The Natives Are Restless
Racial politics, Hawaii style.
Jun 5, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 36 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
BESIDES BOASTING ONE OF THE great names in American history, Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani holds a unique distinction. She is the only foreign monarch to have been deposed with the apparent help of U.S. armed forces and then asked to resume her throne by a compunctious U.S. president (Grover Cleveland). Alas, things didn't pan out for Liliuokalani, who eventually abdicated. Her overthrow in 1893 paved the way for U.S. annexation of Hawaii five years later. To mark the 100th anniversary in 1993, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a resolution apologizing to the indigenous people of the Aloha State.
The Apology Resolution vastly overstated U.S. culpability in somewhat murky events, whose interpretation was distorted by politics both at the time and since. As a result--and because of the balkanizing implications of the resolution--some 34 senators, mostly Republicans, voted against the measure, including Arizona's John McCain and former Washington senator Slade Gorton.
"The resolution accomplishes one goal," Gorton argued. "It divides the citizens of the state of Hawaii--who are of course citizens of the United States--into two distinct groups: Native Hawaiians and all other citizens." According to Gorton--and despite the disavowals of the bill's Senate cosponsors, Hawaii Democrats Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka--"the logical consequence of this resolution would be independence."
He was prescient. Thirteen years later, Congress is mulling the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which would accord "Native Hawaiians" the same legal sovereignty as American Indians and Alaska Natives and allow them to create their own race-based governing structure. Would this lead to Native Hawaiian independence?
"That could be," Akaka told National Public Radio last summer. "I'm leaving it up to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren." Akaka, whose office drafted the Senate bill, has been pushing for Native Hawaiian "self-government and self-determination" since at least the Clinton administration.
Building on the Apology's reference to the "inherent sovereignty" of the Native Hawaiian people, Akaka's current legislation would grant membership in a new Native Hawaiian "tribe" to anyone who can trace their ancestry to "the aboriginal, indigenous, native people" living in Hawaii "on or before January 1, 1893." You also qualify if your ancestors were eligible in 1921 for largesse from the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which stipulated at least one-half Native Hawaiian blood. (The Akaka bill itself requires no specific blood quantum.) More than 20 percent of Hawaii's 1.2 million citizens identify themselves as either wholly or partly Native Hawaiian, which would mean they are descended from the Polynesians who settled the islands a thousand years ago. Some 400,000 such Native Hawaiians are scattered throughout Hawaii and the rest of the United States.
The Akaka bill falsely assumes that Hawaii's pre-1893 political system was racially homogenous. In fact, a flood of Caucasian, Japanese, and Chinese immigration to the islands began in the mid-19th century, thanks to the growth of sugar and pineapple plantations. The monarchical governments were multiracial, as was Hawaiian society.
Indeed, Hawaii has long billed itself as a paragon of ethnic harmony and racial fusion. Former Hawaii governor Jack Burns, first elected in 1962, "was fond of saying that the easy relations between men of various races in Hawaii represented the best hope of mankind," writes historian Gavan Daws. Rates of intermarriage today are high--more than ten times the national average, according to one Census estimate--further diluting any "Native Hawaiian" purity. The state's most famous political figures include Hawaiian-Chinese and Hawaiian-Japanese. Hawaii's current governor is Jewish.
Some 94 percent of Hawaiians voted for statehood in a 1959 plebiscite. But the past decade has witnessed a flare-up of separatist, and often anti-American, passions, marked by street demonstrations in 1998 (the centennial of U.S. annexation) and in August 2005, after the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the racial-preference policy at a well-known Native Hawaiian private school was unconstitutional. (The court has since agreed to reconsider its decision.) Many of Hawaii's more radical independence advocates have zinged the Akaka bill for being wimpy: It accepts the "continued foreign domination" of Hawaii by the U.S. government, one activist told the New York Times last summer. These folks want outright secession.
Which brings us to the question: What precisely would a Native Hawaiian governing council do, and what benefits would its members enjoy?