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The Hegemon and Hawaii: Teaching History through the Law

I teach a course called, “United States in the Pacific Islands,” in which students learn about American historical involvement in the Pacific structured by strategic interests in the region that constitute neocolonial hegemony including economic, military and cultural power. It is a rare thing for students anywhere in the United States to learn about the historical and contemporary colonial status of Guam and American Samoa, the U.S. military use of the Marshall Islands as a as a “nuclear playground” for atomic bomb testing, the U.S. administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific after World War II until the self-governance of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau in the 1980s and 1990s. Using an expanded definition of the Western frontier, we examine how the Pacific basin was subject to imperialist development as an extension of the continental expansion. The case study of Hawaii is central here, and this semester, it may have to be moved up in the syllabus earlier than usual.


 There is legislation before Congress that may be voted as early as February that poses a threat to the political status of Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians). The “Akaka Bill” – officially named the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act – proposes that the U.S. Government recognize a “Native Hawaiian Governing Entity” (NHGE) that is to be certified by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conformity with U.S. federal law and practice regarding Native American tribal nations. The House version (H.R. 2314) passed in the House Committee on Natural Resources on Dec. 16 and the newly amended Senate version of the bill (S. 1011) passed by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Dec. 17.


 The Senate version potentially gives the proposed NHGE more power than the House version. In the House version, Section 9, the bill titled “Applicability of Certain Federal Laws,” clarifies that certain laws pertaining to federally recognized Indian tribes would not apply to the NHGE, and they all happen to be the same laws that greatly benefit tribal nations. Perhaps the most important exclusion is that the NHGE would not be allowed to have the Secretary of the Interior take land into trust. This is important because only land held in trust by the federal government on behalf of tribal nations is allowed to be used as part of their sovereign land base where they can assert jurisdiction.  Most notably, this section of the bill also states that “Nothing in this Act alters the civil or criminal jurisdiction of the United States or the State of Hawaii over lands and persons within the State of Hawaii.”


 The Senate version does not make the same stipulation from the get-go and at least affirms the NHGE’s “inherent sovereignty,” but it also states that the NHGE, the federal government, and the state will have to negotiate an agreement addressing: land, governmental authority, the exercise of criminal and civil jurisdiction, and more. None of these are guaranteed in the bill – no land, no jurisdiction, no assets, no governmental power. They are all up for grabs once representatives of a NHGE sit down with the federal and state agents. There is no equal footing here; all negotiations must take place within the framework of U.S. federal law and policy with regard to Indian tribes, which is to say under the plenary power of the U.S. government. This means that although S. 1011 seems better than H.R 2314 on the face of it, the outcome could end up looking the same either way, which is why there is substantial Kanaka Maoli opposition to the legislation in favor of independence from the United States.


 Hawaiian claims to independence under international law stem from the fact that Hawaiians’ loss of self-determination at no time amounted to a legal termination of political sovereignty-it was not lost via conquest, cession or adjudication. The 1993 U.S. apology for the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom (Public Law 103-150) recognizes that “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 historical harm the United States first committed in Hawaii in 1893 brought down, not a “Native Hawaiian governing entity,” but the government of the independent State of Hawaii composed of Kanaka Maoli as well as non-Kanaka Maoli subjects. Consequently, all heirs of the Hawaiian Kingdom have, since that time, accumulated fundamental political and other claims against the United States under international law.


 One of the challenges in teaching this history to my students is that many find the notion of a Hawaiian Kingdom in the 21st century laughable.  Or at the very least, they question whether or not Hawaiian independence from the United States is “feasible.”  That is when we then turn to a lesson in hegemony, where they learn about state power, U.S. domination and Hawaii as the “birthplace” of U.S.-backed regime changes that continue into the present day, as in the case of Iraq. Students should be empowered to evaluate the merits of a historical claim as a distinct exercise from assessing whether they think a claim is realizable at any given moment. At the very least, they learn that the ability to realize a particular legal outcome or political goal need not be a prerequisite for opposing legislation that further undermines a people’s rightful political claim. 


 Moreover, this lesson necessitates a nuanced understanding of how law is used to oppress and work against that which it appears to be remedying. In other words, a critical analysis demands that we look at the veiled intent and probable effects of this legislation that aims to empower the hegemon at the expense of the people it consistently tries to control and continues the legacy of the American violence through the law.



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 is Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Indigeneity and Sovereignty. 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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