A SHORT HISTORY OF HAWAIIAN SOVEREIGNTY
As you realize by now, I am sure, your Dr. Radical has left the building: not just the building, but also the state, the continent and – I believe -- the hemisphere. I am approximately half way between North America and Australia, on one of the smaller islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago, Kaua’i. It took twenty-two hours to get here from New England – but then, if you compare that to how long it took those whaling ships to get here from New Bedford in the early nineteenth century, that isn’t very long.
There are lots of reasons not to come to Hawaii as a tourist, chief among them colonization, genocide, land theft, and the warping effect that tourism has on an economy and on an indigenous people. The illegal occupation by the United States dates from the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy by Sanford Dole and his associates, most of them the children of missionaries who arrived in the 1830's and then made it big in the sugar and fruit industries. The illegal regime was recognized by the American government in February, 1893, after a short political blip in which Grover Cleveland almost returned the country to its rightful owners, and the reorganization of the islands into a US territory was completed in 1900. The Hawaiian people have never conceded their sovereignty, having been recognized as a nation by the international community for several decades before the overthrow, nor have they assigned any treaty rights to the United States government since the writing of the 1887 “Bayonet Constitution” signed by King David Kalakaua while Sanford Dole was holding a gun to his head. This treaty was then repudiated after David's death by his more right-on sister, Liliuokalani, who was then deposed and held under house arrest for many years thereafter for having stood on principle rather than on the practical, and probably unworkable, business of staying in power to see what evils she could hold off (see photo above.)
The story of US colonization in Hawaii is a long and ugly one, which intersects with the extension of U.S. power beyond the continent in 1898, the last phases of the displacement of indigenous peoples in the continental 48 states, and the rise of new forms of scientific racism that emerged during the period known as Redemption, during which southerners and northerners came to tacit agreement about the supposed superiority of white people, and were more or less able to end the Civil War and the bad feelings that remained from it by agreeing to oppress both African Americans and other peoples of color in the hemisphere in the interests of “civilization” and “progress.”
Only small amounts of land have been returned to native Hawaiians over the years under the arcane and racialized provisions of something called the Hawaiian Homes Commissions Act, passed by Congress in 1921 to stem the disastrous depopulation of native Hawaiian communities. Thus, throughout the islands, there are small amounts of land set aside as Homesteads for people who can certify that they are at least 50% native Hawaiian. Many more people than this claim a Hawaiian identity, since Hawaiian cultural history recognizes genealogical descent rather than modern notions of blood quantum. Thus, a legally enforceable claim to “Hawaiianness” continues to rest, erroneously, on the question of whether one's ancestors had, and acted on, a concept of racial purity that would have been foreign to them (Hawaiians welcomed exogamy, in fact), and which many sane people now understand to be utterly constructed.
The Akaka Bill, which is currently floating around the Senate and is sponsored by Daniel Akaka, proposes to right this wrong by making Native Hawaiians self-governing in the same way that Native Americans are, thus, among other things, ratifying “Hawaiianness” in blood quantum terms as other federally recognized tribes currently must do. (By the way, this is a very big issue among Native American activists more generally, some of whom refuse to enroll and claim tribal status because it involves accepting the notion that you are only a real Native person if United States law says you are.) Hawaiian Homesteads on all the islands would thus become the legal equivalent of Reservations on the continent, although one important difference would be that at least Hawaiians would be in their historic homeland, whereas many indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada are in places to which they were forcibly removed, or forced to flee.
There are many things wrong with the Akaka bill, but chief among them, as I understand it is that this bill would ratify Hawaiian dispossession, making US occupation legal and the ownership of the bulk of the land in the archipelago a moot point. Currently, it is contestable because of the international recognition that predated the overthrow of the monarchy, the illegality of territorial status and statehood, and the legal possibilities for reviving all these matters since President William Jefferson Clinton’s apology to the Hawaiian people several years ago for US collaboration in the illegal Dole coup.
But then, why is Dr. Radical in Kauai? I am working on this problem. There are several important things to say, one of which is that your Dr. Radical needs a little peace and quiet to get her writing (and her head) organized before going back to work at Zenith, and a little sunshine, sleep and fresh fruit don’t hurt. But more serious is a fact worth knowing – I am not ideologically pure as the driven snow, and mostly do not do symbolic politics because inevitably they are false to some degree. Another is that I somehow don’t think we deal with the effects of American colonialism by not looking at it – it’s a little like thinking you are coping well with your alcoholic brother by not visiting him or answering when he calls completely sloshed in the middle of the night.
The most important answer is that I am an historian, and history is a messy business. Whether any of us like it or not, we are snarled in our connections to the past, which does not mean running around whining about our guilt over things we never did (although our ancestors may have.) It seems to me that if native Hawaiians whose great grandparents were dispossessed by Sanford Dole and his cronies in Washington can grapple with history in the intricate ways that they are doing, those of us whose great-grandparents ate the sugar (or came here from Italy and Poland in hopes that they would) could pitch in and grapple with them, even if it causes us a little discomfort.
So my grappling will consist of a few posts from the former domain of Prince Kuhio, a relative of the last Queen of Hawaii, Liliuokalani, who fought the process of colonization until her death. Oh yeah, and N. and I are writing a big check to the American Friends Service Committee, which does powerful and thoughtful work on behalf of Native Hawaiians.
Books to read: Noenoe Silva, “Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism” (Duke, 2004); and a forthcoming volume to keep your eye out for in 2007, also from Duke, by Kehaulani Kauanui, which has taught me, or caused me to learn for myself, practically everything I know about Hawaiian sovereignty and its history. And if you want to think about the politics of tourism, try Jamaica Kincaid, “A Small Place” (1988).
And have a Happy New Year!