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Famous Are the Flowers: Hawaiian Resistance Then--and Now | The Nation

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Famous Are the Flowers: Hawaiian Resistance Then--and Now

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Initial research for this Special Issue was funded by The Nation Institute.

About the Author

Elinor Langer
Elinor Langer, a member of The Nation editorial board, is the author of Josephine Herbst and A Hundred Little Hitlers:...

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Find out more about Hawaiian history in books and videos--and on the Web.

The first overseas acquisition of the United States was not Hawaii, but Midway, claimed under the Guano Act of 1856.

What seems like many years ago, on a family trip to Māui, I suddenly realized that Hawai'i was not what it seemed to be. We were driving through Lāhainā toward a near-in coastal reef when it came to me that what I saw was not fitting together. Makai--as the Hawaiians say, toward the sea--was a crowded tourist town filled with restaurants, trinket shops and alluring kiosks where tour guides offering commercial adventures of every description plied their wares. Mauka--toward the mountains--was a crumbling sugar mill about which the question that sprang to mind was not so much what had happened there in earlier times but how on earth it was standing now. Up the hill, I knew, was the building known as Hale Pa'i, which had housed the first missionary press, and at the very top, Lāhaināluna, the original missionary school from which the first generation of seminary-trained Hawaiians had gone out to spread the language and the Word. On my lap as we drove was a guidebook to Māui I had been reading the night before and was leafing through again that said, in spirit if not in so many words, In 1893, a group of sugar planters and other businessmen, some of whom were descendants of the missionaries, overthrew the Queen and they all lived happily ever after. At which point a voice in my head involuntarily said, "No way!"

At the time this was no more than the passing thought of a leftish tourist who had no wish to subtract yet another beautiful spot from the list of places it was possible to go in the world without discomfort, but the thought stuck. At home, I bought Queen Lili'uokalani's autobiography, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, which--surprise--did not agree with the author of the guidebook, and a few other volumes, but I soon put them aside. I was writing about another subject, and I did not have the time. Over a decade later, when I returned to those books, I found them astonishing, for the history they told of the destruction of the independent Kingdom of Hawai'i largely by American businessmen in Honolulu with the support of American troops, and its annexation five years later not by treaty but by mere Congressional resolution, was a history I had never been taught. Nor had I been taught the history of the years before, when between the coming of Captain Cook in 1778 and the coming of the missionaries in 1820 the native population declined from perhaps 800,000 to about 135,000 from foreign diseases, nor the decline that continued inexorably year after year so that by the time of annexation in 1898 it was under 40,000, with many observers predicting, and indeed treating it as a convenience, that there would soon be none.

Yet what might be the point of this belated historical excursion was an open question. For one thing, it was over. That was then. However things might have been in the days when, as a 1941 picture book put it, "Hawaiians owned and operated Hawaii," Hawai'i now was a state, officially owned and operated by the USA, in particular by the US military, which controlled 22.4 percent of the island of O'ahu and 5.7 percent of the land of the islands as a whole. About 7 million tourists a year visited the place, the majority Americans, enjoying not just the sun and sea but that ideal ratio of the exotic and the familiar not possible elsewhere around the globe, where America owned only a partial share. As for that bane of American history--race--with its mixture of people in some cases dating back to before the islands were on any map, the Hawai'i fondue was the richest blend in the world. Walking the streets of Honolulu or elsewhere you would need a racial Geiger counter to figure out who was what. The political implications, too, seemed almost stale. With so many more recent examples to choose from, who needs to cluck over nineteenth-century Hawai'i, merely the first of many places beyond our shorelines where an independent people in the way of American imperialism met their fate?

The more I immersed myself in the story of Hawai'i, however, the more I saw that what was so compelling about it was not that these issues were settled but that they were not. In January 1993, on the centennial of the overthrow, the state sponsored an immense day-by-day re-enactment of its events so authentic that when the actress playing the Queen returned to the 'Iolani Palace from a meeting with her cabinet ministers across the street to tell the people that her efforts to restore certain rights to the native population via a new Constitution would have to be postponed, many in the audience instinctively held their hats to their chests. Two days later, when a well-known nationalist of the present delivered the cry of a well-known royalist of the past--"We must stand together.... We love our Kingdom! We love our Queen! We love the land that gave us birth!"--the audience cheered and wept. That summer an international tribunal convened by sovereignty activists with judges from several countries took testimony throughout the islands, documenting many aspects of the US-Hawai'i relationship as violations of international law. Five years later, on the anniversary of formal annexation, when newly found petitions against it signed by about 38,000 of the 40,000 Native Hawaiians alive in 1898 were displayed in a tent outside the Bishop Museum and people found the signatures of their grandparents, whose stands against the American colossus had been in the category of dangerous family secrets, they wept again. This awareness of history has only deepened with time. Start a conversation with almost anyone on a park bench or bus, and you are likely to find not only a genealogist but a historian, eager to tell you of his or her personal experiences and also the tales passed on by the uncle of an uncle of an uncle of an uncle from the time of Kamehameha the Great who knew just where the king had injured his ankle when he was a boy. What is true of random Hawaiians is also true of random haoles, many of whom have shared in the reconsideration of history and have taken the causes of their Native Hawaiian neighbors to heart.

So much feeling in the streets was bound to have reverberations in Washington. With Hawai'i an inextricable part of the US economy and the islands the headquarters of the military's vital Pacific Command, whose jurisdiction covers more than half the surface of the earth, it would not do to have restless natives. On November 23, 1993--a few months after telling an eager throng on Waīkikī Beach, "You will not be forgotten"--President Clinton signed Public Law 103-150, known as the Apology Resolution, to "acknowledge" the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893, overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States. A poignant thirty-seven-clause review of the history of the islands, the Apology Resolution may be one of the most empathetic documents ever to emanate from Washington [see box, page 17]. Its implications were barely noticed until later. Intended by the senators from Hawai'i who sponsored it simply to register the injustices of the past without pointing to any remedies in the future, the resolution implicitly raised a follow-up question: what do you do after you say you're sorry? In the words of one of the handful of other senators who took it seriously enough to say anything at all, "the logical consequences of this resolution would be independence."

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