Struggle For Hawaiian Autonomy

Families forced from their homes…live military ordnance left to explode near schools and homes, maiming or killing the occasional civilian…huge Stryker vehicles rolling relentlessly over a fragile landscape as the United States imposes an alien, imperialist government that brings oppression, genocide and ecological destruction to the local population and environment…

Iraq? A’ole! No! These are current conditions in the so-called “state” of Hawai’i. Visitors to Hawai’i, and those who settle there from the mainland, often remain blissfully unaware of the true history of this place. Or if they begin to hear a bit about it, consider the American occupation as a “done deal” and go about their business.

The worst public health statistics in the region…the lowest education level…the highest incarceration rate…the most poverty…the most children in foster care…the most people without homes…families and communities torn apart by drugs imported by organized crime…

Typical inhabitants of any American inner city? Nope! They are the original inhabitants of “America’s Vacation Paradise:” they are the “kanaka maoli,” the Native Hawai’ians.

A small country with a vibrant spiritual culture forcibly overthrown by a superpower bent on conquest for military and economic reasons…the people forced to assimilate foreign ways contrary to their basic values, denied access to their culture, history and even their language…a diaspora of exiles…a struggle for de-occupation and the re-establishment of their government and sovereign status…

Tibet in 1959? Guess again. It’s the Kingdom of Hawai’i, which was a modern constitutional monarchy and declared neutral nation engaged in treaty relationships with over fifty other countries — violently seized in 1893; illegally annexed by the United States through a domestic resolution; forced into “statehood” in 1959 in violation of United Nations rules… Given an “apology” for all this by the Clinton administration in 1993…

A Bit of History

On January 17, 1893, Queen Lili`uokalani was forced from her throne by American businessmen and business-minded missionary sons, with the help of John L. Stevens, the American Minister to the Hawai’ian Kingdom, and the American navy. The overthrow was violent, unjustified, insulting, and in complete violation of international law. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison apparently gave unofficial encouragement to the conspirators in 1892 and after the overthrow he presented their annexation petition to the U.S. Senate. But incoming President Grover Cleveland was appalled. He withdrew the petition before the Senate could act, called for an investigation, and issued a powerful statement to reinstate the queen and the rightful government. But the treasonous provisional government refused to comply. President Cleveland was also opposed by powerful interests within the United States who were loathe to part with their juicy prize.

In 1897, approximately 21,000 Hawai’ians — more than half the adult Hawai’ian population — signed and presented a petition protesting annexation to the United States. Congress ignored them. Despite the petition evidence to the contrary, it was far more lucrative for Congress to accept the assurances of missionary lobbyists who claimed the Hawai’ians were eager for annexation.

This “Ku’e Petition” of resistance to annexation — 556 pages long, and possibly one of the most significant documents of protest in American, as well as Hawai’ian, history — was buried deeply in the U.S. National Archives until it was found by Noenoe Silva in 1998, over a hundred years later. The discovery of the petition, and the exhibition of this document by the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, had an enormous impact on the kanaka maoli, who searched the pages eagerly for the names of their grandparents and great-grandparents. As Silva puts it, “The petition, inscribed with the names of everyone’s kupuna (ancestors), gave people permission from their ancestors to participate in the quest for national sovereignty. More important, it affirmed for them that their kupuna had not stood by idly, apathetically, while their nation was taken from them.”

No, the kupuna of today’s kanaka maoli had hardly stood by apathetically. But as the “provisional government” (formed by the traitors and foreign businessmen who had deposed their queen) outlawed kanaka maoli gatherings, the Hawai’ians were forced to create subtle yet profound forms of protest. “Kaona,” a tradition of multiple and secret meanings in Hawai’ian chants and poetry, became a necessary component of many underground activities.

The story of the planting of the Queen’s garden at Uluhaimalama, on Oct. 11, 1894 is a perfect example.

The Queen wanted to convey to her people that she was still strong and thinking only of them. Her nobles wanted to declare their continued allegiance. Queen Lili’uokalani declared that one of her gardens (near Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu) would be planted to provide flowers for funerals and other occasions. Kanaka maoli wore ribbons on their hats and clothing that morning, decorated with the word “Uluhaimalama,” and there was an expectant air of celebration in the town. The ceremony was organized to look like a typical garden party, consisting mostly of beautifully dressed, high status and ali’i (noble) Hawai’ian women and a few of the ali’i men.

Police looked on, but as they didn’t “see” anything out of the ordinary, they suffered the event to proceed. In the garden, chants were offered with each planting, each chant affirming the strong feelings of the people there. It was a profoundly complex occasion — interwoven with invocations to spiritual powers and kupuna both dead and alive, with sacred plants affirming their connection to the ‘aina (land) and their dedication to their beloved queen and country. It was an act of symbolic resistance when revolt was difficult. In short, it was an affirmation of what one might call “Hawai’ian-ness” at the deepest levels.

Eventually, as the true history of Hawai’i and its culture was repressed under U.S. rule, the planting at Uluhaimalama was forgotten, and the rooted power of its symbolism remained underground. But in 1994 the garden was the site of a commemorative re-enactment of the planting and designation as a historic place, and now various dedicated individuals and families tend the garden once more and people are again inspired by its story.

The story of Uluhaimalama was first told to me by Clarence Kukauakahi Ching, who grew up in the neighborhood of the garden, and who was one of the key people to gain recognition for this historic place. My account is based on his material and on the filmed re-enactment of the garden protest in his independent film, “The ‘Aina Remains.”

In order to understand Hawai’ian sovereignty and kanaka maoli issues at all, it is necessary to imagine and empathize with a depth of connection to both land and ancestors, and respect for elders, that is inconceivable to those of us who have been shaped by the superficial, mainland, western consumer culture and values of the United States and other industrialized nations. Still, you must try to imagine this connection and understand the force of it. This is at the heart of the people and the culture, and it shapes resistance activities.

Now, not every Native Hawai’ian or part-Hawai’ian is a sovereignty activist working toward restoration of the kingdom. Many have adjusted to colonization and consider themselves Americans. At most, they may be supporters of the dangerous Akaka bill, thinking it will preserve Hawai’ian “entitlements” through a federal recognition process that will turn them into the equivalent of American Indians.

But there are many others who recognize the bill for what it is–a way to finalize the land grab of the Kingdom and take title of contested kanaka maoli lands once and for all–and who are vigorously opposed to the bill. They do not consider th
emselves “American” and continue to insist upon being recognized as subjects of the Kingdom. As one man put it to me, when I asked him about his livelihood, “I work for the Queen.” In other words, he has devoted the rest of his life to the restoration of his country. He is not alone.

It is easy for people from the mainland to consider the American occupation as a “done deal” and go about their business, which usually involves accumulating more real estate at inflated prices (but with questionable title). This inflates taxes on their properties, which then affect adjoining properties and communities, and which are then impossible for the old families, the kanaka maoli, to pay. Thus, one result is the high rate of homelessness among kanaka maoli families. Then the families who are homeless camp, for example, on a beach. They are then driven even from this refuge, from land which has been home to them for generations.

And so, with the bulldozers of development turning up and demolishing the beloved bones of the ancestors (literally), and with the many, many other types of devastating atrocities visited upon the kanaka maoli and pushing them to the wall, we now see what we mainland types recognize as a “protest:” people in large groups with signs, people shouting, people engaged in non-violent resistance, people arrested… Or rather, we would see this, if the mainland media ever gave coverage to the situation in Hawai’i. But we don’t.

This last August, the San Francisco Chronicle surprisingly published an op ed piece by two Kamehameha Schools graduates protesting the recent Ninth Circuit Court ruling against the school’s admission policies. (For background, please see This issue alone is too complex to cover in this article.) And the Chronicle also published a brief article about the protest march which was to take place in San Francisco. But it was too much to expect a follow-up article or photo the next day — there were no published images of thousands of people wearing red “Ku I Ka Pono” (Justice for Hawai’ians) t shirts, amassed in United Nations Plaza. It was a beautiful sight, but apparently too powerful for the Chronicle’s Pacific Rim readers. It apparently conflicted too strongly with the accepted image of the Hawai’ian people.

The image of “happy Hawai’ians” offering orchid lei and filled with boundless aloha, welcoming all visitors to their beautiful islands, are a staple of the tourist industry and of the political machinery behind the occupation of the islands. This image fuels the cruise ships, whose fuels in turn destroy the fragile coral reefs. This image allows the creation of herbicide-laden golf course turf to be cultivated on sacred lands. This image allows us to feel good about introducing invasive plant and animal species, which destroy native organisms. Within just a few short years, the Hawai’ian islands have become the GMO research capital of the world–without the consent or desire of any of the kanaka maoli whose small farms are jeopardized by this new development.

Real life “Happy Hawai’ians” join the military to get an education, and are sent at whim to other lands to obliterate other colonized peoples. Real life “Happy Hawai’ians” fill the prisons after succumbing to crime in despair, and are often shipped far away from their families. But we still demand endless “aloha” from the colonized, and we depend upon their silence as we, representatives of an occupying foreign power, destroy their beloved ‘aina and culture in a hundred, thousand thoughtless ways.

This is a cruel joke to play on a people who really do believe in the transformational, everyday power of love and the goodness of humanity. Their culture is imbued with this principle, but it is part of an even more vital principle: “pono:” what is good, right, just, balanced, appropriate. Our ignorance of their plight and our insistence on perpetual “aloha” — without the corresponding value of “pono” — is an ironic psychic, political, and physical atrocity inflicted on some of the most hospitable people on Earth.

So, as the mainstream, mainland media will not show us the Hawai’ian struggle, those of us who are concerned about such things must go looking for it. The “truth” here is complex and often fragmented. Unity among independence activists is elusive, at this point. But a very short internet list could include, for starters:,,, and especially Scott Crawford’s excellent blog: Many excellent books are also available, such as Noenoe Silva’s Aloha Betrayed. Please email me at for a booklist and other resources. Put “Hawai’ian Independence” in the subject line.

I hope this article has served as an introduction to a powerful, but under-acknowledged struggle and that it will prompt the readers of this publication to learn more and to support na kanaka maoli in their quest for independence. Mahalo.

Portions of this article were from an article I co-wrote in 2004, “America’s Tibet,” with activists Clarence Kukauakahi Ching and David Ingham. It was published in Hawai’i Island Journal in April that year. The entire article may be found in the archives of