Peter Apo: Hawaiians Must Agree On The Meaning Of Sovereignty To Achieve It - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.


A recent AFAR Magazine interview with the highly respected dean of the Hawai’inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, Jon Osorio, struck me like the sound of a conch shell calling me to attention.

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What struck me was the topic, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, which seems to have been lying dormant with respect to any meaningful public discourse during the four years of the Trump presidency.

Osorio may be reigniting and raising the bar on the sovereignty conversation. “The sovereignty movement is not one monolithic thing. We do not agree among ourselves about what form that sovereignty should take,” he wrote, outlining the primary challenge to that conversation.

I believe his intended audience, besides the Native Hawaiian community, includes today’s descendants of non-ethnic Hawaiians who also were citizens of the kingdom when Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in 1893.

Osorio suggests the need for a unification strategy that sorts out the options and gets everyone on the same page in defining a preferred model of sovereignty. I should make clear that for purposes of this column “sovereignty” is defined as Hawaiians exercising authority to govern themselves. The term “self-determination” refers to Hawaiian exclusivity in sorting out a model of sovereignty and subjecting it to ratification by some democratic process. The two are linked.

Moving forward, wherever the dialogue leads it must be framed by a reliable historical account of the why, what, when and how we got to where we are. O ke ala ma mua ke ala ma hope – the path to the future is a path through the past.

The Road to Annexation

Hawaii is the only U.S. state not on the North American continent. It sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,800 miles from the nearest land mass. Hawaii’s Indigenous populations were essentially isolated from the rest of the world for several centuries until Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778. Hawaii is also the only state in the nation that was once a royal kingdom, with a royal palace, ruled by a king or queen.

Iolani Palace is decorated for King Kalakaua 183rd Birthday Celebration on November 16, 2019.
Iolani Palace was the home of Hawaii’s last reigning monarchs and served as the official royal residence. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Since Captain Cook’s arrival the governance history of the Hawaiian Islands morphed from a system of island-based feudal societies to the royal kingdom of Hawaii established in 1810 by King Kamehameha the Great.

As time passed, Western businessmen gained influence over the kingdom’s governance. In 1887, during the rule of King Kalakaua, they succeeded in converting the royal monarchy to a constitutional monarchy — creating a legislative body and empowering it with the authority to overrule the monarch. This constitutional power grab was branded as the “Bayonet Constitution.”

The amended constitution removed much of the king’s executive power and deprived most Native Hawaiians of their voting rights. The businessmen-led legislature was now able to override a veto by the king.

In 1893 King Kalakaua was succeeded by Queen Liliuokalani who launched a bold attempt to restore royal rule. This led to a serious confrontation with a self-proclaimed group of businessmen identifying themselves as the “Committee on Safety.” The committee was composed of six citizens of the kingdom, five Americans, a Scotsman and a German. They staged a coup, imprisoned the queen, declared a provisional government in 1893 and appealed to the U.S. Congress to annex the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Congress rejected the first two attempts at annexation because of U.S. policy against participating in the colonization of Pacific Island nations that was in full swing by European powers including England, France, Germany, Russia and Spain.

Hawaii’s provisional government then rebranded itself and established the Republic of Hawaii in 1894 to buy more time to pursue a third annexation attempt, which succeeded. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898, then it became the 50th state in 1959.

The Spanish-American War

While it is true that Hawaii’s annexation to the United States was primarily kick-started by American sugar planters and their business colleagues, business was not the primary motivation for the U.S. Congress.

Here’s a succinct explanation of what really happened from the archives of the State Department historian’s office:

“The Spanish-American War of 1898 ended Spain’s colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere and secured the position of the United States as a Pacific Power. U.S. victory in the war produced a peace treaty that compelled the Spanish to relinquish claims on Cuba, and to cede sovereignty over Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. The McKinley Administration also used the war as a pretext to annex the independent state of Hawaii.”

After rejecting the first two attempts at Hawaii’s annexation the Congress did a flip when the Spanish American War came along in 1898 – the same year Hawaii was annexed.

A Prevailing Global View of Hawaii

Hawaii’s cultural, political, social and economic history from an Indigenous perspective is a 243-year-old drama that began in 1778. The story has yet to be fully understood even by those who live here. What most of the world thinks about Hawaii today has been driven by global tourism marketing, which began in the late 1800s and dramatically escalated in the 1900s.

The century-plus of tourism marketing has produced a world view of the Hawaiian Islands as a paradise of sunny days, starry nights, flowers, palm trees, romance, sandy beaches, hula, surfing and lots of aloha. This optic of a Pacific paradise is widespread among most Americans.

This makes it very difficult to raise any sense of political awareness that there could be trouble in paradise. In my opinion, Hawaiian sovereignty tops the list as the most long-standing, most difficult and most solution-evasive political issue on Hawaii’s long list of troubles in paradise.

What’s important to note is that the concept of Hawaiian sovereignty — some prefer the term self-determination — continues to frame the playing field upon which contentious Native Hawaiian-driven public policy issues get played out.

Three of the most media sensitive issues have been Kahoolawe in 1975 – now resolved; telescopes on Mauna Kea in 2015 – still in play; and ongoing Hawaiian challenges to the U.S. military’s use of state lands – also in motion.

While these issues, in all their complexity, do not directly invoke calls for sovereignty, they feed off of each other.

The Road Ahead

So, what are the options?  Without diving into the weeds, the best I can do is offer a list that includes the following — independence, commonwealth, most-favored nation, nation within a nation, nation within a state, and status quo. At some point Hawaiians will have to find a way to sort out the options, which I assume would involve some form of democratic process. I believe more options will surface if serious public dialogue ensues.

I’m reminded that there was a rigorous but unsuccessful initiative in 2015 titled Kanaiolowalu to develop a voter registration roll comprising only Hawaiians, to elect delegates to a constitutional convention and to emerge from convention deliberations with a proposal to be ratified in a Hawaiians-only vote.

Hawaiian flag being raised at Thomas Square Park in Honolulu on July 31, 2021. At the start of the "Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea Honolulu" also known as Hawaiian Restoration Day. Comemmorating the return of the Hawaiian Kingdom's Sovereignty from Britain 178 years ago. Photo/Ronen Zilberman Civil Beat
The Hawaiian flag is raised at Thomas Square Park in Honolulu at the start of Hawaiian Restoration Day. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

The legality of a Hawaiians-only process using public funds faced a constitutional challenge. It bears mentioning that the challengers included Native Hawaiians.

Although a constitutional document was produced, it never made it to the ratification stage. It is possible that this unratified constitution may resurface if the sovereignty dialogue gains momentum, as I expect it will.

I must also mention the Akaka bill put forth by U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka. It basically proposed a version of the nation within a nation model to the U.S. Congress. This is a model whereby individual Native American tribes can engage in negotiations with the federal government putting forth their own palette of ruling authority provisions, which is then subjected to congressional approval.

The Akaka bill was defeated in 2010 after a hard-fought congressional campaign. It is the only Hawaiian sovereignty option I’m aware of that, over the decades of political navigation, almost cleared the mountain, only to be subjected to ignominious defeat.

But, no matter the options, let’s be clear about the reality of where Native Hawaiians are in pursuing and agreeing on a unified future. No matter how unified most Hawaiians may seem on the question of pursuing sovereignty we are all taking different paths up the mountain.

We Hawaiians have become a community of tribes having great difficulty with moving forward as one people. The successful pursuit of Hawaiian sovereignty will take extraordinary leadership and considerable financial resources. In my opinion, neither is yet on the horizon.

The Covid-19 pandemic has, in a positive way, had the effect of diminished public dialogue on hot-button Native Hawaiian issues such as Mauna Kea. I do think the respite has been a good opportunity to come up for air. The pandemic-era future is unpredictable and who knows when any degree of normality might return.

But, whatever tomorrow may bring, I am somehow sensing that in the next few months, especially as we head into the 2022 election year, voices will begin to rise again.

I am unable to identify the source of the following quote but am compelled to share it with you because it pretty much sums up the entire column: “We have shed our tears in anguish for where we’ve been, the time has come for us to launch our canoe and navigate our future.” Imua.


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About the Author

Peter Apo

Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city’s director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.


Latest Comments (0)

What if Kamehameha was killed over the "stolen" boat at Kealakekua Bay?  There would be no amphibious assaults on Maui and Oahu, and later the incorporation of Kauai by the 1820s.  All the islands would have their own trajectories (with a favored colonial power), with Kauai as the "Separate Kingdom" with Russian assistance.  The Kingdom leadership was afraid that an island would leave the Kingdom: the impetus for a Kingdom-wide educational system was to instill propaganda that the Hawaiian Kingdom was the "ideal" and "only" way to rule the archipelago.  The Territory and the State continued the Kingdom’s highly centralized political and education structures – ironically many current Hawaii problems reflect the State "continuing" the Kingdom’s institutions!  If Hawaii's history was of "many" independent islands, there would be smaller political (and educational, like Hawaii-Kai as one School District – like any normal Mainland "town" ) entities, e.g. a Mayor of Kailua, East/West Hawaii Counties, and an independent Molokai.  The State Constitution makes creating any new political entities dependent on the legislature – and why would they vote to lose voters/tax revenues?

FHSGrad · 2 weeks ago

In the here and now, how can we ressurect something from the past? You can't turn back the clock, but you can come up with an adaptation that serves your goals within current circumstances. Who's going to be the Hawaiian Nation when the majority of today's Hawaii residents have little or no Hawaiian blood? This is not to say the Hawaiian Nation should not be allowed to exist, just to say that it can't be as simple as "Ok, we're in control now and anyone who's not in agreement can get on a plane out of here." While the reservation system for the First Nations on the mainland has its shortcomings, it at least provides the First Nations with a sovereign space. If they use that space for casinos, up to them. While a reservation system may seem like poor a compromise, if not a defeat, I still think for native Hawaiians who want sovereignty this is a more practical goal than trying to take away what now belongs to Hawaii residents with neither Hawaiian ethnicity nor any desire for change. At the risk of sounding like a crazy dreamer, yes, give Kahoolawe back to Hawaiians, as well as vast tracts on the Big Island and Moloka'i. I know, you need a Hawaiian Nation to actually exist first.

island_exile · 2 weeks ago

The endless discussions about Hawaiian sovereignty get no traction with the vast majority living on the islands.  I have no Hawaiian heritage but have lived here for decades.  I’d be happy to support indigenous rights. But no one can ever explain to me the core element - why?  All these discussions vaguely reference the "bad people" that did this or that to change the political situation.  This not just in Hawa’I, but a complaint from Aboriginals in Australia, Māori in New Zealand.  Indeed this is the history of the planet.  What advantage do anyone achieve by some implementation of "sovereignty" ?  Bueller?  Bueller?  If this core element can’t be defined there is no hope for any possible change.  And with much of the agitation being done by agitators with little or no Hawaiian ancestry like at Maunakea, there is little legitimacy to any further discussion.  

WaimeaDude · 2 weeks ago

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