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Editor’s note: This story is part of “Fault Lines,” a special project that throughout the coming year will explore discord in Hawaii and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing.
On July 17, rows of Native Hawaiian women, men and their supporters stood linking arms on the road leading up to the summit of Mauna Kea. The throng of activists was blocking police officers dressed in riot gear from escorting telescope construction equipment up the mountain.
“We are not American,” yelled Jamaica Osorio, a poet and activist who stood in the front row facing off with law enforcement.
She was quoting a speech from renowned Hawaiian activist Haunani-Kay Trask given at the 1993 commemoration of the Hawaiian overthrow. “We will die as Hawaiians, we will never be Americans!”
The nationalistic expression encapsulated the emotional tenor of the protest against the Thirty Meter Telescope. The demonstration, involving months of camping on the mountain, has proven successful so far at preventing construction of the telescope.
Although a recent poll indicates the Native Hawaiian community has mixed feelings about the project, opponents have successfully stalled the start of construction and inspired similar protests against developments on Oahu.
But Mauna Kea is also a symptom of a much deeper problem, the latest manifestation of the unaddressed frustrations with the century-old overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. It’s clear the protests are about more than just the telescope — they highlight the broader unresolved historic injustice against the Hawaiian people. And they raise questions about how exactly those grievances can be resolved.
Even leaders of the Mauna Kea movement have drawn a distinction between their work and the fight for independence.
Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a spokesman for the demonstrators on Mauna Kea, didn’t reply to messages seeking his input on this story. But at an event in Honolulu last fall, he told attendees that even though he strongly supports sovereignty, he avoids talking about it when speaking to the media and public about Mauna Kea.
“No matter how much I care about that, the truth of the matter is that not all of us are on the same page on that issue,” he said. “There’s been talk of de-occupation for years now … up until this point that has never galvanized and united our people the way that (Mauna Kea) has.”
“I’m not going to talk about it,” he continued. “Because up until this point it hasn’t been something that has brought our people together. It’s been something that put us on a different side of the fence … But what I want to see here is our lahui coming together.”
An Aug. 2019 Civil Beat poll found Hawaii’s Native Hawaiian community is split on the TMT, with just a slight plurality opposing it. And some Native Hawaiians have been outspoken in their support of the telescope.
But the issue has still resulted in a visible outpouring of support for those seeking to stop development on the mountain. Veteran Hawaiian activists say Mauna Kea has not only united many Hawaiians but also resulted in broader awareness of Hawaiian issues both in the islands and beyond.
“It has awakened our spirit to stand up for ourselves, not in an angry way, in a knowledgeable way,” says Robin Danner, who advocates on local, state and federal public policies affecting the Native Hawaiian community.
“I think Mauna Kea has basically educated more people in regard to political, economic and cultural rights of Native Hawaiians,” says Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, who leads a group called the Nation of Hawaii on Oahu. “It’s got a lot more attention than we’ve had in a long time.”
The question is what happens next — on the mountain, in Hawaii and more broadly for self-determination for Hawaii’s indigenous people.
Political sovereignty is a controversial issue that continues to divide the Native Hawaiian community as a whole.
And even veterans of the sovereignty movement who are the subject of this story have long been split about the best way to achieve it. Some are focusing on practical steps they can take to improve their influence within the existing political system.
Walter Ritte is a longtime Hawaiian activist from Molokai who says the U.S. is illegally occupying Hawaii. He says the first step to independence is building power within the state.
“We have this great wave that is building in the Hawaiian community, what is the next step?” says Ritte. “The immediate next step is to get Hawaiians to realize political power only happens if you register to vote and if you vote.”
“Our obligation is to protect all of those things that were left to us by our ancestors,” he adds. “The immediate goal is to unify and participate in the existing government so as to protect what we need to survive.”
In recent decades, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has been characterized by waves of activity.
“It’s something that’s always there, sort of percolating, and periodically it surfaces,” says Mahealani Wendt, a Maui resident and former executive director of the nonprofit Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. “It’s like a volcano, certain things come together and cause it to activate.”
Hawaii’s modern sovereignty movement was spurred by the Hawaiian cultural renaissance that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars and activists saved the Hawaiian language from the edge of extinction, pushing for Hawaiian language schools and promoting pride in the language. Hawaiians reclaimed knowledge of traditional navigation from a Micronesian master navigator and created the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973.
Throughout the 1970s, many Hawaiians participated in protests against evictions and new developments, including successfully opposing the Navy’s use of Kahoolawe as a bombing range.
Political progress has been rocky.
In 1978, several Hawaiian delegates and their supporters persuaded constitutional convention delegates to establish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which was seen by some as a precursor to re-establishing a Hawaiian nation. But in the 1990s, OHA supporters were disillusioned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Rice v. Cayetano that allowed non-Hawaiians to vote for OHA trustees.
Since the 1990s, Hawaiians have held two constitutional conventions for a potential government. They’ve collected lists of names of voters for potential constitutions. Still, no draft constitution has yet been put to a vote.
Highlights of the Modern Hawaiian Self-Determination Movement
Many activists like Wendt who started protesting for independence are now in their 70s. Some feel as if sovereignty is closer than ever. Others fear it is further away than before.
A major challenge is finding common ground, given that nearly 300,000 people in Hawaii identify as at least part-Native Hawaiian, according to the most recent census data available.
Even within the pro-sovereignty movement, there are many differing opinions.
Some want recognition by the U.S. government as a nation within the U.S., similar to Native Americans; others have pushed to restore the monarchy that was overthrown. Still others like Ritte are advocating for the end of what they see as the U.S. occupation of the Hawaiian islands and the beginning of a new independence.
Kanahele believes the 1993 congressional resolution apologizing for the overthrow effectively recognized the Hawaiian government. This year he will be signing up people for citizenship in the Nation of Hawaii.
“I’m hoping we hit in the tens of thousands,” he says.
But Kanahele’s is only one of several groups that hope to lead the restoration of the kingdom.
Former Gov. John Waihee believes that while many may disagree on how to get to a vote on self-governance and what they want when they get there, overall the Hawaiian people are moving in the same direction. He thinks more people support Hawaiian sovereignty now than ever before.
“The kids today talk about a Hawaiian nation openly,” he says. “Thirty years ago they didn’t even know what that was.”
Still, with President Donald Trump in office, Waihee doesn’t think there’s much that Hawaiians can do in terms of federal recognition.
Mahealani Cypher remembers when Trask gave her powerful speech. It was Jan. 17, 1993 and Cypher walked alongside her daughter, who was pushing Cypher’s granddaughter in a stroller, from Aloha Tower to Iolani Palace. They were part of a march commemorating the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Cypher felt hopeful and excited. The dream of self-determination for Native Hawaiians felt like a potential reality. But decades later, she feels like the goal is even further away. In contrast to other activists, she thinks public support for Native Hawaiian issues has faded.
While Mauna Kea evokes pride within the Hawaiian community, she doesn’t see that reflected in the broader public. She remembers seeing polls in the 1990s showing support among Hawaii residents for Native Hawaiian issues. Now, she says there’s a divide between those Native Hawaiians who oppose the TMT on Mauna Kea and other Hawaii residents who largely support the telescope.
Cypher thinks the most practical course is to seek a “nation within a nation” status — an idea that is popular among some policymakers but is also highly criticized by Kanahele, Ritte and others.
Five years ago under the Obama administration, the U.S. Interior Department held a series of hearings in Hawaii about providing a pathway to federal recognition. It was the first such major effort since the collapse of the so-called Akaka bill, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009 named after Hawaii’s only Hawaiian senator.
At one hearing in June 2014, the vast majority of people who showed up to testify were vehemently against that route.
In 2016, more than 100 Hawaiians participated in a constitutional convention, known as the aha, where they drafted a new governing document. It wasn’t an easy process with so many different opinions in the room. Some critics even opted out of participating because they thought the process was rigged in favor of federal recognition, and a few even participated in a rival aha.
“The first two-and-a-half weeks all we did was argue with each other,” says Kuhio Lewis, the head of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “There were beefs, there were screaming matches, there were flying chairs.”
But the delegates ultimately overcame their disagreements and came up with a draft constitution which was approved with a vote of 88-30, with one person abstaining. After a lawsuit stopped OHA from funding an election to ratify the constitution, Lewis helped raise more than $1 million in donations to pay for the election privately.
Then Republican President Donald Trump was elected.
“If somebody else, anybody else frankly, had gotten elected, it would make sense to go to the next step,” Waihee says. But “there is no practical step now.”
Whether or not the Hawaiian people pursued federal recognition, Lewis says self-governance would require some kind of buy-in from the U.S. government.
“You can’t go around America, you’ve got to go through them. Going through them would involve going through Trump no matter which option you look at. That kind of just killed the steam,” Lewis says.
The money is sitting in an account managed by the San Francisco-based Tides Foundation, a charity focused on social justice, waiting for the right time, Lewis says.
The delay is disappointing to Wendt, who worked to sign up more than 100,000 Native Hawaiians for the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, a registry of Hawaiians to vote on political self-determination.
Wendt supports what’s happening on Mauna Kea. But at age 72, she wishes she could be building a nation instead of protesting one.
“Are we going to be forever relegated to political struggle and protest?” she wonders.
The debate over self-governance — and what form that would take — is very familiar to Jonathan Osorio, who leads the University of Hawaii’s Hawaiian Studies program. But he says that now in his 70s, he doesn’t care as much as he used to about what form a Hawaiian nation might take.
Sovereignty to him is not just a political status.
“I actually think that the sovereignty we have been working toward … it’s really about our language, it’s about becoming more politically (engaged), it’s about being able to practice our culture, being able to identify ourselves not as Americans but as Hawaiians,” he says. “The government part of this in many ways is not as important as the patriotism, the belief that our people are a separate people, are not Americans and that has become more and more prevalent.”
Part of what gives him pause is watching other Pacific countries that obtained independence struggle with the challenges of self-sufficiency. Governments like Fiji and Vanuatu have engaged in deep-sea mining for economic gain despite environmental concerns. Some Pacific countries like Tonga have ended up taking on large debt from China.
Even countries that technically are sovereign are still in some ways dependent on colonial powers. In Micronesia, three island nations that achieved independence after World War II ended up signing treaties with the U.S. to give the U.S. military control over their region in exchange for money and migration rights.
“There’s so many things to be dealt with in Hawaii that if we suddenly have a new government … I just have a strong suspicion that it wouldn’t be independent of anything,” Osorio says.
As it stands now, he says, Hawaii is a wealthy place, and independence won’t shield Hawaii from the realities of global economics.
All of that makes Osorio think that even though he supports eventual independence, there’s no reason Hawaiians should rush into it.
“I don’t think I’m in any kind of hurry to come to a solution of how we govern ourselves,” he says. In order for Hawaiians to truly control their own future, “we need to transition slowly into a different kind of economy that preserves our own ability to control our own destiny.”
Osorio isn’t alone in wanting to be cautious. Lewis worries bringing up nation-building now could be divisive in a moment when opposition to the TMT has unified many Hawaiians. Besides, he already sees in today’s protest elements of sovereignty.
“What you see going on right now is in some respects nation building. Since when could any Native Hawaiian leader send out a couple of texts and post on social media and you get thousands of Hawaiians to show up?” he says. “The nation is being awoken and it is being risen. The formality of it is yet to take form but you see it happen, Hawaiians are coming together.”
In contrast to Osorio, Ritte sees independence as more urgent in part because of current and future threats to Hawaii’s land and environment.
“The system that we have now is hell bent on making money out of the environment to the point that the environment is not going to be capable of providing a lifestyle for future generations,” he says. “I cannot see how we can just slow down and take our time while everything is disappearing so that future generations will not have what is necessary.”
But even Ritte agrees the first step is getting more political power within the current system.
“So we have to participate in the system now because we have an obligation to the future generations to pass on the things that allow us to survive in the middle of the Pacific. That’s our kuleana,” he says.
That refrain is part of a common theme among Hawaiian community leaders — that whether or not independence is the end goal, there’s a need to build a stronger political presence within the existing system by increasing voter turnout, helping Hawaiians get elected into political office and obtaining more federal funding.
“There’s got to be a nexus to a more systemic approach to us addressing some of the concerns we scream about,” says Lewis. He’s a big proponent of getting Hawaiians into political office and is also working on a big push to get Hawaiians counted in the 2020 census so they can access more resources.
“We have to elevate ourselves in the current system in order to have a greater stake in our future. It’s about showing political mana or muscularity,” he says. “It’s about shifting power so that we have a greater stake in how we want to live.”
On the first day of this year’s legislative session Native Hawaiian groups filled the Hawaii State Capitol in a show of solidarity. The effort focused on increasing voter registration among Hawaiians and putting pressure on lawmakers to address longstanding issues. Some legislative goals include more funding for Hawaiian home lands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Osorio hopes lawmakers will listen. In his view, Mauna Kea has already demonstrated the kind of power Hawaiians already have.
“When you get right down to it we are just waiting to see where this Hawaiian leadership takes us next,” he says.
“The one thing I want to be sure of is that we don’t actually fight each other over what it should be. When we are still basically discovering for ourselves how powerful we can be.”
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