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Hawaii and American Colonial Amnesia

How many college students are taught how the United States “acquired” Hawaii?  Which departments are charged with teaching the ABCs of US imperialism?  Now, perhaps more than ever, we need a concerted effort to bring more awareness to the plight of the Hawaiian people.  On October 1, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on Hawaiian land issues, which will go before the court in early 2009.  The Court granted the State of Hawaii’s petition for a writ of certiorari to review the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Hawaii v. Office of Hawaiian Affairs, where the state of Hawaii has asked the Court to rule on  whether or not the state has the authority to sell, exchange, or transfer 1.2 million acres of land formerly held by the Hawaiian monarchy as Crown and Government Lands.  This land base constitutes 29 percent of the total land area of what is now known as the State of Hawaii and almost all the land claimed by the State as “public lands.”

These lands were claimed by the U.S. government when it unilaterally annexed the Hawaiian Islands through a Joint Resolution by the U.S. Congress in 1898, after they had been “ceded” by the Republic of Hawaii, which had established itself a year after the armed and unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian monarch under Queen Liliuokalani in 1893.  These are the same lands mentioned in the 1993 Joint Resolution to Acknowledge the 100th Anniversary of the January 17, 1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, where Congress acknowledged and apologized for the United States’ role.  Specifically, the apology affirmed, “the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States, either through their monarchy or through a plebiscite or referendum.”  The apology also called for a reconciliation process with the Hawaiian people.  Prior to the state government’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the State Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the state should keep the land trust intact until Native Hawaiian claims to these lands are settled and prohibited the state from selling or otherwise disposing of the properties to private parties; and did so based on the 1993 Apology Resolution.  What looms in the background of all of this is the question of a political settlement with Native Hawaiians about the status of and title to these lands and the potential to restore Hawaiian nationhood. What kind of nation? An independent nation-state or a domestic dependent nation under U.S. federal policy?

Currently, there is a problematic legislative proposal before Congress that would reconstitute a Native Hawaiian governing entity under U.S. federal law known as the “Akaka bill,” named after U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI). The bill, officially named the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act is stalled in the Senate due to conservative opposition.  If passed, the U.S. government would then have its federally reorganized Native governing entity empowered by the U.S. government to negotiate a cash settlement in exchange for forfeiting land title.  The bill would limit the full sovereignty claim and set up a process to extinguish Hawaiians’ land title.  But the state of Hawaii wants to sell these lands for its own coffers. Hence, the state hopes the U.S. Supreme Court ruling would nullify the Apology, which the state contends is merely “symbolic” as a Joint Resolution.  However, the Hawaiian people have not forgotten that it was through a Joint Resolution that the U.S. annexed Hawaii in the first place; clearly there is a double-standard here—one that we need to educate our students about, especially as Hawaiian dissent calls for a process to restore Hawaii as an independent nation given our long memory of the international violation of the Hawaiian sovereignty.


Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses on Native American sovereignty issues, U.S. colonialism in the Pacific Islands, and U.S. racial formations, and critical race methodologies. Her first book, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Indigeneity and Sovereignty, is forthcoming from Duke University Press in October 2008. She is also the host and producer of a weekly public affairs radio program, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” at WESU, Middletown, Conn., which is syndicated through the Pacifica radio-network.

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