With all the good will in the world and much aloha for the aspirations of the Native Hawaiian community, there are still a few concrete issues to be thought through. Some are legal, some are simple matters of the balance of power.

Here are just a handful of the questions raised by several recent Civil Beat articles that have discussed Native Hawaiian independence and/or sovereignty.

First, any group seeking recognition from a U.S. governmental agency or international organization so that it can negotiate needs to be clearly defined. In other words, who is inside and who is outside of any group that proposes to negotiate on behalf of the Native Hawaiian community?

Another way to say it, for legal purposes, is how will “Native Hawaiian” be defined? Who will determine that definition? Can a definition acceptable to a majority of the Native Hawaiian community be found and what can the history of this question tell us?

Second, the term “independence” comes up in nearly all discussions. What definition of “independence” is favored? Does this refer to “a nation within a nation,” such as the Diné, the Inupiat or other federally recognized Native American groups?

Or does it look towards the goal of complete internationally recognized national independence (such as Tonga or Kiribati) and a seat in the United Nations, for example? And what is to be the territorial extent of such an independent Hawaiian nation? Who will determine what territory any independent Hawaiian group governs?

Who will decide the definition of a Native Hawaiian and who will they include? Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

Third, once a Native Hawaiian negotiating body has been constituted and that body has determined and been recognized by its negotiating partners, how will the outcome be ratified and put into operation? Will all legal residents of the state of Hawaii be consulted or only a smaller group, one ethnically defined?

Fourth, in all of the instances above, especially in the case of a separate Hawaiian country, it must be borne in mind that U.S. law provides no route to secession (the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as such in Texas v. White). For an independent Hawaii of that kind, the only route would be outside of the current U.S. system of laws and constitutional precedence.

No U.S. government will heed the rulings of any international court or body such as the United Nations against its own perceived best interests. No international body has the power to require the American government to do so.

So there seems to be no peaceful road to full national independence. 

Nor would any major world power – all of whom also face their own separatist movements they refuse to deal with – realistically try to force the U.S. to cede any national territory.

So there seems to be no peaceful road to full national independence. 

Fifth, no credible Native Hawaiian group to date has ever advocated a violent solution to the independence question and it is highly doubtful that one ever would (given the overwhelming superiority of force at the disposal of both the state and federal governments).  Since there’s no credible legal avenue to full national or territorial independence, it would seem that option is totally unavailable and to pursue it would be a significant waste of time and resources.

This appears to leave only some form of federal recognition (“nation within a nation”?) as a realistic goal for the foreseeable future.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Author

  • Stephen O'Harrow

    Stephen O’Harrow is a professor of Asian Languages and currently one of the longest-serving members of the faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A resident of Hawaii since 1968, he’s been active in local political campaigns since the 1970s and is a member of the Board of Directors, Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii.