Overview of the Sovereignty Issue for Newcomers

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(c) Copyright 2000 Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

For approximately 1400 years, from about the year 400 until Captain Cook's arrival in 1778, the only people living in Hawai'i were Polynesians. Their racial composition, language, and customs were very similar to the native people of the rest of the Polynesian triangle, whose corners are Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and Hawai'i. On various islands the natives use the word tangata, tanata, or kanaka for "people", and the word maori or maoli for "real" or "native." Thus, some native Hawaiians now prefer to call themselves by a phrase from the native Hawaiian language -- kanaka maoli. Honoring their request, that is what I shall call them.

Following Captain Cook's "discovery" of Hawai'i in 1778, a rapidly increasing number of European and American sailors, whalers, businessmen and missionaries began visiting Hawai'i, later followed by people from Japan, China, Phillipines, Korea, and elsewhere who came as indentured workers on sugar plantations and remained after their initial contracts ended. The constant warfare between competing chiefs, traditionally conducted with clubs and spears, became more deadly with the introduction of metal knives, guns, cannons, and large ships; and some of Kamehameha's battles resulted in thousands of deaths apiece. The diseases brought by Captain Cook, and later immigrants, together with rapidly changing economic conditions, took a heavy toll on kanaka maoli, until their numbers declined by more than 90%. The economic and social status of the surviving kanaka maoli declined rapidly as the economy and culture changed in ways strange to them, including the royally decreed overthrow of the ancient religious and social system beginning in 1819, arrival of protestant missionaries in 1820, proclamation of a constitutional monarchy in 1840, proclamation of private ownership of land in 1848, the (alleged?) overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, and (alleged?) annexation to the United States in 1898, followed by 60 years of a colonial government and 40 more years of (alleged) statehood.

Kanaka maoli today define themselves as all the people who are descended from the (native Polynesian) people who lived in Hawai'i prior to Cook's arrival in 1778. Kanaka maoli who have at least 50% native blood quantum are entitled by law to certain special rights, including land for homesteads, although it is often difficult to exercise these rights because of long waiting lists (sometimes many decades-long!) and lack of funding for infrastructure. All kanaka maoli, even those with extremely small blood quantum ("one drop") have special economic, health and welfare programs funded by state and federal appropriations, in addition to the needs-based welfare benefits provided to all needy citizens of Hawai'i; and all kanaka maoli are entitled to participate in a special branch of state government called the "Office of Hawaiian Affairs" (OHA) whose trustees must be kanaka maoli and are elected only by self-identified and registered kanaka maoli voting on a special racially restricted ballot in regularly scheduled state elections.

Yet, many kanaka maoli feel that their needs are not being met by the current political and economic system. Activists claim that kanaka maoli have the worst statistics of any ethnic group in Hawai'i for poverty, drug abuse, illness, life expectancy, houselessness, incarceration, and many other indicators. Sovereignty activists believe that kanaka maoli would be much better off if they could control their own political, legal, economic, and cultural affairs.

Some activists believe that they should establish a sovereign political entity to control their own destiny, possibly as a subsystem of the State of Hawai'i or as a nation within the State of Hawai'i having direct relations with the United States, similar to Indian tribal nations. Some activists believe that the Kingdom of Hawai'i is still legally in existence, entitled to sovereignty over all the lands and waters of the entire island chain -- they claim that the monarchy was never legally overthrown, the annexation and statehood never legally happened. Some activists claim that the entire Hawaiian islands should be re-established in fact as an independent nation in which only kanaka maoli would have the right to vote or own property, effectively taking away the rights to vote and own property currently enjoyed by the 80% of Hawai'i's population who have no kanaka maoli blood.

This website is produced for the purpose of probing some of the historical, legal, and moral arguments made by Hawaiian sovereignty activists. Readers will quickly discover that this website has a bias, which is opposed to the bias of those activists who claim that the Kingdom still exists. It is opposed to the claim that there is any legal, historical, or moral right for kanaka maoli to seize control of the entirety of Hawai'i with voting rights and property rights being held by kanaka maoli to the exclusion of non-kanaka maoli. The debate in recent years has become much more strident than formerly, and almost all the books, films, and public events concerning the sovereignty issue have been highly biased in favor of kanaka maoli sovereignty. Some very far-fetched historical, legal, and moral arguments have been repeated so loudly and so frequently, with massive funding and media exposure, that people might be starting to believe them. It is time to debunk them. Yet, few seem willing to take on this task for fear of losing friends, creating enemies, or stirring up passions. The culture in the islands has a long habit of going along to get along, not confronting anyone, not making trouble. Some kanaka maoli activists are making increasingly strident demands, occasionally hinting ever so slightly at possible violence. Opponents of these demands generally remain silent out of respect for the kanaka maoli culture and a desire to continue friendly relationships, while politicians who oppose outrageous demands usually remain silent or resort to political chicanery to sidetrack the activists rather than openly disagreeing with their arguments and agendas. It is time for explicit historical, legal, and moral counter-arguments. The only recent book which provides some of these counter-arguments is entitled "Sovereignty: Do the Facts Matter?" by Thurston Twigg-Smith, who is a descendant of the missionaries and also a descendant of Lorrin Thurston, who was one of the leaders of the overthrow of the monarchy. There is also a website which includes many excellent arguments and legal references regarding the "stolen lands" or ceded lands issue: Aloha For All

It is time to draw a clear distinction between the love and respect the residents of Hawai'i feel for kanaka maoli people and their culture and spirituality, vs. the illogical and even immoral political agendas of some of the sovereignty activists. Although kanaka maoli should have no special historical, legal, or moral rights apart from the rights of all residents of Hawai'i, they certainly have the right to organize politically for what they want. Kanaka maoli might be able to persuade the State of Hawai'i and the United States that they should be given some sort of self-governing autonomy -- not because they are entitled to it for historical or legal reasons, but because of the high esteem in which they are held and the desire of non-kanaka maoli to preserve and nurture a valuable cultural and spiritual resource that enriches us all.

Kanaka maoli have gone through more than 220 years of terrible devastation at the hands of outsiders. Their population was reduced by over 90% through diseases brought by foreigners and also because of poverty resulting from major social and economic changes. By the time of the overthrow, 60% of the population had no kanaka maoli blood; about half of the citizens of the Kingdom had no kanaka maoli blood; most of the elected legislators and appointed government officials had no kanaka maoli blood. A revolution of sorts took place in 1887, in which citizens and local residents who were disgusted by King Kalakaua's mismanagement, and armed members of a political party favoring annexation to the United States, forced the king to accept a new constitution limiting the powers of the monarch. This new "Bayonet Constitution" was very unpopular among the kanaka maoli, who saw their political power slipping away. After Kalakaua died and his sister became queen, she tried to unilaterally proclaim a new constitution which would have undone the revolution of 1887 and restored strong powers to the monarchy. The queen was clearly acting on behalf of her kanaka maoli people, at the expense of the 60% who were non-kanaka maoli. A group of citizens and residents, including 1500 armed members of the Honolulu Rifles, took to the streets, overthrew the queen, and set up a provisional government which later evolved into the Republic of Hawai'i. During this revolution about 150 U.S. troops were landed from a ship in the harbor. Their brief presence, although technically a neutral force to help keep order in the streets, added ten per cent to the forces of the internal revolution and may have helped intimidate the queen into surrendering "temporarily." In the 107 years since the overthrow, the economic and political standing of kanaka maoli continued to decline further, and only within the past two or three decades have kanaka maoli begun a strong cultural and political renaissance.

Kanaka maoli understandably have strong feelings about the overthrow and subsequent annexation. Many of them feel it was unjust, illegal, and should be reversed. They see the last 220 years of history as a continual process of theft and loss. They lost 90% of their population, lost their sovereignty, and lost their way of life. Their culture and language was suppressed, and they are now an impoverished 20% minority in their own homeland. It is a tribute to the underlying strength of their culture and spirituality that it has survived at all, and is now making a strong comeback. These proud people look back with longing to the time when they were undisputed masters of the Hawaiian islands. Some kanaka maoli activists believe they are entitled to restore what they see as their rightful sovereignty over the islands.

This website takes the position that kanaka maoli do not have any historical or legal right to reclaim sovereignty. They may have a strong wish to do so, but their legal and historical right to do so is no more convincing than the right of any other minority to carve out a politically sovereign entity or to claim sovereignty over all other groups. The culture and spirituality of kanaka maoli is very deep and very powerful. It draws forth profound respect from all who call Hawai'i home, and from people throughout the world. Kanaka maoli have lived in Hawai'i centuries longer than any other group, and have a deep spiritual and cultural attachment to the land. But that does not give them the right to take political and economic power away from the remaining 80% of the population. However, there is hope for a political resolution based on mutual respect and aloha. Kanaka maoli culture and spirituality is what makes Hawai'i precious. Kanaka maoli may yet be freely given the allegiance of all who call Hawai'i home, because of their powerful culture and spirituality, and the aloha they call forth from and give back to us all. The strident demands of some sovereignty activists distract from the focus on aloha. Every group is entitled to take pride in its history and culture. Kanaka maoli are especially entitled to such pride. But when proud legends turn into claims of fact, or when spiritual beliefs turn into political claims of special entitlement, such claims must be examined carefully. Debunking such claims may be seen as a hostile act, but it is not intended as such. The precious cultural and spiritual heritage of kanaka maoli is never under attack in this website; but historical and legal claims to special political entitlements must be examined on their factual merits, and rejected when false. Kanaka maoli will always practice their culture and spirituality whether or not they have political sovereignty. They will achieve political control to the extent they give up demands for special rights based on race, and gain recognition and consent for their spiritual and cultural right to lead.