, OHA CEO Kamanaʻopono Crabbe sent a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry asking for “advisement” on possible breaches of international law stemming from OHA support of Federal Recognition. Unsurprisingly, the letter caused uproar on one side and prompted petitions of support on the other.

At its root, the conflict between supporters of independence and Federal recognition stems from divergent beliefs about law and power. Independence advocates view the international law and specifically the law of occupation as safeguards against the continuation of an illegally constituted, and essentially occupying, government – the State of Hawaiʻi. They call not for decolonization, but deoccupation, as was done in the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. Federal recognition supporters are sometimes beneficiaries of Hawaiian “entitlements” such as the Federal Hawaiian Home Lands homesteading program or are U.S. military veterans, and argue that the United States would never allow a withdrawal regardless of Hawaiʻi’s legal status internationally. These views and the paths they imply appear to be mutually exclusive, making reconciliation difficult. Some suggest that a further reexamination of Hawaiʻi’s widely misunderstood history is implicated as the only route to any kind of reconciliation.

ʻUmi Perkins teaches Hawaiian history at the Kamehameha Schools and Political Science in the University of Hawaiʻi system.

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