Does the Hawaiian Kingdom still exist?

A renewed effort to answer that sensitive question has divided the quasi-state agency whose mission is to protect Hawaii’s people, environmental resources and assets.

The divergent views became obvious when Kamana’opono Crabbe, chief executive officer of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, wrote a letter to John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, on May 5 to obtain a legal opinion on Hawaii’s sovereign status.

Among the questions Crabbe had for Kerry was this: “If the Hawaiian Kingdom continues to exist and the sole-executive agreements are binding on the United States, have the members of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, Trustees and staff of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs incurred criminal liability under international law?”

That news broke Friday morning. By the afternoon, all nine OHA trustees had some news of their own: They wrote a letter to Kerry telling the secretary that Crabbe’s letter did not reflect the position of OHA or its trustees.

Crabbe’s letter was rescinded on the same day it was released. By Saturday morning, however, one of the trustees, took his name off the letter to rescind the letter. Dan Ahuna wrote OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado that it is “in the best interest of our people” to gather pertinent information on what Crabbe requested.

The latest development came Monday when Crabbe held a press conference at OHA’s headquarters in Iwilei to stand firm on his decision to write to Kerry. At least one more trustee has also dissented from the letter to rescind, and others may follow.

Exactly what is going on at OHA?

Divergent Views of the Overthrow

Before Crabbe’s press conference, dozens of people gathered outside OHA’s offices at the Gentry Pacific Design Center. Some sang songs, played traditional drums and performed hula.

When Crabbe appeared, the crowd applauded and followed him into the OHA boardroom for the press conference. Students from Halau Lokahi charter school, all wearing blue T-shirts, performed a traditional pule, or prayer, led by kumu hula Hina Wong-Kalu, a cultural practitioner.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe after the news conference.

“I continue to believe my decision to send the letter was in the best interest of OHA and the beneficiaries we serve,” he told a packed OHA boardroom full mostly of Crabbe supporters, including activists for Hawaiian independence.

In his letter to Kerry, Crabbe said he was motivated to write after learning about arguments about the overthrow from Williamson Chang, a professor at the University of Hawaii law school, and Keanu Sai, a political scientist. Crabbe summarized those arguments and referenced other material in his letter, in essence stating that they raise the question of the overthrow’s legality.

The views of Sai, who runs the Hawaiian Kingdom blog, have been known for some time.

“Welcome to the website of the Hawaiian Kingdom Government presently operating within the occupied State of the Hawaiian Islands,” he writes on the blog’s homepage. “Since the Spanish-American War, 1898, our Nation has been under prolonged occupation by the United States of America.”

The Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown in 1893, but more than 120 years later there are strong differences of opinion, much of it scholarly, about how to understand what happened.

This broad history is well known: The kingdom became a republic and then a territory, when it was annexed by the United States in 1898. The territory was under martial law during much of World War II. Statehood came in 1959.

But the origins of the overthrow and its aftermath are complicated and fiercely disputed. Broadly speaking, there are some who believe Hawaii is still an independent nation, while others say the past is past and Hawaii has long been part of the United States.

Crabbe described confusion over the facts of the overthrow as “this cloud” that hovers over Hawaii to this day. What Hawaiians need, he said, is “accurate information and the truth.”

Trustee Posts Up for Election

The turmoil at OHA comes as the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission announced last week that it had signed up 130,000 Native Hawaiians to establish a constitution for an independent Hawaiian nation as early as January. The commission was created by the Hawaii Legislature in 2011 in order to found a nation with its own laws separate from the United States but recognized by the federal government.

The turmoil also comes just weeks before the June 3 deadline to file to run for several OHA trustee positions. For the first time, OHA has a primary instead of just a general election.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Crabbe supporters including Walter Ritte, second from left, and Jonathan Osorio, at right, sing “Hawaii Ponoi.”

Candidates who have already said they are running include Wong-Kalu, the kumu hula; Mililani Trask, a former OHA trustee and sovereignty activist who lately has focused on geothermal energy development; and Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a Hawaiian nationalist leader who has lent his support to the roll commission’s well-publicized efforts to sign up more Hawaiians.

Trustee Carmen Hulu Lindsey, who is up for re-election, was the second trustee to change her mind on the Kerry letter. Trustees Rowena Akana and John D. Waihee IV, the son of former Gov. John Waihee, who is leading the roll commission, are also up for re-election.

At the Crabbe press conference, two other trustees, Oswald Stender and and Robert Lindsey, were in attendance. Another trustee, Peter Apo, has posted on his Facebook account an email to all OHA staff from Machado dated May 11.

Machado outlines the steps the trustees will take regarding the “breach of aloha” by Crabbe, identified as Ka Pouhana, a metaphor for “the central post of a hale.”

While acknowledging that Crabbe had “identified important questions that have been asked by many advocates for Hawaii’s independence throughout the decades since the illegal overthrow of our Queen,” Machado said that Crabbe had “lost sight” of the U.S. government’s relationship with Hawaii. She said that Crabbe had “disregarded trusted relationships with supporters in Washington” and bypassed the actions of Hawaii legislators who “have worked diligently” to help Hawaiians.

Crabbe also acted independent of the board and his actions, said Machado, have “serious consequences.”

Apo wrote on his Facebook page, “I agree with Chair Machado’s email and look forward to resolving this issue.”

‘A Matter of Due Diligence’

At the press conference, Crabbe said he met with Machado before sending his letter to Kerry and believed he had her approval to do so.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Kumu Hula Hina Wong-Kalu leads students of Halau Lokahi charter school in song.

“I explained that my questions were a matter of due diligence and risk management to avoid OHA missteps in its nation rebuilding facilitation,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is now apparent that we walked away from that meeting with a misunderstanding and misinformation.”

But in a statement late Monday, Machado had a different recollection.

“The letter sent by Dr. Crabbe to Secretary of State John Kerry was dated May 5, 2014,” the statement said. “It was received by the State Department on Thursday May 8, 2014. This was at least a day before Dr. Crabbe spoke to me about his letter on Friday May 9, 2014. Therefore, Dr. Crabbe did not consult with me before sending his letter, nor did I give him my blessings to proceed.”

Machado reiterated that point in an interview with Civil Beat. Asked whether OHA needed a legal opinion from the federal government, Machado said a better approach would be to work with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and any appropriate federal agencies.

“Let them do the research and advise on the best way to proceed,” she said. “Did Kamana’o think he was going to get an answer in a week? I doubt it.”

OHA now plans a hooponopono, a practice of reconciliation and forgiveness, for May 19 in executive session. Machado said any decisions that come from the meeting would be made public afterwards. She also said the business of the roll commission continues.

In the meantime, an online petition is circulating as a “strong stance to support” OHA’s CEO.

Kamanamaikalani Beamer, a UH assistant professor at the Hawaiinuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, said as of 11 a.m. Monday more than 1,100 people had signed it, including about 800 from Hawaii.

The petition was signed, said Beamer, by “people who care about justice, Hawaii and pono leadership who have decided to stand together.”

The petition reads in part, “We believe that the four fundamental questions posed in the letter requires a response and should be looked at critically before proceeding with any further ‘nation building’ processes.”

Contact Chad Blair via email at or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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