In this special issue of The Nation we present editorial board member Elinor Langer’s essay “Famous Are the Flowers: Hawaiian Resistance Then–And Now,” a probing exploration of the annexation of Hawai’i by the United States and of the issues of sovereignty and indigenous rights that persist in the wake of that seizure–accomplished not by treaty but by threat of force and unilateral act of Congress. At the time, this magazine published editorials opposing the 1893 overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani and the 1898 annexation of the islands–part of a larger anti-imperialist agenda, formed in response to the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that would continue to guide our thinking on matters of foreign policy over the years.
Any consideration of Hawaiian sovereignty, however, goes beyond the confines of the archive and political positions past. For one thing, as Langer chronicles, the more Hawaiian independence recedes in time, the more vibrant it has become in present-day Hawaiian culture and society; its spirit is kept alive by song, ritual, language reclamation, storytelling and protest. An active sovereignty movement, spurred by the thorny questions raised by the 1993 Apology Resolution and the pending Akaka bill, flourishes in Hawai’i today. The range of opinions expressed within it is matched by the number of issues it takes on, from militarism and the environment to education and healthcare. Although we cannot capture the fullness of this movement, we offer an open letter to the US left from a group of Hawaiian activists.
The questions raised by this special issue, although centered on Hawai’i, have implications beyond its shores. In the year of Hawaiian annexation, US Marines landed in Guantánamo Bay, seizing control of Cuba under the pretense of rescuing its people from Spanish colonialism. The years that followed saw the conquest of the Philippines and the transformation of Guam and Puerto Rico into US territorial possessions. Across these and other Pacific and Caribbean islands, the United States has built an imperial archipelago–extracting raw materials, basing troops and ships, staging missile tests and lately, in Guantánamo, jailing and torturing prisoners in the global “war on terror”–a prerogative it claims in part by citing the Insular cases of the early twentieth century, which held that where the flag goes, the Constitution does not necessarily follow. In short, the imperial past has formed the legal scaffolding and geographic backdrop of the imperial present. But as in Hawai’i, resistance to imperialism is hardy. In 2003, shamed by local and visiting protesters, the Navy withdrew from Vieques, Puerto Rico. Hawaiian activists continue to fight the expansion of the Army’s Stryker Brigades. The isolatoes of the world are, in fact, not alone, for famous indeed are the flowers.