By Lois-Ann Yamanaka -- Postcard From Hawaii on Its 50th Birthday

By Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Sunday, August 23, 2009

HONOLULU -- Our Japanese American cousins always said behind our backs that we Hawaii cousins were 10 years behind the times. So when our home became a state in August 1959, it would logically follow that it took a while for our birth certificates to catch up. For a few years, this new state still issued Certificates of Hawaiian Birth. I was born on the island of Molokai -- blink and you missed Kaunakakai, its port town, 1,000 residents on the whole island at the time, a pineapple, red-dirt-permanently-embedded-in-your-heels kind of place. It was a very provincial island in 1961, the birth year that President Obama and I share.

So as our state celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend, the fuss over Obama's birth certificate -- its authenticity and what it might be hiding -- has been kind of perplexing to me. The president's mother is American. His father is Kenyan. Is he an anomaly because he is of American and Hawaiian and Kenyan heritage? Exotic? Because he's from a state that isn't a state because we aren't on the mainland? Because he is from this provincial place that had been a state for only two years when he was born? For a few voices shouting loudly from the fringe, that has been enough reason to raise questions about whether he really is what he says he is.

Here, we have another question: Is Hawaii legally a state? Was the Kingdom of Hawai'i stolen? Some native Hawaiians say that, though Obama is American in the eyes of America, the real issue is that Hawaii is not a legitimate state in the union. We were a kingdom taken by force by the revolutionary Committee of Safety, which was backed by the U.S. Marines. Our queen was forced to abdicate her throne in 1893 to prevent bloodshed among her beloved subjects.

This makes Admission Day, as the statehood anniversary is sometimes known, more complicated. Robert Kanaka`ole Ebanez, one of the founders of the Hawaiian Independence Alliance, a sovereignty group, hasn't been in a mood to celebrate statehood. Ebanez believes that the bickering over the president's birth focuses on the wrong thing. To him, Obama is a legitimate Hawaiian citizen born after the "illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii."

Meanwhile, here in paradise -- land of white sandy beaches, ukuleles, grass shacks, mai tais with paper umbrellas and orchids, pineapples, surfing, domestic abuse, homelessness, juvenile delinquency, welfare dependency -- stockbrokers, teachers, firemen, fishermen, dog groomers and most other locals didn't even talk about our president's birth certificate over their Starbucks Frappuccinos as the morning news explained the controversy. No one seemed to care pau hana (after work) over a Heineken Light at Verbano, with "Wheel of Fortune" on the bar's TV. So he's a keiki o ka aina (child of the land), our president a local boy (and black at that) done real good -- bring home the kalua pig, baby. It was no big conspiracy. It was no big deal. It was, as Don Ho would say, "Ain't no big thing, bruddah." And why? Some continental folk, you mainlanders, just don't get us. It's true.

We are a state of painful paradoxes -- a haven for immigrants from China, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Puerto Rico, Korea, Germany and the Philippines who came in the late 1800s to work on haole (white) sugar plantations. Later came Samoans, Laotions, Tongans, Vietnamese, Fijians, Cambodians, Thais and Micronesians. We are a gigantic collision of cultural practices -- fireworks at the new year, $3 to $50 leis, dragon dances, dim sum takeout, coconut hair oil, gandule rice, sarongs, native cowboys, summer rolls and precious pesos sent home to family. We are a state of fragile tolerance.

We identify people by their ethnicities, or the way we've come to describe where everyone came from at some point -- the Portagee bank teller, the Japanee waitress, the Korean secretary, the Filipino attorney and even our black president. And it goes beyond identification. We live in a state where this balance has been and will be practiced for centuries.

This weekend was one good party at Honolulu Hale, the city government headquarters. The Makaha Sons, a prominent recording trio, played a concert, artists and crafters sold their wares, and Hawaiian food abounded. In the lead-up to the big day, local media coverage for the anniversary was incredibly comprehensive.

Comprehensive, that is, from a white perspective. Prominent Hawaii celebrities of all ethnicities spoke in prime-time television clips about their feelings on statehood. What they were doing at the time. How old they were -- all good. None spoke about the injustices of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. I didn't hear a native Hawaiian perspective addressing the issues of that complicated, fierce and, some feel, utterly maltreated community. State money spent on marketing and promoting the 50th anniversary had in essence whitewashed some of the truth.

But we all manage to grin. Sit and share a meal at the same baby luau. Work, hang out, intermarry, meet for coffee, toast the day's end with a Heineken Light. And, looking around, I think that when we celebrate -- or mark the day somehow -- again in 50 years, the balance we've struck here might not look so exotic to those watching from the mainland. It seems that all of America is progressing toward the mix we have here in Hawaii.

My sweetie wanted to take our stadium chairs to Iolani Palace on Admission Day to watch the sovereignty groups and activists speak out, maybe protest, chain themselves to the front gates, sit on centuries-old, delicate, threadbare thrones. Bring bento (lunch) and soda and take in the other points of view. He's native Hawaiian and calls himself a liberal conservative. Right. This means he believes that native Hawaiians have sovereign rights, but we still live in the most blessed nation in the world. How liberally conservative of him.

Hawaii has come a long way in the past 50 years. There were a lot of us on the lawn of the royal palace with our coolers and goza (straw mats). A lot of us of many ethnicities. All of us with a black president from Hawaii.

Lois-Ann Yamanaka runs Na'au, a school for writers, in Honolulu. Her latest novel is "Behold the Many."

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