Don’t be conned. A constitutional convention isn’t needed for Hawaii.

Without question, the prospect of a constitutional convention, or “ConCon,” is tempting. On the surface, it appears to promote direct democracy and the potential to resolve longstanding crises, like inadequate education funding and yawning economic inequality.

Dissatisfaction with legislative sluggishness is not a good reason to revise our state’s fundamental governing document, however, especially when possible changes could be damaging to Hawaii’s host culture.

As a Native Hawaiian woman, I am heavily invested in the preservation of indigenous rights, which are often given lip service during election season. While nearly all politicians employ the Hawaiian language to localize their campaigns, few embody leadership with aloha once in office.

Large Hawaiian Flag flies on mauka side of Thomas Square near Kamehameha III dedication ceremonies held on July 31, also celebrated as Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea, Sovereignty Restoration Day, an official national holiday of the kingdom of Hawaii.
A Hawaiian Flag flies on the mauka side of Thomas Square. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when we see Hawaiian issues becoming flashpoints with few solutions based on historical memory. A short drive from my hometown of Kona, for example, is Mauna Kea, whose peaks are sacred Hawaiian spaces and hotly contested astronomical locales. Yet, the debate over Mauna Kea is, at its core, about the continued displacement of Hawaiians within their homeland.

When Queen Liliuokalani and the Hawaiian monarchy were overthrown in 1893, our islands’ native people lost more than mere governing authority. We lost the ability to determine the course of our shared culture and identity, which are rooted in a place-based understanding of the connection between people, power, and the aina that sustains all life.

Article XII establishes the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and safeguards revenue derived from public trust lands for the sustenance and well-being of the Hawaiian people.

In the years following annexation, a plantation economy arose in which different ethnic groups were deliberately stratified to maintain the economic superiority of white landowners. Over the course of several decades, Hawaiian culture became a commodity to be traded for tax dollars in the tourist marketplace, with hula girls in faux grass skirts simulating indigenous heritage the way pumpkin spice lattes embody autumn’s most famous fruit.

It shouldn’t be shocking, therefore, that only 14 percent of Hawaiian learners complete post-secondary education or vocational training. Or that Hawaiians comprise a disproportionately high percentage of individuals arrested and incarcerated in our state. Or that Hawaiians have higher rates of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, asthma and other chronic medical conditions than the rest of Hawaii’s population.

One of the few things that Hawaiians can count on, however, is the special status afforded to us in our state Constitution. The document’s preamble, for instance, calls upon the people of Hawaii to be “mindful of our Hawaiian heritage.”

Similarly, Article XII establishes the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and safeguards revenue derived from public trust lands for the sustenance and well-being of the Hawaiian people.

Unkept Promises

In 1980, following the constitution’s guidance, legislators passed Act 273, which declared that 20 percent of all funds derived from the public land trust would be spent by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. That promise has never been fully realized.

If a ConCon is held, though, it is likely that Native Hawaiians’ unique status would be challenged by corporatist convention delegates, possibly backed by mainland business interests, arguing that the free flow of capital in a tourist economy should take precedence over the protection of native peoples’ connection with their genealogical roots. If they prevail, Hawaiians’ chances of rectifying historical injustices will be severely damaged.

For kanaka maoli, losing our special status would be devastating, despite the struggles we continue to face. All of Hawaii’s people must commit to finding solutions to our state’s problems that defend indigenous rights, while advancing the common good.

We don’t need a constitutional convention to do that. Instead, we need to be more engaged, each and every day, with the political processes through which we are empowered to craft a brighter future for ourselves and our keiki.

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