Editor’s Note: Native Hawaiians are expected to come together later this year in a Hawaiian Constitutional Convention that will address issues of self governance. But the looming political discussion stems from a century of historical and cultural change that has framed life in the islands for Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. With an eye toward that broader constituency, Peter Apo joins our stable of regular columnists to discuss Native Hawaiian issues and their impact on all who call Hawaii home. Apo, a popular local musician, is well-positioned for this assignment — he is a former legislator and currently the elected Oahu trustee on the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

It’s been 117 years since the flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom was lowered at Iolani Palace and replaced by the stars and stripes.

Since that tragic day when the will of the vast majority of Native Hawaiians was usurped by a political process that allowed anarchy to rule the day, Native Hawaiians have held a painfully deep and abiding sense of disenfranchisement from any meaningful participation in the societal, political and economic growth of what was once their homeland.

The loss of national sovereignty, the alienation from their lands, the dismantling of hundreds of years of customs, traditions and leadership systems, and finally the loss of two-thirds of the population to common Western diseases for which natives had no immunity was catastrophic.

The native population was brought to its knees.


The Hawaiian flag was lowered from Iolani Palace on Aug. 12, 1898.

Courtesy of Hawaii State Archives

It sent maka’ainana (commoner) families spiraling down into a deep trans-generational trauma from which recovery has been painfully slow — one family at a time, one child from one family at a time.

The very process of recovery itself from being government-dependent and virtual wards of the state has had its costs. In the ensuing century of socio-economic and political struggle to restore a sense of dignity, honor, prosperity, relevance, health and a cultural wholeness, we have become a divided people.

The processes to which Hawaiians have too often turned to for solutions have seen us adopt the very colonizing social, political and economic policies and procedures that undermined us in the first place. Processes that have fostered division more than unity. Navigating rules of engagement that foster factiousness make it difficult to carry on a civil dialogue without someone throwing down a gauntlet.

Until there is closure to the Hawaiian question Hawaii can never be whole.

Sadly, the pain, the anger and the dysfunction is played out on the public stage and paraded across the wide and deep reach of mainstream media. It is not a pretty picture. And as we trudge on in pursuit of a full measure of justice and reconciliation the learning curve is steep. Political maturity is slow in materializing.

But there is no lack of commitment from the considerable ranks of Hawaiian leadership to stay the course and get it right.

And I believe for most Hawaiians getting it right means a socio-political reconciliation model that at once brings relief to the Native Hawaiians’ state of trauma but with solutions that make Hawaii a better place for everyone.

The most interesting and probably most important dynamic of the Hawaiian effort to redefine their relationship with the nation and the state of Hawaii is the context and circumstance through which the redefining process must pass.

The 117 years of social, economic and political evolution since 1893 has completely altered these landscapes of context and circumstance through which Hawaiians must navigate no matter the outcomes they seek — federal recognition, independence, or something in between.

There are now five generations of Hawaii’s citizenry who proudly claim Hawaii as their homeland and land of birth. Add to that the thousands of Hawaii citizens who migrated here, emotionally embraced these islands as their own, and also planted the flag that says home.

According to the last census, Hawaiians living in Hawaii comprise 20 percent of the population at 289,970.

I would guess that the 80 percent of the people who claim Hawaii as home would have a far different set of interests regarding any re-shaping of political jurisdiction, land ownership and citizenship status.

Generally Hawaiians who choose to engage in the discussion only seem to talk to each other, perhaps not wanting or not knowing how to engage the non-Hawaiian community. On the other hand, many non-Hawaiians, mostly out of respect, tend to steer away from opportunities to participate in the discussion.

One way this opt-out behavior manifests itself is the many hundreds of non-Hawaiians who will not cast a ballot in the election of OHA trustees, apparently thinking Hawaiians should be left to determine their own governance.

I would emphatically note however, that given the context and circumstance of the 80-20 demographic, it would seem a good idea to make it a strategic priority for Hawaiians to reach out for help and support from that 80 percent of the public who, in the end, will be the arbiter of the native Hawaiian future.

One circumstance is this: until there is closure to the Hawaiian question Hawaii can never be whole.

Another is that Hawaiians are going to continue to surface as more and more relevant to the quality of growth of the Hawaiian Islands than one might imagine at this point in the time tunnel.

I welcome your thoughts and comments below this column. My next column will pick up where I leave off here and in future columns I will be making editorial forays into every aspect of the world of Hawaiians, Hawaii, and you. Aloha.

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About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.