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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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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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Accustomed to trampling democracy at home, jingoists cannot be expected to see its virtues abroad.

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On January 3, 1976, a small group of citizens of the islands of Māui and Moloka'i crossed an eight-mile channel from Māui to begin the illegal occupation of an island few Americans even knew existed, the eighth and smallest of the major Hawaiian islands, Kaho'olawe. However little-known it was at the time, Kaho'olawe was known very well to the earliest Hawaiians, for whom it was the base for the celestial and navigational instruction that made possible the round-trip voyages from Hawai'i to Tahiti, which are thought to have gone on until around 1400. Its place names, such as Lae o Kealaikahiki, the "Point of Pathway to Tahiti," are full of information about its role. It was also well-known to the residents of the nearest parts of Māui and Lāna'i because ever since December 8, 1941, the day after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, it had been given over to the Navy for target practice, a function that continued well into the Vietnam era. When the bombs hit Kaho'olawe, you could see, hear and feel them throughout the neighboring islands. "As a child [I experienced] the shaking of all our windows as an everyday occurrence," a man from Lāna'i testified at a public hearing.

The struggle for Kaho'olawe is seen by many observers as the formative episode in the larger struggle to reclaim Hawaiian identity, which has been a force in the islands ever since because there was something so deeply Hawaiian about it. For one thing, it was about the land, to which Hawaiians understand themselves to be so genealogically related that its desecration becomes practically a family murder. From the first night spent on dry ground so littered with unexploded ordnance that any footstep might have led to death, the two members of the group who had avoided arrest by the Coast Guard felt themselves to be in the presence of their ancestors, and the more they learned as their movement widened and deepened, the more they learned that was true. Later archaeological surveys discovered more than 2,000 shrines, living areas and other evidence of a functioning society.

The character of the movement and the people in it was also distinctively Hawaiian. Organized as an 'ohana--family--rather than as a formal association, it blended the knowledge of the elders, who still knew from oral traditions something of the former status of Kaho'olawe, with the energies of the young people, who still had the will to reclaim it. Led by, among others, a charismatic singer-philosopher named George Helm, whose roots were deep in the rural soil of Moloka'i, the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana, or PKO, attracted others with the same combination of intelligence and soul, and when Helm and an experienced boatman named Kimo Mitchell were lost at sea during another attempted landing in March 1977 the determination of the 'ohana further intensified. Just as there is no inauthenticity like that of the Hawaiian tourist industry, there is no authenticity like that of the true Hawaiian, and in light of its influence the juxtaposition of the sacredness of Kaho'olawe and its devastation began to appear more and more unacceptable. In 1980, as a result of PKO litigation, the Navy agreed to limit bombing, begin clearance of live munitions, institute conservation and reforestation measures, and allow access to PKO for four 
no-bombing days ten months a year to carry out its own preservation and restoration activities. In 1990 the bombing was ended completely, and in 1994 the island was returned to the State of Hawai'i along with $400 million from Washington to further its recovery. The island is still a dangerous place, and disagreements remain over who should control the right of access, the state or PKO, but when the children of Lāna'i and Māui look out today over the narrow channels that separate them from Kaho'olawe they see not the source of their nightmares but a source of pride.

The literal uncovering of the Hawaiian past on Kaho'olawe both strengthened and was strengthened by other political struggles and cultural retrievals occurring about the same time. In 1959, as the simultaneous arrival of statehood and jets brought with it a building boom that resulted in the displacement of many Native Hawaiian communities throughout the islands, there were organized protests and demonstrations from O'ahu to Kaua'i. There was the Hōkūle'a, a bold reconstruction of a Polynesian voyaging canoe, which made a successful journey from Māui to Tahiti by noninstrument navigation in thirty-two days in 1976, precisely duplicating the voyages recounted in ancestral chants--the first of many such navigational feats. There were young musicians exploring a newly realized Hawaiian-ness with such contributions as "Kaulana Nā Pua." There were hula teachers, traditional healers and practitioners of the Hawaiian martial art of lua, all survivors of a frail Polynesian underground that had somehow managed to sustain itself over the years. The more Hawaiians came together in protest or song, the more they understood that they were in fact Hawaiians and that they no longer knew what that meant.

Apart from the revered scholar, translator, songwriter and chanter Mary Kawena Pukui, whose works included the Hawaiian-English dictionary, a study of Hawaiian place names and an anthropological study of traditional Hawaiian society on the Big Island, where she was born, and those who collaborated with her, Hawaiian history under the Territory did not exist, either as academic enterprise or on the shelves. The writings of the great Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau had been published only in newspapers, mainly between 1866 and 1871, and were unavailable until translated and collected by Pukui in 1961. The invaluable works of preservation that had been undertaken toward the end of the nineteenth century--Abraham Fornander's three-volume An Account of the Polynesian Race, King Kalākaua's Legends and Myths of Hawaii, Nathaniel Emerson's Unwritten Literature of Hawaii--and even a unique series of lectures on ancient Hawaiian civilization sponsored by the Kamehameha School in the 1930s, had all gone out of print. As for the history of the Territory itself, it is perhaps best symbolized by the statue of President McKinley outside McKinley High School in Honolulu clutching a Treaty of Annexation that never was. The Queen was not fat, stupid, lazy and lascivious either, as children educated under the Territory were generally taught. Her autobiography, Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen, which has proven to be the single most influential account of the overthrow and annexation, was also out of print.

The loss of history was inseparable from another fundamental loss, the Hawaiian language. What the missionaries had given in establishing the Hawaiian alphabet in the 1820s their descendants had taken away with the banning of Hawaiian as the medium of instruction in public and private schools in 1896. Nineteenth-century Hawaiians had amazed the world with the speed and pleasure with which they took to seeing their language in writing, achieving near-universal literacy in a few decades and mastering a wide range of subjects from math to geography in their native tongue. Shakespeare, along with the classic writers of other Western languages, was also translated into Hawaiian. In addition, over the course of the century about a hundred Hawaiian-language newspapers had come into being, with articles on subjects ranging from prayer to politics, making the written language an everyday, taken-for-granted thing. It did not take long for this legacy to be shattered. In stories too familiar from the experiences of indigenous people everywhere, great-grandparents alive today recall being slapped if they used a Hawaiian word on the school grounds and slapped harder if they used it a second time. Today's grandparents remember the shame of speaking the language as part of the larger shame of simply being Hawaiian. Many of today's parents and children grew up without ever hearing the language at all. With dwindling readership, the last of the Hawaiian-language newspapers went out of business around World War II. The number of native speakers of Hawaiian left in the 1980s was estimated to be under 2,000.

In 1983 a group of educators formed 'Aha Pūnana Leo, which means "language nest," expressing their wish to feed their ancestral language into the mouths of Hawaiian children as birds feed their young. Starting with one immersion preschool on Kaua'i, the immersion program now includes two independent K-12s as well as similar programs within the Hawaiian public school system. The numbers are small and the teachers involved are quick to stress the difficulties, including the paucity of curriculum materials and of other teachers, but the program is still turning out graduates who are fluent and literate in Hawaiian. Hawaiian is considered to be one of the most successful language-reclamation programs in the world, after Hebrew, which is one of its models, and it is itself a model for the revitalization of other indigenous languages in the United States and elsewhere. In the same period a new generation of scholars trained in the language, which had been available at the university level since 1921, began translating and interpreting nineteenth-century archives largely unused by previous historians, in time publishing a number of remarkable books that show the Hawaiians of the nineteenth century in a new and active light, both drawing on and enhancing the knowledge of the past [see "Resources," page 28]. There are also Hawaiian studies programs at the university campuses at Manoa and Hilo. Today, Hawaiian history is no longer so hard to find. Kamakau, Kalākaua, Emerson, Fornander and the Queen, among others, are all available at the supermarket.

So many recoveries led naturally to the question: why not the ultimate recovery--sovereignty? How the idea first arose is a subject on which there are many different opinions. What "sovereignty" might be exactly and how to get it are also the subject of many opinions. In the 1980s and '90s the strongest initiative came from a grassroots organization call Kā Lahui Hawai'i, which defined itself as a "nation within a nation" and enrolled as many as 20,000 Hawaiians in a constitutionally governed entity internal to the state with representation from all the islands. Recently, positions resting on international law--some stressing the illegality of the 1893 overthrow, others the illegitimacy of statehood on the grounds of the US unilateral withdrawal of Hawai'i from the UN's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, still others combining both arguments--have been getting more attention. The underlying claim is the same laid out in the 1993 international tribunal: Hawaiian sovereignty was never legally relinquished. There are also numerous other variants, and numerous representatives of them, including a Hawaiian Kingdom and a Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom, separate organizations, each with its own thinkers, strategies and shadow cabinet. For all its divisions, the sovereignty movement is a tightly knit political community, and for the most part people get along. All can agree with the recent formulation of one of their several spokespeople apropos the anticipated 2009 half-century anniversary of statehood: "To me statehood is not a reason for celebration. We've been led to believe that we were adopted, and then we found out we were kidnapped."

Despite the fact that inside the sovereignty camp it sometimes appears that its influence peaked with the flush of 1993, in other circles it is still seen as a rising force, enough to provoke a continuing reaction. In 2000, thanks to a Hawaiian incarnation of the conservative-libertarian ideological grouping that includes such US representatives as the Heritage and Heartland foundations, a challenge to the right of a state agency, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), to confine voting for its trustees to citizens of Hawaiian descent was upheld by the Supreme Court, in Rice v. Cayetano, clearing a pathway for similar challenges to a variety of Native Hawaiian benefit programs, many of them administered by the OHA. (Another challenge, to the hallowed Hawaiians-only admission policy of the Kamehameha schools, settled out of court in 2007 after years of litigation, emerged from the same political constellation.) With health, income, education and other vital statistics consistently showing Native Hawaiians at the bottom of the ethnic social ladder, the threat to such aid as had emerged over the years was unacceptable to the state's Democratic leadership, which began pressing for a federally recognized tribal government for Native Hawaiians to protect the endangered programs. The legislation--known formally as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act and informally as the Akaka bill after Senator Daniel Akaka, who has introduced it regularly since 2000--has become the locus of an increasingly serious national debate centering on whether the bill recognizes Native Hawaiians on a political basis, which according to the bill's supporters has precedents in federal Indian policy and poses no constitutional problems, or on a racial basis, which, according to conservative opponents including the Bush White House, would be illegal. More recently, this argument has been taken up in the public arena, with conservative editorialists denouncing the bill's proposed creation of a special status for Native Hawaiians as at best discriminatory and at worst racist.

On the islands, too, the Akaka bill has generated increasing heat, and even fear, opposed by peculiar bedfellows: the constellation behind the legal challenges, led since 2001 by the Honolulu-based Grassroot Institute, who see it as dividing the citizens of Hawai'i into two classes according to race and opening the way to secession, and many sovereignty activists, who see it as distorting and undermining their fundamental identity. Their position is, We are not Native Americans, we are not even Native Hawaiians, we are Polynesians. Another commonality between the conservatives and the sovereignty movement is distrust of the OHA, the thirty-year-old agency that, as the chief lobbyist for the Akaka bill and the natural starting point for a future Native Hawaiian government, is widely seen as unable to separate advocacy for Native Hawaiians, which was its original mandate, from protecting its own bureaucracy, which was not. With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama having recently stated that, unlike Bush, they would sign the Akaka bill should it pass Congress (and with John McCain also thought to support it), the long stalemate over the bill may be coming to an end. What happens if it becomes law is unpredictable. The bill is conspicuously vague. Deferring all important decisions to future "government-to-government" negotiations after a Native Hawaiian governing entity is created, the bill is so open-ended that no one knows where it will lead, including Senator Akaka, who told an NPR interviewer that it would be up to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren whether to seek independence--a bit of candor greeted in many quarters with a shiver.

The heart of the matter, long concealed by other things and staggering to contemplate now that it is being faced, is land: the 1.8 million acres "ceded" by the Republic to the United States at the time of annexation and referred to by everyone touched by the sovereignty movement as "stolen." This land involves roughly half the state of Hawai'i and includes some of its most valuable property, starting with the Honolulu airport. Whenever one of the islands' vigilant protest groups litigates or rallies against the environmental consequences of the Army's twenty-ton Strykers or the inter-island superferry or genetically modified seeds, the question is raised, Whose land is it, anyway?: the question of sovereignty. The crowds at sovereignty demonstrations are far smaller than in 1993, but the ideas of the sovereignty movement have taken hold.

The most remarkable thing about the present moment, in fact, is the extent to which the illegality of the American takeover is recognized. Despite the fact that the racial mixture of individuals and families is such that the question of who is "Hawaiian" can never be satisfactorily answered; despite the fact that a large proportion of families are thoroughly integrated into the economic status quo through the employment of one or more members in the military or tourist industry; despite the fact that, overall, the citizens of Hawai'i appear used to and indeed proud of being Americans, there is a widespread consensus, strengthened by the Apology Resolution, that the historical sequence that began with the takeover of the Hawaiian Kingdom and ended with Hawai'i's star on the American flag was wrong, and that the fact that it started a long time ago does not make it right. "If it is disgraceful for a single individual to steal, it is no less disgraceful for a nation, an aggregate of individuals, to steal...[and] I believe that when the American people fully understand the Hawaiian matter, they will condemn the great wrong done to the natives by the missionaries and their descendants," wrote Grover Cleveland's Secretary of State Walter Gresham in 1895, a prediction that seems finally to be coming true. No one thinks that that historical sequence can be reversed, but neither can it any longer be ignored. The next phases will be the stuff of politics on both sides of the water. As for the Native Hawaiians, whose very existence as a people was so long presumed doomed, they are moved simply to find themselves still here. "Hawaiians go back 1,200 generations," proclaimed one of the speakers at the most recent commemoration of the overthrow last January, "and we will be here for 1,200 more." So they are not in a terrible hurry. They know change takes time. Just offshore from the Big Island, Hawai'i, a new volcanic island is thrusting up from the ocean floor--Kama'ehu--already represented on a sovereignty T-shirt, though it is not expected to reach the surface for at least 10,000 years. In the words of a new chant accompanying a Hawaiian dance troupe's homage to the new arrival: "The child is born, the family grows."

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