Revolution in Paradise

Though the aloha state might seem an idyllic paradise to legions of camera-toting, lei-wearing tourists who beach themselves on the islands each year, the reality is far from picture perfect. Native Hawaiians, descendants of the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian archipelago, are not only the least educated, poorest, and sickest segment of the population, they also feel that Hawaii has lost its cultural anchor and set age-old traditions and beliefs adrift in a sea of kitsch.

Tens of thousands of Hawaiians are involved in a sovereignty movement that aims to change the lot of the native population, which constitutes just one-fifth of Hawaii’s 1 million residents, and bring back its true culture. And though the movement expresses myriad views, at its heart is the belief that native Hawaiians can govern themselves far better than the state and federal governments have done.

Natives believe their right to self-determination stems from the forcible overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and its monarch, Queen Liliuyokalani, in 1893. With the assistance of the U.S. Marines and the support of the trade minister (but without the approval of Congress or President Grover Cleveland), the coup was led by American businessmen with stakes in the pineapple and sugar trades who feared the queen would create laws restricting their operations.

The phrase aloha `aina, literally “love land,” forms the basis of traditional Hawaiian religion and culture. In simplest terms, it describes an interdependent relationship: The land nurtures you, and, in turn, you nurture the land. Activists say it was a reawakening of aloha `aina that gave the sovereignty movement its start.

In 1976 the Navy was using Kaho’olawe island (eight miles south of Maui) for bombing practice, as it had done since 1941. Seeing the destruction the shells were wreaking on the ecosystem and sacred sites, a group of protesters staged a series of landings on the island. Since then the movement has grown and matured. As many as 300 sovereignty groups operated at one time, some with just one or two members; today there are fewer than 20. “Nowadays the groups are getting more organized,” says Healani Sonota, a legislator with Ka Láhui Hawai`i, one of the oldest and most active sovereignty groups, boasting more than 18,000 members. Ka Láhui Hawai`i advocates creation of a self-governing nation recognized by the federal government, similar to what Native Americans have. Other groups favor a formally recognized state within the existing state of Hawaii or a totally autonomous nation existing outside federal control.

Despite such factions, the sovereignty movement has seen much progress in the ’90s. In 1993 Congress passed a resolution apologizing to native Hawaiians for the overthrow. A year later, the Pentagon transferred the deed of Kaho’olawe island to the state of Hawaii to be held in trust until the formation of “a sovereign Hawaiian nation.” And in 1996 native Hawaiians voted to elect a Native Hawaiian Convention, scheduled to convene this year. “[The convention] is a possible, if controversial, first step toward some form of sovereignty,” writes Dana Takagi in ColorLines (Spring 1999).

Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations recommended that Hawaii be placed on the U.N.’s list of non-self-governing territories. “This change of status would allow Hawaii to participate in U.N.-sponsored decolonization activities–a political process that could maintain state status or lead to a form of independence,” notes Takagi.

Concurrent with political gains is a cultural renaissance. Native Hawaiians are bringing their language back (after the annexation, Hawaiian was forbidden in public instruction) through immersion schools. There’s a renewed interest in history, religion, and genealogy. All this has brought more people into the political fray. “In Waikiki there are barely any hula shows left because [the dancers] are at the legislature fighting for rights,” says Sonota.

Though few non-natives actively oppose the movement, a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court could pose a significant obstacle. Harold F. Rice, a fifth-generation white rancher descended from missionary settlers, is suing the state for the right to vote in OHA (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) elections. The OHA administers more than $300 million in public funds for various social programs that benefit native Hawaiians; only natives are eligible to vote for its trustees. Rice says the practice is discriminatory and unconstitutional, that native Hawaiians do not constitute a sovereign political entity and shouldn’t be treated as one.

Despite the lack of formal political recognition, natives currently benefit from a wide range of programs instituted by local, state, and federal governments. If the Supreme Court sides with Rice, these programs could be declared unconstitutional. “It could have a catastrophic impact on native Hawaiians,” says University of Hawaii law professor John Van Dyke. The case will be argued in the fall.

Even with the Rice case looming, activists maintain that sovereignty will be achieved. As Takagi writes, “The zeitgeist among locals–from ordinary people to the highest levels of state government–is that sovereignty is not a question of ‘if,’ but rather of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ “

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