Hawaii Kingdom flag, now also the State flag

Kanaka Maoli Hawaii Independence flag

Hawai’i Profile
Mark Twain justifiably described Hawaii as“The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean,” and that was back in July 1866, when the Hawaiian monarchy was still alive and well and Hawaii was correctly called the Hawaiian Kingdom. Nearly a century and a half later, the lovely “fleet of islands” now has attached to it the U.S. military, on land and sea. The formerly clear blue oceans and white sandy beaches are tainted by unexploded munitions resting on the ocean bottom just offshore of those places used in the distant and recent past by the U.S. military for target practice. And after heavy rains, particularly where landfills are nearby, beaches are strewn with garbage, some of it waste materials from nearby hospitals, including blood-filled syringes. The “lovely fleet” is still anchored in the blue pacific, but perhaps not as lovely, and certainly not as pristine, as they used to be—the price of progress.

For visitors to these islands, the dream of paradise is simply that—a dream, something they pack in their suitcases like a vacation accessory. For residents, there are two types of reality:  a tough life for the native people, Kanaka Maoli, who have resisted the overlay of Americanism and as a result are homeless or houseless, unemployed, undereducated, and often spiritually bereft. For the others, native or not, Americanism has been a plus and forgetting the past an essential ingredient for a successful life—as an American.

On the one hand are those who long for the old ways where neighbor really did care for neighbor, land produced food, beachfronts were accessible to all, and cultural concepts of caring and sharing were lived. Life was kinder then, and very Hawaiian.

Today life is fast paced, tourism-oriented, and superficially democratic. Hawaii has become the California of the Pacific. The bulk of Hawaii’s population is American in outlook, and while they purportedly support the aloha spirit as a kind of guiding principle (even writing it into law!), people rarely practice aloha. They expect aloha from the native population in particular, but rarely show aloha when it comes to important issues that have become Hawaii’s economic drivers. In many ways, the native population has become an impediment to successful economic development. If you visit Hawaii today, this is what strikes home the hardest:  unless you take a ride to one of the areas reserved for Hawaiians by ethnicity (homestead areas), you are not likely to see any Kanaka Maoli except those working in hotels or in the tourism industry.

Hawaii’s population is just under 1.3 million and at least one million live on Oahu, the capitol city and center of government. Oahu is also where major protests occur, where the powers that be gather to make decisions on economic development that focuses primarily on tourism and militarism. As the U.S. military is an appendage to Hawaii, Hawaii is an appendage to the United States. That’s another way of saying that wherever you go on Oahu, you will be reminded that 1) you are on American territory, 2) there are designated military-controlled areas where access is denied, and 3) the people of Hawaii should be happy to have the military here. That realization forces some people, visitors and residents, to ask why the military are here in the first place and how come they control so much land (about a quarter of the island of Oahu). And herein lies the history of Hawaii that visitors should learn about, and that the State of Hawaii and the U.S. government would like to keep hidden.

Early visitors to Hawaii came as castaways or as crew on visiting sailing ships. European vessels crossing the Pacific knew about Hawaii. The islands’ history, however, doesn’t officially begin until 1778, when Capt. Cook arrives and European writers begin their task of creating a historic timeline to go along with collected narratives from those who kept journals of visits to all foreign places, including Hawaii. Hence the ‘discovery’ of Hawaii, called the Sandwich Isles after the Earl of Sandwich, and the mapping of Hawaii according to which European visited when. Hawaii’s history was written by visitors, for the most part, until Hawaiians learned how to read and write their own spoken language (thanks to missionaries) and to develop a chronology of their own. The missionaries established schools to teach Hawaiians how to speak like them, dress appropriately (meaning not naked), engage in business like ‘civilized’ people, and create a form of government that was democratic in form, after which were put in place specific criteria to allow (or limit the ability of) the populace to vote. The result, of course, was that few Kanaka Maoli met those criteria, thus setting a course for slow but ever-advancing disenfranchisement over time.

In 1810, Kamehameha I created a monarchical form of government in the Hawaiian Islands by conquering most of the other islands and securing an agreement for unification with the chief of Kauai. The Hawaiian Kingdom was formed. King Kamehameha I ruled until his death in 1819. His sons, Kamehameha II and III, ruled after him. Kamehameha III established a Bill of Rights for the people in 1839, and the following year promulgated a constitution, effectively limiting his own personal power and ending the absolute monarchy that existed before. The Hawaiian Kingdom, a nation of its own, was well on its way to becoming a player on the international scene.

Foreigners, particularly missionaries and their descendants, began to see Hawaii as a resource-rich port that could be used to further their own agendas. They made themselves invaluable to the monarchs and advised them on business strategies, often to the detriment of the people and to the benefit of themselves. In the meantime, other countries seeking new lands also envisioned the ‘pearl of the Pacific’ as their own port of call.   Kamehameha III, aware of the islands’ vulnerability, decided to take a bold step:  he sent emissaries to England, France, and the United States seeking recognition of the Hawaiian Kingdom as an independent country, thus entry into the European family of nations. He wanted a guaranty that Hawaii would be safe in any interactions with stronger nations, thus he promoted Hawaii as a neutral country eager to engage in commerce.

His goal was achieved in 1843, when treaties and conventions were signed with England and France, and subsequently with the nations of Austria, Belgium, Bremen (presently Germany), Denmark, France, Germany, Hamburg (presently Germany), Italy, Hong Kong (former colony of England), Japan, Netherlands, New South Wales (former colony of England), Portugal, Russia, Samoa, the Swiss Confederation, Sweden, Norway, Tahiti (colony of France), United Kingdom, and the United States of America. The Hawaiian Kingdom had entered into the big league.

Several monarchs ruled after Kamehameha III. The white population, some of them subjects of the Hawaiian Kingdom, continued to try to influence Hawaiian legislators and the monarchs to pass laws that would disenfranchise the populace, while at the same time providing special breaks for businessmen and their ventures in Hawaii. After the death of King Kalakaua, who commissioned the building of Iolani Palace and who opposed the influential white businessmen who continuously sought to disempower the people, his sister, Queen Liliuokalani, ascended to the throne. Businessmen were afraid of what she might do, as she went around the islands to consult with the people about what they felt needed to be done. They saw that she could very well be an instrument of change, and that if they could not control her, then their financial gains and political influence might well be on the wane. They conspired to overthrow the Queen and, in 1893, they succeeded.

Within a short time, the officers of the new Republic of Hawaii petitioned the U.S. Congress for annexation. But because an annexation treaty requires the consent of the people, and such consent was nowhere forthcoming, the treaty of annexation to the U.S. failed. Instead, the United States passed an internal (to the U.S.) document called the Newlands Resolution, and in that way took Hawaii as a territory. Subsequently Hawaii became a ‘state’ of the United States via the Admission Act in 1959.

Hawaii is currently in political and legal turmoil. Why are Hawaiians (by ethnicity) at the bottom of all social indices?  Can knowledge of Hawaii’s history help visitors understand and care about the impact of loss on the Kanaka Maoli, and the land and water that comprise ‘home’?  Can this understanding help create a culture of compassion when dealing with a loss of such magnitude?  The impact of disconnection of Hawaii’s native people from their culture, land, language, and rights has been debated and contested, and laws within the U.S. federal government and Hawaii state legislature have been passed to bring ‘parity’ to the native people, but few in the general population understand the overwhelming burden that sits on Kanaka Maoli.

There is a growing response to what ails Hawaii’s native people. At the heart of the matter is the legal question of how Hawaii came to be part of the United States. There was no legal instrument for that to occur. Classes are being taught at the university level on this issue. Young scholars are writing and publishing their dissertations on this issue. Lawsuits related to this particular issue are advancing in courts of law at all levels.  Work is being done to promote this idea internationally at the United Nations. The belief is strong that reconnecting to history will provide answers to present injustices and a remedy for the overall well-being that is so desperately desired.

A willingness to share this history is what causes many politically active Hawaiians to extend the invitation to visitors to see Hawaii beyond the dream state. The desire is to educate and enlighten, and to do this in a culturally-appropriate way—with caring and humility. And perhaps in that process, Kanaka Maoli, Hawaii’s native people, will be able to connect with visitors at a human level and share with them the cultural practice that has made Hawaii famous—the aloha spirit.

– by Lynette Hi’ilani Cruz, PhD

Link to Hawaii Data Book for more demographic, geographic and economic info: