A strong Hawaiian presence on opening day of the Hawaii Legislature has become a bit of a tradition.

Much of the steady growth of contemporary opening day activities can be traced back to 2008, when hundreds of Hawaiians and local farmers camped out on Iolani Palace grounds and gathered in the Capitol rotunda on opening day with indigenous food activists like Winona LaDuke to pressure the Legislature to pass measures to stop the genetic modification of kalo (taro).

While the fervor around kalo purity may have waned, the push for elected officials to pass legislation that better protects Hawaiian rights and cultural resources has only grown. This year, thousands are expected to descend upon the Capitol on opening day to participate in an event called “Hawaii Rising,” which is described as an effort to “shift the political landscape and shape a new future rooted in Aloha Aina.”

Hawaii Capitol Building Rotunda. 12 april 2016
The Hawaii Legislature is set to open its annual legislative session on Wednesday. Hawaiian activists will be front and center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A range of grassroots groups from across the state have come together to organize this event. In addition to the Hawaiian organizations leading the effort to further initiatives to address conflicts over Mauna Kea, Hunananiho (also known as Sherwood Forest), the Kahuku wind farm and Maui water rights, progressive and environmental groups are lending their support and resources in hopes of raising the visibility of important issues like increasing the minimum wage and support for a Green New Deal.

This effort to bring Hawaiians together with environmental activists is not new. In 1971, Save Our Surf-Kokua Hawaii mobilized with HULI – Hawaiians United for Liberation and Independence — a powerful Hawaiian nationalist group that advocates for Hawaiian independence.

A generation later, children of that movement have stepped forward. One of the key leaders of the community resistance at Hunananiho is Kuike Kamakea-Ohelo, son of HULI leader Kalani Ohelo.

The elder Ohelo was one of the 32 people arrested in May 1971 in an effort to stop the evictions of Hawaiians and farmers in Kalama Valley. The Kalama Valley evictions were one of the critical junctures of the modern Hawaiian movement. Just as his father spoke at the Capitol in 1971, the younger Ohelo will be one of the speakers on the stage in the Capitol Rotunda on opening day nearly 50 years later.

A Day Of Activism, Culture And Education

Just as on Mauna Kea, protocol will take place three times on opening day: one in the morning at 8 a.m. to open the day’s events, again at noon, and finally an opportunity to give offerings will begin at 3:15 p.m. and final protocol, closing the day’s events, will take place at 4:30 p.m. Speakers and panels will take place between protocols.

Puuhuluhulu University, the educational program which includes opportunities for the public to hear from educators and leaders, will take place throughout the grounds. The university was developed by the kiai (guardians) on the mauna as one means of decolonizing education. There will be five different sites where classes will be held throughout the day: Capitol Room 224, Capitol Room 229, Capitol Room 414, and two sites on the lawn between the Capitol and Richards Street.

Poi pounder rests in the rotunda during 2015 opening day of the legislature. 21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Puuhuluhulu University, the educational program which includes opportunities for the public to hear from educators and leaders, will take place Wednesday at the Capitol throughout the day. 

A lot of the day’s focus will be on registering Hawaiians to vote. Whereas Hawaiians have long been skeptical of the voting process and resistant to participating in government processes they consider to be both unjust and illegal, the surge in community activism over the last year has convinced some Hawaiians to consider voting, many for the first time.

Hawaiians have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in Hawaii. Some of this can be attributed to strong political beliefs that Hawaii remains illegally occupied by the United States; therefore, to vote would be a head nod toward legitimizing an illegal occupation. Other Hawaiians simply believe the government to be largely corrupt, so it’s not worth their time or energy to vote, as the vote would have little impact in resolving systemic government problems.

Well-known Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte is leading much of the effort to get Hawaiians to vote. For weeks Ritte has been wearing shirts with the online voter registration website and talking to Hawaiians about the need to vote, despite their reservations.

“We need to vote. We need to change the system,” he said. “We need to vote out these politicians who support projects that destroy our lands and our resources. These guys support the rich while all the local people are struggling to just get by.

“This doesn’t mean we will stop our work to restore the Kingdom or stop fighting at the international level, but we can do two things at once,” Ritte said. “One doesn’t hurt the other, and we have an obligation to stop this out of control government now or there’s not going to be anything left to protect in the future.”

Critics of the kiai often noted that Hawaiians should be focusing on other issues and taking their message to legislators. Now that it’s clear that Hawaiians and their allies are in fact turning their gaze towards the Capitol and aiming to address systemic problems, it will be interesting to see if those vocal critics will now lend their voices to support this bigger effort.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.