History is not just what we perceive our past to be, definitely not what we wish the past had been. In the end, fact matters. Knowing the sequence of events, knowing what was done and said, knowing that past is how we understand and make sense of the present.
A clear, intelligible vision of the present — what is going on around us — also matters. We gaze back, we look around and we chart a course that takes us onward.
As a people we could conceivably sail anywhere. But as a people, we are on a voyage that was charted nearly 200 years ago when the Kānaka Maoli, in the throes of a horrific population collapse, allowed our Aliʻi to lead us into a new future that broke with a thousand years of tradition and ushered in new religious practices, new and strange economic practices and a new kind of authority, constitutional law, that placed the kuleana for ruling and maintaining our nation not just in the hands of the Aliʻi, but in the hands of the makaʻāinana and ultimately also in the hands of people who came from other places: America and Europe mostly, but even those more recently arrived as contract labor from Asia.
All were welcomed, all were invited to join Kanaka Maoli in their commitment to the nation, their loyalty to the monarch and a new state was added to what would eventually be a global family of nations.
We took great risks as a lāhui allowing people who did not share our ancestry to belong to this nation and one result of that risk-taking was that some of those who managed to enrich themselves with great estates and even greater estimations of their own worth betrayed this country.
They were a small minority, even among the other foreigners who were also Hawaiian subjects, but they were wealthy and influential with American politicians and together with American political and naval power seized our nation, humiliated our queen and confiscated the lands legally belonging to her and to our government.
The United States of America was never an unwitting partner in this chain of events and worse, many Americans insisted that its own ideals prohibited it from taking over another country that had never threatened theirs in any way.
But realpolitik and strategic military and economic considerations overwhelmed that country’s better instincts and the U.S. territorialized Hawaii in 1898, taking over all of our national lands and the property of the monarch in the process.
Representatives of the United States have not sought to ameliorate but rather to disguise this theft ever since.
In the Territorial Organic Act the U.S. permitted Hawaiians to vote in the elections while not requiring them to actually renounce their own nationality and identify themselves as American citizens.
In the 1921 Hawaiian Homestead Act, the U.S. created a mechanism for offering homesteads and agricultural leaseholds not as a just restoration of lands taken from Hawaiian nationals, but as a “helping hand” to a native people who, like other native peoples in America, were struggling with their own losses.
Having lost millions of acres of land to white settlers, American Indians were portrayed as failures unable to keep up with American society. Similarly, the blood quantum requirement of HHA says nothing more clearly than that the more Hawaiian you are, the more assistance you require from the society.
Throughout the 20th century the American government in Hawaii created laws and educational policies designed to produce not just assimilation but a sense of loyalty and patriotism to the American state by obscuring any reference to the fact that the U.S. had supported an insurgency against the Hawaiian government in 1893 and had then had accepted the spoils of that insurgency.
At the time of the Statehood vote in Hawaii, this American education had affected three generations of our people who had come to have wildly divergent ideas about this history, with the vast majority having no other information than that Hawaii had naturally evolved from some kind of makeshift kingdom to a fully fledged state in the most powerful and respected country in the world.
We have voyaged in difficult waters before and I know that we have all had our moments when we simply wanted some small piece of what has been stolen from us restored. But I believe we are in this struggle for the long haul.
A significant contribution to this indoctrination was the replacement of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi with American English as the national language.
But remember that I said we were on a course that was charted for us before the Mōʻī signed the first constitution in 1840. Despite a shamefully constructed distortion of our history, and demoralizing policies, despite the steady and spectacular loss of political power as Hawaii-born Japanese and later haole transplants from the U.S. replaced Kanaka Maoli as the major voting groups in Hawaii, there was an equally spectacular burst of political energy, fueled by revivals in cultural practices, language and also fueled by resentment of the economic and environmental changes that unabated tourism and U.S. military spending brought to Hawaii in the 1970s.
The Hawaiian movement, which was really hundreds of movements, advocated for protection of our vanishing ways of life and also advocated for established communities over new speculative real-estate opportunities, and even challenged the U.S. military’s destructive and unconscionable use of our lands, not just on Kahoolawe but in Makua, Mokapu, and lately on Haleakala.
In a supremely important way, our diverse political and social movements are what our Lāhui has come to be. For almost as many generations as we had been sidelined by American deceptions, our people have, since the late 1960s claimed a kuleana for these lands for our culture, for our sense of history and for our destiny, and while some of us have grown old and others have passed, we have been seeing young people take up the struggle to restore a Kanaka Maoli authority and political power in our land.
Consider the sequence of events: land struggles on Oahu in the early 1970s; the Kahoolawe struggle from 1975 to the end of the century; Hawaiian language revival and immersion schools since 1983; protection of our burial sites and remains since 1988; access and protection of subsistence and cultural access to the land highlighted by the successful opposition to Senate Bill 8 in 1998; and a succession of political demonstrations demanding national rebuilding from Ka Lāhui in 1987 to ʻOnipaʻa in 1993; to representing the Kingdom at the Hague in 1999 to the emergence of at least a half-dozen national governments since then.
What some people have portrayed as disunity and confusion, I see as a vital, informed and diverse movement to self-correct 100 years of colonial-style education and suppression of our culture and our national identity.
This diverse and vigorous movement is what has, in the last 50 years, obstructed the attempt by the powerful players in government, business and labor to sell Hawaii literally and figuratively and since the first rendition of the Akaka Bill in 1994, the Democratic Party has sought to remove us as an obstruction by making a creature of its own, something that can claim to be the sole voice of the Hawaiian people and with which future agreements can be made.
And the pilikia is that Kanaʻioluwalu and Naʻi Aupuni have both created as much cynicism as hope in the Hawaiian community and thus have contributed to an actual disunity and not just a theoretical one.
But claiming to be able to produce an entity that can speak with one voice for our people is not at all credible given 1) our history, 2) our current reality, and 3) the way these agencies have gone about their work.
Naʻi aupuni’s claim that it can be independent of Act 195 is scarcely believable, not just because of the wording of Act 195 but because of the interference by the Department of the Interior to smooth the way to federal recognition and federal recognition only. But Naʻi aupuni’s greatest failure has been its insistence on a timeline that has forced Hawaiians to choose something that has no clear objective and to make that choice within an arbitrary deadline, all the while intimating that this was somehow our last chance to participate in the rebuilding of our nation.
It is the coercive nature of this process that ultimately dooms it to failure. This I believe, because I know our people and our history, and I have seen us choose to eat stones before.
And coercion has been the hallmark of this whole process, from the legislation’s insistence that our own resources at OHA pay for the roll and the convention to the tune of more than $6 million, to Kanaʻioluwalu’s request to roll over names from other Hawaiian enrollments into its own. And now Naʻi Aupuni seduces independence supporters into signing up, claiming that independence too is a possible outcome of the convention.
And here is where I go from skepticism to outrage.
Independence? Forty delegates elected from who knows how many voters but certainly less than 130,000 are going to be able to construct a government for all 1.2 million people in Hawaii Paeʻāina? And they will do this peacefully?
Perhaps if OHA had spent that $6 million in outreach and education, one could see a plan and a rationale, but I do not think that NaʻI Aupuni has done anything to educate even the 130,000 purportedly on this list.
I would have more respect for this process if it had never pretended to be anything but a way to secure federal recognition through Department of Interior rulemaking and an Obama executive order. At least people would have known what they were signing up for.
The State of Hawaii’s Act 195 was completely clear in its language and intent. Recognize the Kanaka Maoli as the indigenous people of the state and provide the means to create a governing entity that can seek formal federal recognition with the U.S. government.
The Department of the Interiorʻs rulemaking draft is even clearer. A Native Hawaiian government will not be eligible for the same resources as American Indians and it may not challenge federal jurisdiction over military lands.
Act 195 provides a path well worn by hundreds, nay, thousands of agreements with Native American nations who had eventually all succumbed to the U.S. claim of dominion over the lands and their fate. Many succumbed only after murder and terror pacified them.
We have voyaged in difficult waters before and I know that we have all had our moments when we simply wanted some small piece of what has been stolen from us restored. But I believe we are in this struggle for the long haul and the long haul is what is required for us to re-secure our country peacefully and inevitably.
This long struggle is also what has shaped us as a people who have known the deepest kind of betrayal and have maintained our dignity, and I think a sense of purpose. Our people are on a 200-year journey of nation building and rebuilding.
We have time on our side, but only so long as we continue to fight. We have right on our side, but only as long as we remember.
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Jonathan K. Osorio is a scholar of 19th century political and social history in Hawaii and wrote a book, “Dismembering Lahui,” about the colonization of Hawaii. He is an advocate for Hawaiian self-determination, Hawaiian language immersion schools and protection of the land from military abuse and urbanization. He is a professor at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies.