Images from Hawaiian history, laid over a Hawaiian flag, from a Hawaiian Independence Day event at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 2015. Labeled on Google Images as free for reuse. Sad to be missing such vibrant cultural and historical events, day after day.
Since the overthrow, and perhaps even more so since the cultural renaissance of the 1960s-70s, there has been a strong segment of society in Hawaiʻi agitating for sovereignty, and for a return to independence. This is a huge topic, with a long and complicated history, complete with much factionalism, and I fully admit there is so much I do not know about it. So, I invite you to look into it more on your own. And, if I have misrepresented anything, comments and corrections are most welcome.
What I would like to introduce in this post is a recent set of developments which have the potential to become a truly historic turning point – and perhaps might be identified as a significant historic set of events already. In coming months, the Hawaiian people may move significantly closer to attaining federal recognition, after the fashion of many mainland Native American Tribes/Nations. This is a really big deal.
The opening lines of the Akaka Bill. Image from the Honolulu Civil Beat.
In an article in the Hawaii Civil Beat from last October, Trisha Kehaulani Watson explains some of the key steps leading up to this. First, for many years, Daniel Akaka (US Senator from Hawaii 1990-2013) pushed a bill (commonly known as “the Akaka Bill“) which would grant the Native Hawaiians federal recognition. Many supported this, of course, as it would mean official recognition by Washington of the Hawaiian people as being a Nation, with certain sovereign rights, and possessing a government with the power to negotiate with Washington on an equal (or, kind of sort of equal) basis, regarding rights, policies, benefits, etc.
Many Native Hawaiians were staunchly opposed to the bill, however, with some of the key reasons being (1) fear that being “given” recognition would be seen by too many in Washington as balancing the scales and negating any further grievances the Native Hawaiians may have, as to land, reparations, etc., (2) fear that recognition would make true sovereign independence more difficult to obtain later down the road, and (3) opposition on the basis that the federal government – that is, the United States of America – is an illegal occupier, and has never had any rightful legal authority over the islands whatsoever. In short, that being officially recognized by Washington means officially acknowledging that Washington has any right or sovereign authority to be the ones granting such recognition.
Image from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), as seen on the Huffington Post blog post “OHA CEO Forces Standoff Over Sovereignty.”
Those seeking federal recognition then pursued the establishment of a formal roll of Native Hawaiians, an important step towards building a base of voters for some future election of a committee or government which could then represent the Native Hawaiian people in government-to-government negotiations with Washington. This roll, called Kanaʻiolowalu in Hawaiian, and organized through the State Senate’s Act 195 (signed in 2011), was also deeply unpopular. While they aimed to get some 200,000 people to sign up – which would still be less than half of the total Native Hawaiian population – they got less than 10% of that. And so, with the backing of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA; a government agency deeply invested in the federal recognition track), these pro-recognition factions apparently got another bill passed, which allowed a whole bunch of people already on other lists to be added to this Kanaʻiolowalu roll without their consent. Kehaulani Watson identifies this as a very serious and problematic development – the fact that this allows OHA to pretend the Kanaʻiolowalu has more support than it actually does, is only the least of it. Her concerns, expressed in the Civil Beat article, can be heard too in an interview she did with Noe Tanigawa of Hawaii Public Radio (an NPR station).
Which brings us to Naʻi Aupuni, and the most recent set of developments. Now, while I admittedly could probably quite easily do a little Googling and figure out more, I think the fact that I don’t already have a sense of who Naʻi Aupuni is, from all the newspaper articles and blog posts I’ve been reading, I think really says something. Naʻi Aupuni is not a US federal or state agency of any kind; neither is it part of the OHA, nor is it an organization that in any way genuinely represents the whole, or the core, of the Hawaiian people. Best as I understand it, Naʻi Aupuni are just some organization, one of a great many factions, but the one chosen by (or formed in cahoots with) the OHA to receive the official rolls from the Kanaʻiolowalu, and to start moving towards an election that a great many Native Hawaiians were opposed to holding.
As I am beginning to understand, it seems a common story among many indigenous groups that there are those factions who develop “in” relationships with the authorities, and then regardless of how marginal those people may be (and they often are) in relation to the community at large, or in relation to chiefs, elders, culture-bearers, powerful families, or whatever it may be, suddenly now these people gain so much power. Museums and anthropologists work with those (sometimes marginal[ized]) people in the community who volunteer themselves to engage with them, and even if these people are rival factions, or in one way or another not actually representative of the community, its attitudes, interests, or desires, suddenly they are the ones who are seen by the museums, scholars, and authorities, as the voices of authority, as the recognized representatives of the tribe/nation. And this can be terribly problematic, as the “recognized” faction attacks others as being less authentic – those who control the museums often control what happens to artifacts, and those connected to local government can control recognition, benefits, land agreements, and so forth. I’m beginning to learn bits about the local politics and issues facing the Chumash peoples, who are local to the area I am living in today in Southern California, and, boy…
Right: Image from Law Journal Hawaii.
But, to get back to the Naʻi Aupuni, they held elections this past fall, to elect representatives to an ʻaha, a committee which would then meet and discuss to work to organize a government. That government would then, in theory, represent the Hawaiian people just as the various federally recognized tribes/Nations on the mainland do, to negotiate with the federal government on a supposedly equal (but actually deeply unequal) government-to-government basis. A huge number of Native Hawaiians did not vote, and so the whole thing was hardly representative, but the counting of votes was in any case halted by the US Supreme Court, on account of racial discrimination. The only ones eligible to vote were those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, which is essentially “race.” This is ironic, of course, in that first of all it’s an election to form a government that would represent the Hawaiian people, so it just makes sense that, obviously, only Hawaiian people should be able to vote. But, also, what could be more American than “government of the [Hawaiian] people, by the [Hawaiian] people, for the [Hawaiian] people”? That said, though, there are many even within the Native Hawaiian community who have pointed out that the unified Hawaiian Kingdom was multi-ethnic from the start, incorporating British, French, [mainland US] Americans, and many others. King Kalākaua had his “Hawaii for the Hawaiians” motto and movement in the 1880s, and with good reason in my personal opinion, but even then, he simultaneously backed systems for foreigners to declare their loyalty to the King and to thus become royal subjects & naturalized citizens. Walter Murray Gibson, one of Kalākaua’s chief advisors and one of the strongest advocates for “Hawaii for the Hawaiians,” was just one such naturalized subject. So, anyway, the point is, the Kingdom was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic one, and so doing it by race/ancestry is a bit weird. But, what’s the alternative? Let descendants of the missionary families vote, or descendants of those who were directly complicit in the overthrow, and you’re drowning out the voices of the Native Hawaiians themselves, who according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as various other documents, have a fundamental right to self-determination.
The counting of the votes was thus stopped. But Naʻi Aupuni decided to go ahead and just have all the candidates go forward to become members of the ʻaha, as if the election wasn’t halted, and as if they had all been elected. This ʻaha then met in February 2016 for a four-week convention. Kaʻiulani Milham, one of the members of the ʻaha, has shared “What Really Happened at the ʻAha” in a pair of articles in the Hawaii Independent: Part 1, and Part 2.
Prof. Jon Osorio, former director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, has been quite critical of the entire process. In one interview, he simply said quite explicitly,
Whatever they come up with, I’m going to be one of the thousands of people who say, ‘you do not represent me, you do not speak for me.’
Osorio has also written several pieces in the Hawaii Independent, Honolulu Civil Beat, and elsewhere, expressing his opposition. And he’s not the only one. As one man, Isaac Kaiu, told the Department of the Interior at a public hearing in 2014:
“The law of nations tells me that we are the Kanakas, the only people that have a legal right to conduct our affairs. No other entity, whether state or federal government has that authority”
Meanwhile, Prof. Lilikalā K. Kame’eleihiwa, the current director of the Center, is among those who have expressed their strong support for federal recognition. She argues that federal recognition is the first important step towards gaining “standing,” a position from which to begin, to start to negotiate with Washington, as a first step towards gaining true sovereignty.
As a haole, it is of course not my place to insert my opinions in this contentious, complicated, and important issue – it is something for the Hawaiian people to decide for themselves, and not for me to judge. Of course, I cannot help but have my opinions, but I hope I have not intruded by hinting at them in this post.
As you can already see, even this Naʻi Aupuni series of events alone is quite complicated – not to mention the broader issues of sovereignty, internal politics, and history – and so as a mere observer, who has been following all of this only through a scattering of some news articles and blog posts (and who knows how many I have missed), my sincere apologies again if I omit or misrepresent any key bits. I invite you, dear reader, if you are so inclined, to look around the Internet, and read more, to inform yourself further. And if you know more, or know different, please do feel free to leave a comment pointing out my errors, and/or pointing me to further information.