What seems like many years ago, on a family trip to Māui, I suddenly realized that Hawai’i was not what it seemed to be. We were driving through Lāhainā toward a near-in coastal reef when it came to me that what I saw was not fitting together. Makai — as the Hawaiians say, toward the sea — was a crowded tourist town filled with restaurants, trinket shops and alluring kiosks where tour guides offering commercial adventures of every description plied their wares. Mauka— toward the mountains — was a crumbling sugar mill about which the question that sprang to mind was not so much what had happened there in earlier times but how on earth it was standing now. Up the hill, I knew, was the building known as Hale Pa’i, which had housed the first missionary press, and at the very top, Lāhaināluna, the original missionary school from which the first generation of seminary-trained Hawaiians had gone out to spread the language and the Word. On my lap as we drove was a guidebook to Māui I had been reading the night before and was leafing through again that said, in spirit if not in so many words, In 1893, a group of sugar planters and other businessmen, some of whom were descendants of the missionaries, overthrew the Queen and they all lived happily ever after. At which point a voice in my head involuntarily said, “No way!”

At the time this was no more than the passing thought of a leftish tourist who had no wish to subtract yet another beautiful spot from the list of places it was possible to go in the world without discomfort, but the thought stuck. At home, I bought Queen Lili’uokalani’s autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, which — surprise — did not agree with the author of the guidebook, and a few other volumes, but I soon put them aside. I was writing about another subject, and I did not have the time. Over a decade later, when I returned to those books, I found them astonishing, for the history they told of the destruction of the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i largely by American businessmen in Honolulu with the support of American troops, and its annexation five years later not by treaty but by mere Congressional resolution, was a history I had never been taught. Nor had I been taught the history of the years before, when between the coming of Captain Cook in 1778 and the coming of the missionaries in 1820 the native population declined from perhaps 800,000 to about 135,000 from foreign diseases, nor the decline that continued inexorably year after year so that by the time of annexation in 1898 it was under 40,000, with many observers predicting, and indeed treating it as a convenience, that there would soon be none.

Yet what might be the point of this belated historical excursion was an open question. For one thing, it was over. That was then. However things might have been in the days when, as a 1941 picture book put it, “Hawaiians owned and operated Hawaii,” Hawai’i now was a state, officially owned and operated by the USA, in particular by the US military, which controlled 22.4 percent of the island of O’ahu and 5.7 percent of the land of the islands as a whole. About 7 million tourists a year visited the place, the majority Americans, enjoying not just the sun and sea but that ideal ratio of the exotic and the familiar not possible elsewhere around the globe, where America owned only a partial share. As for that bane of American history — race — with its mixture of people in some cases dating back to before the islands were on any map, the Hawai’i fondue was the richest blend in the world. Walking the streets of Honolulu or elsewhere you would need a racial Geiger counter to figure out who was what. The political implications, too, seemed almost stale. With so many more recent examples to choose from, who needs to cluck over nineteenth-century Hawai’i, merely the first of many places beyond our shorelines where an independent people in the way of American imperialism met their fate?

The more I immersed myself in the story of Hawai’i, however, the more I saw that what was so compelling about it was not that these issues were settled but that they were not. In January 1993, on the centennial of the overthrow, the state sponsored an immense day-by-day re-enactment of its events so authentic that when the actress playing the Queen returned to the ‘Iolani Palace from a meeting with her cabinet ministers across the street to tell the people that her efforts to restore certain rights to the native population via a new Constitution would have to be postponed, many in the audience instinctively held their hats to their chests. Two days later, when a well-known nationalist of the present delivered the cry of a well-known royalist of the past — “We must stand together…. We love our Kingdom! We love our Queen! We love the land that gave us birth!” — the audience cheered and wept. That summer an international tribunal convened by sovereignty activists with judges from several countries took testimony throughout the islands, documenting many aspects of the US-Hawai’i relationship as violations of international law. Five years later, on the anniversary of formal annexation, when newly found petitions against it signed by about 38,000 of the 40,000 Native Hawaiians alive in 1898 were displayed in a tent outside the Bishop Museum and people found the signatures of their grandparents, whose stands against the American colossus had been in the category of dangerous family secrets, they wept again. This awareness of history has only deepened with time. Start a conversation with almost anyone on a park bench or bus, and you are likely to find not only a genealogist but a historian, eager to tell you of his or her personal experiences and also the tales passed on by the uncle of an uncle of an uncle of an uncle from the time of Kamehameha the Great who knew just where the king had injured his ankle when he was a boy. What is true of random Hawaiians is also true of random haoles, many of whom have shared in the reconsideration of history and have taken the causes of their Native Hawaiian neighbors to heart.

So much feeling in the streets was bound to have reverberations in Washington. With Hawai’i an inextricable part of the US economy and the islands the headquarters of the military’s vital Pacific Command, whose jurisdiction covers more than half the surface of the earth, it would not do to have restless natives. On November 23, 1993 — a few months after telling an eager throng on Waīkikī Beach, “You will not be forgotten” — President Clinton signed Public Law 103-150, known as the Apology Resolution, to “acknowledge” the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893, overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States. A poignant thirty-seven-clause review of the history of the islands, the Apology Resolution may be one of the most empathetic documents ever to emanate from Washington [see box, page 17]. Its implications were barely noticed until later. Intended by the senators from Hawai’i who sponsored it simply to register the injustices of the past without pointing to any remedies in the future, the resolution implicitly raised a follow-up question: what do you do after you say you’re sorry? In the words of one of the handful of other senators who took it seriously enough to say anything at all, “the logical consequences of this resolution would be independence.”


On March 29, 1893, two months after the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani and only a few weeks after the second inauguration of Democratic President Grover Cleveland, whose first term had been followed by the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, a Republican, there arrived in Honolulu a courtly, silver-haired gentleman named James Blount, sent by the new President to find out what had really happened in the islands. The political circumstances of Blount’s mission were these. Two days after the overthrow, representatives of the self-appointed Provisional Government — essentially the leaders of a longstanding movement for annexation in a new guise — had set off for Washington carrying with them a well-developed petition for annexation to the United States, which they had every reason to believe would be warmly welcomed, but not carrying the representatives of the Kingdom, who were forced to wait for the next crossing, several weeks later, to present their case. Annexation was a cherished ambition of many prominent Republicans, in particular Benjamin Harrison’s expansionist Secretary of State, James Blaine, a long-term associate of the American minister to Hawai’i, John Stevens. The American minister, it would turn out, had not only, on his own initiative, recognized the Provisional Government even before it was in full possession of the buildings traditionally considered to warrant such recognition, but had conspired with its leading members beforehand to encourage their revolutionary plans. Barely a month after the first outlines of the American-led revolt had stirred Honolulu and with only seventeen days of the Republican Administration left to go, on February 15 a treaty of annexation was whisked before the US Senate for ratification. Democrat Cleveland was appalled. If the United States was to depart “from unbroken American tradition in providing for the addition to our territory of islands of the sea more than two thousand miles removed from our nearest coast [the] transaction should be clear and free from suspicion,” the President told Congress later. Five days after taking the oath of office, on March 9, 1893, Cleveland withdrew the treaty from the Senate for “re-examination.” Two days later, he summoned Blount.

The Blount Report would be a remarkable government document in any era. A 1,400-page model of open diplomacy, it contains what appears to be the entire diplomatic correspondence between the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States from the 1820s on, including communications between the State Department and its ministers in Honolulu of a sort that would never be published today, transcripts of Blount’s interviews with the principals, analyses of the Kingdom’s successive Constitutions, learned articles of the period on important aspects of Hawaiian life from health to population, newspaper reports, public speeches, budgets, sugar export statistics, stockholder data for the leading corporations — in short, everything an independent observer would need to arrive at an opinion about what had taken place and why. It is a primary source for understanding the events of the Hawaiian revolution even today. Its moral heft is no less impressive than its physical heft. “Colonel” Blount was nobody’s pawn. A former Confederate officer, he had endured the Yankee occupation of his hometown of Macon, Georgia, after the Civil War and the lesser indignities that came from representing it in Congress for twenty years after Georgia was readmitted to the Union, rising to become the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee before he retired. Thinking that Blount was a friend, but not taking chances, the leaders of the Provisional Government and Minister Stevens were unpleasantly surprised when they rowed out to greet his vessel with the news that they had already rented him, as he would report, a “house, well furnished [with servants and a carriage and horses]…[for which] I could pay…just what I chose, from nothing up,” and he declined. He also declined the Queen’s offer of a mere carriage ride into the city. Sensing at once that “with the minds of Hawaiian citizens…full of uncertainty as to what the presence of American troops, the American flag, and the American protectorate implied” no one would speak with him freely, he had the flag hauled down and the troops returned to their ships, not dissuaded even by an urgent visit from Stevens and one of the annexationists who informed him with “intense gravity…that he knew beyond doubt…that if the flag and troops were removed” troops from a Japanese ship in the harbor would rush in to restore the Queen. “I was not impressed much with these statements,” Blount noted wryly in his opening paragraphs. Details dispensed with, he set to work.

The heart of the Blount Report is a lucid and often droll thirty-nine-page, first-person narrative addressed to Cleveland’s Secretary of State, W.Q. Gresham, describing some of his encounters and his conclusions. Whether it was his character, his experience or simply his chosen position outside the literally interrelated circles of power in Honolulu, this well-seasoned Southerner seems to have been as immune to rhetoric as he was to manipulation, particularly rhetoric draping racial and economic issues in the plumage of democracy. What Blount told Washington, in brief, was (1) the pretense of the new leaders that it was the Queen’s moving to change the Constitution (the alleged “cause” of the coup) rather than their dethroning her that was illegal overlooked the racial truth that the Constitution she was trying to change was the one forced on her predecessor six years before for the very purpose of shifting power from the native monarchy to the white elite; (2) “the controlling element in the white population is connected with the sugar industry…. Annexation has for its charm the complete abolition of all duties on…exports to the United States”; (3) American diplomatic and military resources were strongly implicated in the coup; and (4) the natives didn’t want it. “The testimony [even] of leading annexationists is that if the question of annexation was submitted to a popular vote…[it] would be defeated,” he wrote.

The Blount Report’s unsparing assessment of the US role in the overthrow was far from universally welcomed. Submitted to Congress by Cleveland in a lengthy message of December 18, 1893, in which he described the coup as “an act of war… [against] the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people…which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair” — words the visitor can find emblazoned on a rock in President Grover Cleveland Court in downtown Honolulu today — it became a cornerstone of the anti-annexationist position in the national struggle over Manifest Destiny taking place at the time. It was countered two months later by another voluminous document known as the Morgan Report, after the annexationist chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat John Tyler Morgan of Alabama, who established to his own satisfaction, though not to that of all the members of his committee, just what he set out to establish, among other points: that Blount’s appointment to Hawai’i without the consent of the Senate was illegal in the first place, and that no illegalities had been committed by US representatives or armed forces in Hawai’i in the second place.

“Manifest Destiny” was the catchphrase for a whole confluence of late nineteenth-century racial, economic and national defense issues that divided the public as intensely as any such issues since slavery. With its dark-skinned natives, burgeoning sugar plantations and strategic location, Hawai’i was at the center of the debates. While The Nation, along with Harper’s Weekly and a number of influential papers across the country, was passionately in the anti-annexationist column [see boxes, pages 18 and 19], other papers, from the San Francisco Chronicle to theNew York Sun, were just as eager for it to happen. The Anti-Imperialist League, with prominent members, sent speakers all over the country. Congress prevaricated. Despite his original hope of restoring Lili’uokalani to her throne, Cleveland appears to have been stymied by her alleged initial refusal to grant amnesty to those who conspired against her and by the stalemate in Congress. With their hopes for annexation stalled, on July 4, 1894, the leaders of the coup, who had been calling themselves the Provisional Government, renamed themselves the Republic of Hawai’i, further complicating efforts at US intervention, which they now claimed would be interference with the internal affairs of a sovereign state. In January 1895, after an unsuccessful native uprising against the government of which she was accused of having prior knowledge, Lili’uokalani was tried, convicted and imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace, which further strengthened the new government’s position. In spring 1897, when expansionist Republican William McKinley succeeded Cleveland, the linked annexationists in Honolulu and Washington resumed their campaign. Still unable to achieve the two-thirds Senate majority required for ratification of annexation by treaty, Congressional annexationists attempted to acquire the islands by joint resolution of both houses — which also stalled until July 1898, two months after Commodore Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay, when it went through.

To those who had resisted the logic of Capt. Alfred Mahan, whose The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890 had been followed by a pointed discussion in Forum titled “Hawaii and Our Future Sea Power” in 1893, the importance of our troops stopping over in Honolulu on their way to the Philippines now spoke for itself. There never was any treaty. On August 12, 1898, in a formal ceremony, Hawai’i was officially annexed, the land seized from the Kingdom in the 1893 coup included. In 1900 it became a territory. In 1959 in a referendum in which the only choice was whether the voter was for or against statehood — the restoration of the Kingdom or any other form of independence was not an option — it became the fiftieth state. The Blount Report has been challenged, ignored and, doubtless some would argue, transcended, but it has never been convincingly refuted. The issues of the illegality of the overthrow of the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the legality of the governments that followed have never really been settled.


In mid-1845 King Kamehameha III and his legislature received petitions from the common people of several islands warning that the sale of land to foreigners, their appointments to government offices and their induction as citizens should all be stopped. “The selling of lands to outsiders is not a wise course,” said a petition from Kona. “If you wish to sell or lease the lands you should sell or lease them to your own people. By so doing the lands will remain as your own and you will continue to reign over the Hawaiian people and the country and everything in Hawai’i will not be taken away.” “It is not proper that any foreigner should come in and be promoted in your kingdom, among your Chiefs and your people,” argued a petition from Lāhainā. The whole idea of foreign citizenship was called into question. “What is to be the result of so many foreigners taking the oath of allegiance?” the Lāhainā petitioners asked. That “this kingdom will pass into their hands, and that too very soon,” they answered themselves. “We, to whom the land has belonged from the beginning, shall all dwindle away.”

What is remarkable about these petitions is not only their indication of the strength of the connection between the people and their sovereign, nor even their prescience in anticipating the effects that the incorporation of so many foreign elements would bring; it is that only twenty-five years after the New England missionaries began the work of creating a Hawaiian alphabet from the sounds of their unwritten language, the petitions were all in writing and that a mere six years after a declaration of principles of government informally known as the Hawaiian Magna Carta had begun to spell out the rights of ordinary citizens and limit those of the monarch, the rudimentary constitutional government to which they were addressed was well in place. While much of what came in with the foreigners has often been rejected or repudiated, the tools of literacy and democracy were quickly put to use.

The society the Native Hawaiians were seeking to preserve with their petitions was a stable, well-ordered hierarchical world in which the sense of belonging was so natural that no one could ever have noticed its existence until the way of life everyone had so naturally led had disappeared. It has been described in a recent comparative anthropological study as having the “most complex [social organization] of any Polynesian chiefdoms and probably of any chiefdoms known elsewhere in the world” at contact. From the first settlements, now generally thought to have been by voyagers from the Marquesas or Tahiti who arrived around the time of Christ, the small populations of all the islands gradually expanded in terrain, from the windward coasts into the leeward areas, and in numbers, until somewhere around 1100, when they were joined by a second migration, from Tahiti, which continued for a few hundred years. It is from this mix, during the period roughly between 1100 and perhaps 1600 or 1700, that the society now referred to as ancient Hawaiian civilization — with its distinctive technological accomplishments in aquaculture and agriculture, its distinctive cultural achievements in oral poetry and dance, and its distinctive combination of religious and political power — gradually solidified.

Described variously as feudal or communal, depending on the preconceptions of the observer, Hawaiian society as it existed at the time of European contact appears to have had one particularly notable feature: that however specialized and stratified social functions and social relationships might be, they were intrinsically reciprocal. This was particularly true of the relationship between the ali’i, the chiefs, and the maka’ainana, the common people, whose rights to the land were guaranteed regardless of changes in the fortunes of the high-ranking konohiki, or overseers, or even of the chiefs themselves, as a result of wars or other familial or political challenges. “A stone that is high up can roll down, but a stone that is down cannot roll” was the saying that articulated this principle. One of the many sources of the bond between the chiefs and the people was, as it always is, war. Although the dates are not firmly established, it appears that at least by the beginning of the eighteenth century a process of consolidation of separately ruled chiefdoms on each of the major islands, by war, was largely completed and by the end of the century the four separate island kingdoms of Ma¯ui, Hawai’i, O’ahu and Kaua’ī, but particularly Māui and Hawai’i, were each trying to consolidate the whole. It was a long, ambitious effort, involving major movements of men and supplies, taking place on both sides of European contact and before and after the incorporation of European weapons and ships. It was also exceedingly bloody. As most visitors today know from the signs atop the pali where it took place, about 10,000 warriors died in the 1795 Battle of Nu’anu alone, in which Hawai’i conquered O’ahu .

The unification of the islands at the same time that they were discovered by the West is the central fact of modern Hawaiian history, for it meant that just as the nation was coming together, the culture that made it one was coming apart. From the weapons demonstrations provided by the first white sailors who ended up staying on the islands, which helped King Kamehameha win the wars, to the diplomatic guidance provided him by British navigator George Vancouver, which helped him get his bearings in the world, the establishment of the united Kingdom and the influence of Westerners were intertwined. Everything that happened occurred against the backdrop of the European and American presence, including the famous events of 1819 celebrated throughout Christendom when, shortly after the death of Kamehameha, his chiefly successors renounced their native gods without ever having seen the first missionaries, who arrived the following year. By that time Western commercial traders had been flooding the country for more than a quarter-century, and their impunity from the tabus of the Hawaiian gods as well as their immunity from the diseases decimating the people were hard to miss.

As gaping as the religious void was a political void. With the previously unknown islands suddenly at the center of a burgeoning tricontinental trade in fur, sandalwood and whale oil, there were tasks to be performed for which the Hawaiians in their self-contained development could not possibly have been prepared. When the legislative council responded to the Lāhainā petitioners’ request that the foreigners in the government be dismissed with the question, “If these shall be dismissed, where is there a man who is qualified to transact business with [other] foreigners?” they were not simply being self-serving, they were also being practical.

The most important business involving foreigners around the middle of the century — probably more far-reaching even than the treaties initiating the new Kingdom into the web of nations — was the introduction of private property, the conversion of the ancient system in which the land was used rather than owned into a system in which it could be bought and sold, a transformation known as the Māhele. Both the rationale and the process of the Māhele, whose aftermath is still in dispute, are too complicated to be briefly summarized, but it is the cornerstone of the subsequent development of the islands. When the initial land awards were completed, 70 percent of the maka’ainana had lost the rights to the land they and their ancestors had long enjoyed, and the acquisition of land by foreigners on which the great fortunes of the islands rest even today was well under way. It is difficult to imagine anything harder to bear for a people already bearing so much than the loss of their land. In the roughly fifty years between the Māhele and annexation, the native population approximately halved again, from 88,000 to about 40,000. In addition, with the expansion of the sugar industry beginning around the same time and the deliberate importation of foreign labor to keep the new plantations going, particularly the Chinese in the 1850s and the Japanese in the 1860s, Hawaiians were soon a much smaller percentage of the population as a whole — about half in the 1880s, about a quarter at annexation. Without a place in their own society, many natives who did not die of disease died of despair, a phenomenon noticed by European and Hawaiian observers alike. “The people dismissed freely their souls and died” was the Hawaiian way of putting it. It would be wrong to oversimplify the relationships between Europeans and Hawaiians. Among the Westerners from many different countries who left their mark on the new Kingdom were those who respected Hawaiian civilization as well as those who mocked it, those whose learning helped preserve some of its cultural treasures for later generations as well as those whose actions hastened their decay, those with genuine feeling for their Hawaiian wives, mistresses, friends and colleagues and those whose only feeling was for themselves. Whatever the character of individuals, however, the consequences of their collective presence — Hawaiian losses and haole gains — remained the same.

When David Kalākaua — the first monarch not of the direct Kamehameha lineage to rule the islands — became King in 1874, he took as his motto Ho’oulu Lāhui: Increase the Nation. “I shall endeavor to preserve and increase the people that they shall multiply and fill the land with chiefs and commoners,” he said in one of his first public speeches. Kalākaua is the most controversial figure in Hawaiian history, more so even than the Queen, his sister and successor. He is applauded and condemned in different quarters today almost as passionately as he was when he lived, in part because his legacy is so complex. Not only did he strengthen the Kingdom abroad through an unprecedented round-the-world voyage during which he impressed dignitaries from Tokyo to London with his intellect and sophistication — he also weakened it at home, where he undermined the balance between native and foreign power maintained by his predecessors by capitulating, under threat of force, to the aptly named 1887 Bayonet Constitution, which expanded the power of the latter at the expense of the former. Not only did he strengthen the nation’s identity through such unifying symbols as the ‘Iolani Palace and the statue of Kamehameha the Great, which still grace Honolulu today, he also weakened its security, particularly by the 1887 renewal of the 1876 sugar-inspired reciprocity treaty with the United States, which involved the first official abandonment of Hawaiian territorial sovereignty: the cession of Pearl Harbor. Controversial financial charges against Kalākaua, ranging from reckless extravagance to personal corruption, have also never gone out of circulation. Undoubtedly the principal reason for the continued debate about Kalākaua’s place and stature is his continued relevance. He is one of the major links between the old Hawaiian civilization and the contemporary sovereignty movement. When he brought the missionary-outlawed hula back into public performance, when he set up a genealogical board to verify and record the true family histories of the endangered ali’i, when he created the semi-secret society Ka Hale Nauā — Temple of Wisdom — to preserve traditional forms of knowledge of the earth, sea and sky, he was giving his people back their interupted history. When he held his formal coronation and other public celebrations on the palace grounds, he was reinforcing a connection between the monarchy and the people that would help give them something to hold on to. While it is Lili’uokalani who is generally credited with leaving behind the legal framework that has made it possible for later generations to challenge the legitimacy of her successors, it may well have been Kalākaua who kept alive the love of the Kingdom that accounts for the outpourings of the 1993 centennial in the first place. The identification of the Hawaiian people with the monarchy is very strong. A few weeks after the coup, a musical friend of Lili’uokalani’s was asked by members of the Royal Hawaiian Band who had refused to sign the new government’s petition for annexation to the United States to write them a song that would express their loyalty to the Queen. You will not be paid… You will have to eat stones… is what they were told. The result was “Kaulana Nā Pua,” Famous Are the Flowers, the “pua” frequently also translated as “children” or “descendants” but always meaning something growing out of and belonging to the land:

Kaulana nā pua a’o
K ū pa’a mahope o ka ‘āina
Hiki mai ka ‘elele o ka loko
Palapala ‘ānunu me ka

Pane mai Hawai’i moku o Keawe.
Kōkua nā Hono a’o Pi’ilani.
Kāko’o mai Kaua’i o Mano
Pa’apū me ke one

‘A’ole ‘a’ ‘kau i ka pūlima
Maluna o ka pepa o ka ‘enemi
Ho’ohui ‘āina kū ‘ai hewa
I ka pono sivila a’o ke kanaka.

‘A’ole mākou a’e minamina
I ka pu’ukālā a ke
Ua lawa makou i ka pōhaku,
I ka ‘ai kamaha o o ka ‘āina.

Mahope mākou o Lili’u-lani
A loa’a ‘ē ka pono a ka
(A kau hou ‘ia e ke kalaunu)
Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana
Ka po’e i aloha i k

Famous are the children of
Ever loyal to the land
When the evil-hearted messenger
With his greedy document of

Hawai’i, land of Keawe, answers.
Pi’ilani’s bays help.
Mano’s Kaua’i lends support
And so do the sands of

No one will fix a signature
To the paper of the enemy
With its sin of annexation
And sale of native civil rights.

We do not value
The government’s sums of
We are satisfied with the stones.
Astonishing food of the land.

We back Lili’u-lani
Who has won the rights of the
(She will be crowned again.)
Tell the story
Of the people who love their

Soon the new government’s demand that the band members sign “the paper of the enemy” had become a rallying call. In 1893 the people of Hawai’i had not yet lost their language — that would happen under the Territory — but even as they did, they kept this song. When it was revived by a leading popular musician near the beginning of the cultural revival in the 1970s, it fit right in. When it was sung — in Hawaiian — to the great throngs on the ‘Iolani Palace grounds in the 1993 commemoration, the crowd knew the words.


On January 3, 1976, a small group of citizens of the islands of Māui and Moloka’i crossed an eight-mile channel from Māui to begin the illegal occupation of an island few Americans even knew existed, the eighth and smallest of the major Hawaiian islands, Kaho’olawe. However little-known it was at the time, Kaho’olawe was known very well to the earliest Hawaiians, for whom it was the base for the celestial and navigational instruction that made possible the round-trip voyages from Hawai’i to Tahiti, which are thought to have gone on until around 1400. Its place names, such as Lae o Kealaikahiki, the “Point of Pathway to Tahiti,” are full of information about its role. It was also well-known to the residents of the nearest parts of Māui and Lāna’i because ever since December 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, it had been given over to the Navy for target practice, a function that continued well into the Vietnam era. When the bombs hit Kaho’olawe, you could see, hear and feel them throughout the neighboring islands. “As a child [I experienced] the shaking of all our windows as an everyday occurrence,” a man from Lāna’i testified at a public hearing.

The struggle for Kaho’olawe is seen by many observers as the formative episode in the larger struggle to reclaim Hawaiian identity, which has been a force in the islands ever since because there was something so deeply Hawaiian about it. For one thing, it was about the land, to which Hawaiians understand themselves to be so genealogically related that its desecration becomes practically a family murder. From the first night spent on dry ground so littered with unexploded ordnance that any footstep might have led to death, the two members of the group who had avoided arrest by the Coast Guard felt themselves to be in the presence of their ancestors, and the more they learned as their movement widened and deepened, the more they learned that was true. Later archaeological surveys discovered more than 2,000 shrines, living areas and other evidence of a functioning society.

The character of the movement and the people in it was also distinctively Hawaiian. Organized as an ohana — family — rather than as a formal association, it blended the knowledge of the elders, who still knew from oral traditions something of the former status of Kaho’olawe, with the energies of the young people, who still had the will to reclaim it. Led by, among others, a charismatic singer-philosopher named George Helm, whose roots were deep in the rural soil of Moloka’i, the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana, or PKO, attracted others with the same combination of intelligence and soul, and when Helm and an experienced boatman named Kimo Mitchell were lost at sea during another attempted landing in March 1977 the determination of the ‘ohana further intensified. Just as there is no inauthenticity like that of the Hawaiian tourist industry, there is no authenticity like that of the true Hawaiian, and in light of its influence the juxtaposition of the sacredness of Kaho’olawe and its devastation began to appear more and more unacceptable. In 1980, as a result of PKO litigation, the Navy agreed to limit bombing, begin clearance of live munitions, institute conservation and reforestation measures, and allow access to PKO for four 
no-bombing days ten months a year to carry out its own preservation and restoration activities. In 1990 the bombing was ended completely, and in 1994 the island was returned to the State of Hawai’i along with $400 million from Washington to further its recovery. The island is still a dangerous place, and disagreements remain over who should control the right of access, the state or PKO, but when the children of Lāna’i and Māui look out today over the narrow channels that separate them from Kaho’olawe they see not the source of their nightmares but a source of pride.

The literal uncovering of the Hawaiian past on Kaho’olawe both strengthened and was strengthened by other political struggles and cultural retrievals occurring about the same time. In 1959, as the simultaneous arrival of statehood and jets brought with it a building boom that resulted in the displacement of many Native Hawaiian communities throughout the islands, there were organized protests and demonstrations from O’ahu to Kaua’i. There was the Hōkūle’a, a bold reconstruction of a Polynesian voyaging canoe, which made a successful journey from Māui to Tahiti by noninstrument navigation in thirty-two days in 1976, precisely duplicating the voyages recounted in ancestral chants — the first of many such navigational feats. There were young musicians exploring a newly realized Hawaiian-ness with such contributions as “Kaulana Nā Pua.” There were hula teachers, traditional healers and practitioners of the Hawaiian martial art of lua, all survivors of a frail Polynesian underground that had somehow managed to sustain itself over the years. The more Hawaiians came together in protest or song, the more they understood that they were in fact Hawaiians and that they no longer knew what that meant.

Apart from the revered scholar, translator, songwriter and chanter Mary Kawena Pukui, whose works included the Hawaiian-English dictionary, a study of Hawaiian place names and an anthropological study of traditional Hawaiian society on the Big Island, where she was born, and those who collaborated with her, Hawaiian history under the Territory did not exist, either as academic enterprise or on the shelves. The writings of the great Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau had been published only in newspapers, mainly between 1866 and 1871, and were unavailable until translated and collected by Pukui in 1961. The invaluable works of preservation that had been undertaken toward the end of the nineteenth century — Abraham Fornander’s three-volume An Account of the Polynesian Race, King Kalākaua’s Legends and Myths of Hawaii, Nathaniel Emerson’s Unwritten Literature of Hawaii — and even a unique series of lectures on ancient Hawaiian civilization sponsored by the Kamehameha School in the 1930s, had all gone out of print. As for the history of the Territory itself, it is perhaps best symbolized by the statue of President McKinley outside McKinley High School in Honolulu clutching a Treaty of Annexation that never was. The Queen was not fat, stupid, lazy and lascivious either, as children educated under the Territory were generally taught. Her autobiography, Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen, which has proven to be the single most influential account of the overthrow and annexation, was also out of print.

The loss of history was inseparable from another fundamental loss, the Hawaiian language. What the missionaries had given in establishing the Hawaiian alphabet in the 1820s their descendants had taken away with the banning of Hawaiian as the medium of instruction in public and private schools in 1896. Nineteenth-century Hawaiians had amazed the world with the speed and pleasure with which they took to seeing their language in writing, achieving near-universal literacy in a few decades and mastering a wide range of subjects from math to geography in their native tongue. Shakespeare, along with the classic writers of other Western languages, was also translated into Hawaiian. In addition, over the course of the century about a hundred Hawaiian-language newspapers had come into being, with articles on subjects ranging from prayer to politics, making the written language an everyday, taken-for-granted thing. It did not take long for this legacy to be shattered. In stories too familiar from the experiences of indigenous people everywhere, great-grandparents alive today recall being slapped if they used a Hawaiian word on the school grounds and slapped harder if they used it a second time. Today’s grandparents remember the shame of speaking the language as part of the larger shame of simply being Hawaiian. Many of today’s parents and children grew up without ever hearing the language at all. With dwindling readership, the last of the Hawaiian-language newspapers went out of business around World War II. The number of native speakers of Hawaiian left in the 1980s was estimated to be under 2,000.

In 1983 a group of educators formed ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, which means “language nest,” expressing their wish to feed their ancestral language into the mouths of Hawaiian children as birds feed their young. Starting with one immersion preschool on Kaua’i, the immersion program now includes two independent K-12s as well as similar programs within the Hawaiian public school system. The numbers are small and the teachers involved are quick to stress the difficulties, including the paucity of curriculum materials and of other teachers, but the program is still turning out graduates who are fluent and literate in Hawaiian. Hawaiian is considered to be one of the most successful language-reclamation programs in the world, after Hebrew, which is one of its models, and it is itself a model for the revitalization of other indigenous languages in the United States and elsewhere. In the same period a new generation of scholars trained in the language, which had been available at the university level since 1921, began translating and interpreting nineteenth-century archives largely unused by previous historians, in time publishing a number of remarkable books that show the Hawaiians of the nineteenth century in a new and active light, both drawing on and enhancing the knowledge of the past [see “Resources,” page 28]. There are also Hawaiian studies programs at the university campuses at Manoa and Hilo. Today, Hawaiian history is no longer so hard to find. Kamakau, Kalākaua, Emerson, Fornander and the Queen, among others, are all available at the supermarket.

So many recoveries led naturally to the question: why not the ultimate recovery — sovereignty? How the idea first arose is a subject on which there are many different opinions. What “sovereignty” might be exactly and how to get it are also the subject of many opinions. In the 1980s and ’90s the strongest initiative came from a grassroots organization call Kā Lahui Hawai’i, which defined itself as a “nation within a nation” and enrolled as many as 20,000 Hawaiians in a constitutionally governed entity internal to the state with representation from all the islands. Recently, positions resting on international law — some stressing the illegality of the 1893 overthrow, others the illegitimacy of statehood on the grounds of the US unilateral withdrawal of Hawai’i from the UN’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, still others combining both arguments — have been getting more attention. The underlying claim is the same laid out in the 1993 international tribunal: Hawaiian sovereignty was never legally relinquished. There are also numerous other variants, and numerous representatives of them, including a Hawaiian Kingdom and a Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom, separate organizations, each with its own thinkers, strategies and shadow cabinet. For all its divisions, the sovereignty movement is a tightly knit political community, and for the most part people get along. All can agree with the recent formulation of one of their several spokespeople apropos the anticipated 2009 half-century anniversary of statehood: “To me statehood is not a reason for celebration. We’ve been led to believe that we were adopted, and then we found out we were kidnapped.”

Despite the fact that inside the sovereignty camp it sometimes appears that its influence peaked with the flush of 1993, in other circles it is still seen as a rising force, enough to provoke a continuing reaction. In 2000, thanks to a Hawaiian incarnation of the conservative-libertarian ideological grouping that includes such US representatives as the Heritage and Heartland foundations, a challenge to the right of a state agency, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), to confine voting for its trustees to citizens of Hawaiian descent was upheld by the Supreme Court, in Rice v. Cayetano, clearing a pathway for similar challenges to a variety of Native Hawaiian benefit programs, many of them administered by the OHA. (Another challenge, to the hallowed Hawaiians-only admission policy of the Kamehameha schools, settled out of court in 2007 after years of litigation, emerged from the same political constellation.) With health, income, education and other vital statistics consistently showing Native Hawaiians at the bottom of the ethnic social ladder, the threat to such aid as had emerged over the years was unacceptable to the state’s Democratic leadership, which began pressing for a federally recognized tribal government for Native Hawaiians to protect the endangered programs. The legislation — known formally as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act and informally as the Akaka bill after Senator Daniel Akaka, who has introduced it regularly since 2000 — has become the locus of an increasingly serious national debate centering on whether the bill recognizes Native Hawaiians on a political basis, which according to the bill’s supporters has precedents in federal Indian policy and poses no constitutional problems, or on a racial basis, which, according to conservative opponents including the Bush White House, would be illegal. More recently, this argument has been taken up in the public arena, with conservative editorialists denouncing the bill’s proposed creation of a special status for Native Hawaiians as at best discriminatory and at worst racist.

On the islands, too, the Akaka bill has generated increasing heat, and even fear, opposed by peculiar bedfellows: the constellation behind the legal challenges, led since 2001 by the Honolulu-based Grassroot Institute, who see it as dividing the citizens of Hawai’i into two classes according to race and opening the way to secession, and many sovereignty activists, who see it as distorting and undermining their fundamental identity. Their position is, We are not Native Americans, we are not even Native Hawaiians, we are Polynesians. Another commonality between the conservatives and the sovereignty movement is distrust of the OHA, the thirty-year-old agency that, as the chief lobbyist for the Akaka bill and the natural starting point for a future Native Hawaiian government, is widely seen as unable to separate advocacy for Native Hawaiians, which was its original mandate, from protecting its own bureaucracy, which was not. With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama having recently stated that, unlike Bush, they would sign the Akaka bill should it pass Congress (and with John McCain also thought to support it), the long stalemate over the bill may be coming to an end. What happens if it becomes law is unpredictable. The bill is conspicuously vague. Deferring all important decisions to future “government-to-government” negotiations after a Native Hawaiian governing entity is created, the bill is so open-ended that no one knows where it will lead, including Senator Akaka, who told an NPR interviewer that it would be up to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren whether to seek independence — a bit of candor greeted in many quarters with a shiver.

The heart of the matter, long concealed by other things and staggering to contemplate now that it is being faced, is land: the 1.8 million acres “ceded” by the Republic to the United States at the time of annexation and referred to by everyone touched by the sovereignty movement as “stolen.” This land involves roughly half the state of Hawai’i and includes some of its most valuable property, starting with the Honolulu airport. Whenever one of the islands’ vigilant protest groups litigates or rallies against the environmental consequences of the Army’s twenty-ton Strykers or the inter-island superferry or genetically modified seeds, the question is raised, Whose land is it, anyway?: the question of sovereignty. The crowds at sovereignty demonstrations are far smaller than in 1993, but the ideas of the sovereignty movement have taken hold.

The most remarkable thing about the present moment, in fact, is the extent to which the illegality of the American takeover is recognized. Despite the fact that the racial mixture of individuals and families is such that the question of who is “Hawaiian” can never be satisfactorily answered; despite the fact that a large proportion of families are thoroughly integrated into the economic status quo through the employment of one or more members in the military or tourist industry; despite the fact that, overall, the citizens of Hawai’i appear used to and indeed proud of being Americans, there is a widespread consensus, strengthened by the Apology Resolution, that the historical sequence that began with the takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom and ended with Hawai’i’s star on the American flag was wrong, and that the fact that it started a long time ago does not make it right. “If it is disgraceful for a single individual to steal, it is no less disgraceful for a nation, an aggregate of individuals, to steal…[and] I believe that when the American people fully understand the Hawaiian matter, they will condemn the great wrong done to the natives by the missionaries and their descendants,” wrote Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of State Walter Gresham in 1895, a prediction that seems finally to be coming true. No one thinks that that historical sequence can be reversed, but neither can it any longer be ignored. The next phases will be the stuff of politics on both sides of the water. As for the Native Hawaiians, whose very existence as a people was so long presumed doomed, they are moved simply to find themselves still here. “Hawaiians go back 1,200 generations,” proclaimed one of the speakers at the most recent commemoration of the overthrow last January, “and we will be here for 1,200 more.” So they are not in a terrible hurry. They know change takes time. Just offshore from the Big Island, Hawai’i, a new volcanic island is thrusting up from the ocean floor — Kama’ehu — already represented on a sovereignty T-shirt, though it is not expected to reach the surface for at least 10,000 years. In the words of a new chant accompanying a Hawaiian dance troupe’s homage to the new arrival: “The child is born, the family grows.”

Initial research for this Special Issue was funded by The Nation Institute.