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Aloha Means Goodbye

Will the Senate vote for Hawaiian separatism?

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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FOR NEARLY AS LONG as Hawaii has been a state, its most famous pop culture icon has been the organ-playing singer Don Ho. Born in Honolulu in 1930, Ho claims Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and German ancestry. Few figures better epitomize the Aloha State's proud history of ethnic intermingling and racial comity. Its senior senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye, has hailed Hawaii as "one of the greatest examples of a multiethnic society living in relative peace."

Inouye made that remark in 1994, on the 35th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood. It is no small irony that, in June 2006, he is cosponsoring a bill that would fracture Hawaii along ethnic lines and create a de facto apartheid system of racial privileges.

That bill is the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, the outgrowth of legislation first introduced by Hawaii senator Daniel Akaka in July 2000. It would essentially grant Native Hawaiians the same sovereign "tribal" status that American Indians and Native Alaskans enjoy, and permit them to form a race-based governing entity. After much wrangling, Akaka has been promised a cloture vote on his measure sometime this week.

Don't expect a filibuster. The Akaka bill has five Republican cosponsors. The entire Democratic caucus appears to be in favor. Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, is behind it, as are Hawaii's state legislature and its two congressmen, Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case. (Abercrombie has sponsored a companion bill in the House.) Should it come up for a floor vote, it would presumably need only one Senate Republican to join the five GOP cosponsors to ensure passage. And Lingle has told the New York Times that at least six Republicans are on board.

One can only hope they have not actually read the legislation. For the Akaka bill would promote a baleful hodgepodge of specious history, racial separatism, and legal codes reminiscent of Jim Crow.

START WITH THE REVISIONIST HISTORY. The Akaka bill largely stems from the 1993 Apology Resolution, in which Congress expressed its "deep regret" for the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, an event that led to U.S. annexation of Hawaii five years later. The Apology accused U.S. minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens of conspiring with American military forces and "non-Hawaiian" insurgents to topple the monarchy. It further hinted that the interests of American sugar planters were central to the conspiracy.

These claims are dubious, at best. According to the Morgan report, an 800-page document issued by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Tyler Morgan of Alabama in February 1894, the U.S. troops who landed in Honolulu during the (nearly bloodless) coup were peacekeepers, seeking to ensure the safety of American citizens and defend their property. The revolt was mostly a domestic struggle, brought on by Queen Liliuokalani's bid for quasi-despotic powers.

If you discount the Morgan findings as biased--Hawaii was a grossly politicized issue even in the 1890s--consider the work of the late Ralph S. Kuykendall, widely deemed a preeminent historian of the Hawaiian islands. In The Hawaiian Kingdom, Kuykendall acknowledges that Stevens, a fervent annexationist, sent mixed messages during the uprising. He did indeed ask Captain Wiltse, the commander of the USS Boston, docked in Honolulu Harbor, to send the Marines ashore.

But Wiltse had already issued the order himself, in accordance with standard naval and diplomatic protocols. Moreover, his instructions were that U.S. troops should "remain neutral in any conflict" and exercise "strict impartiality . . . in preserving order and protecting property"--which they did. As for the sugar planters, they "were conservatively inclined" and came to oppose the monarchy only reluctantly.

Whatever the peripheral extent of U.S. aid to the rebels, the 1893 revolution was remarkably peaceful--not a single person died. By contrast, the Hawaiian Kingdom itself was forged in 1810 after decades of savage warfare led by the future King Kamehameha I.

WHICH BRINGS US to the Akaka bill's next piece of dodgy history: the racial dynamics of that kingdom. For membership purposes, the legislation defines "Native Hawaiian" as anyone whose lineage traces back to the "the aboriginal, indigenous, native people" who "occupied and exercised sovereignty in the Hawaiian archipelago" before 1893, or whose relatives were eligible for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921 (which required at least one-half blood relation to the Polynesians living in Hawaii before 1778, when Captain Cook arrived).