WAILUA, Hawaii — Colonization of these Pacific islands — and eventual statehood nearly 60 years ago — has always been a bitter subject for Native Hawaiians, the only indigenous group in the United States that does not have political sovereignty.
Decimated in number after the Western world first occupied the archipelago and later feeling marginalized within the federal bureaucracy, Native Hawaiians are now pushing hard to create their own nation, seeking the type of self-governance Native American tribes across the country established long ago.
A group that includes politicians, police officers, fast-food workers and farmers has drafted a new constitution and plans for a ratification vote. Support has come from residents on every island here, as well as from members of the Hawaiian diaspora in such places as Washington, Vietnam and Sweden.
Leaders are working to raise $2.5 million and have joined with a consortium of advocacy groups to spur the nation-building effort. Over potluck suppers in Honolulu and at an assembly of more than 300 people in Anchorage, Native Hawaiians have come together to study what could become the touchstone of their self-determination: an eight-chapter constitution that lays the foundation for a democracy with executive, legislative and judicial branches.
Their hope is that this time, a Hawaiian nation has a real shot.
“I’ve been involved in the sovereignty movement my whole life, and when Hawaiians get together to talk about sovereignty, it usually involves a lot of fighting and yelling, and nothing gets done,” says Brendon Kalei‘aina Lee, 47, who served as chairman at last year’s constitutional convention. “Never before have I seen people with so many different viewpoints willing to sit down and work together.”
In an overly warm conference room at a Hilton hotel on Kauai earlier this year, Robin Danner, an advocate for Native Hawaiian sovereignty, plunged down a list of perks indigenous Hawaiians could get by standing up their own government.
Free health care. Reacquisition of stolen lands. Greater influence in Hawaii state politics. New programming designed to tackle the socioeconomic ills disproportionately faced by Hawaii’s indigenous people — homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, obesity and low high school graduation rates.
“It’s not just a sexy slogan,” explained Danner, who co-founded the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “Sovereignty is improving the lives of people in our community. This is about creating jobs. This is about addressing diabetes.”
A government by and for Native Hawaiians, Danner said, could codify the ancient Hawaiian practice of hanai, a custom lacking legal protection in which a child gains a second set of adoptive parents without diminishing ties to their birthparents. It could seek to formalize a government-to-government relationship with the United States — or any other foreign nation — as well as prioritize preserving the near-extinct Hawaiian language.
A voice rose from the audience: “What does Trump think about this?”
“Fortunately, we don’t need President Trump for any of this,” Danner said. “What matters is what we think. No one can give us sovereignty except ourselves.”
Native Hawaiians are the descendants of the original Polynesians who built a society on the islands more than 1,000 years ago, arriving on double-hulled voyaging canoes they navigated by following the stars. After British explorer James Cook landed in Hawaii in the late 1770s — he was killed there in 1779 while attempting to kidnap the king of Hawaii Island — Europeans began visiting regularly, and many of the Hawaiians were killed off by unfamiliar diseases.
The United States played a role in tearing down the Hawaiian monarchy, overthrowing the kingdom and forcing Queen Lili‘uokalani to abdicate the throne in January 1893. Hawaii became a state in 1959.
In more recent years, the Native Hawaiian population has been rising steadily, according to the U.S. Census. In 2000, there were 401,162 people across the United States who identified as Native Hawaiian alone or in some combination of other races; by 2010, that number had grown to 527,077, an increase of 31 percent. Of the 1.4 million people living in Hawaii in 2010, about 80,000 identified as Native Hawaiian alone and 210,000 identified as Native Hawaiian in some combination of other races. The combined group made up 21 percent of the state's residents.
Despite the growth, the Native Hawaiian population lags behind other ethnicities in wealth and assets. Native Hawaiian families in 2013 had a median income of $72,762, the lowest of all major ethnic groups in the state, according to data by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
This is not the first time a group of Native Hawaiians has sought support for a governing document to improve their circumstances. Mahealani Wendt, 70, the former executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, participated in three earlier efforts to compose a constitution. All were doomed by a lack of funding and support among Native Hawaiian voters, she said.
“There is fatigue,” Wendt said. “I was hoping my mother would still be alive when we finally got a government, but my mom has passed away, and now I’m thinking I’m going to be dead and it’s still not going to happen. I see opposition from within our community, and I see opposition from outside of it — these are strange bedfellows. But ultimately I think there comes a time when you just have to fish or cut bait. Take the vote. If the vote is not successful, you start again.”
But adding to the momentum now is a new opportunity for Hawaiians to grow their political independence by seeking an official nation-to-nation relationship with the United States. The rulemaking that allows it, announced last year by the U.S. Interior Department, does not attempt to reorganize a native government or dictate its structure. It allows Hawaiians to create a government of their choosing, with an option to vet it against the newly established eligibility requirements for federal recognition.
The Interior Department started accepting requests for federal recognition from Native American groups in 1978, but that pathway to self-determination was previously off limits to Native Hawaiians.
Federal recognition is harshly criticized by some Hawaiians who aspire to strip themselves completely of U.S. law and influence instead of operating within the U.S. system. Advocates for total independence hope to win an international court order that would call on the U.S. to forfeit its political and military presence in the Hawaiian islands.
As evidence, they point to a 1993 joint resolution known as the Apology Bill, in which Congress demonstrated a “deep regret to the Native Hawaiian people” for the overthrow of the kingdom there. The legislation recognized the illegality of the United States’ role in forcing Queen Lili‘uokalani out.
One challenge to the national self-governance movement is the debate from within about how the government would operate and form relationships with others once sovereignty is achieved. All three of the groups hosting workshops across the islands are pro-federal recognition, which has made many in the total independence camp wary of participating in the nation-building process.
Yet until Hawaiians erect their own government, how it would interact with the United States and others is all fantasy, said Michelle Kauhane, a writer of the constitution who has been traveling to present it to Native Hawaiian communities.
“Before you go about establishing a relationship with another government, you want to establish sovereignty for yourself,” Kauhane said. “Whether anybody recognizes us or not, there’s nothing that prevents us from standing up our government, enforcing our laws and exercising our sovereignty muscles. Folks get very wrapped up in discussing the destination without building the vessel. As a result, nothing gets done and we remain oppressed.”
Small sovereignty groups already exist in the islands, but their legitimacy is often called into question because of low membership and a lack of recognition by the U.S. government.
“Being unrecognized is weak,” Danner said. “If I form a government and no other government recognizes it, then we’re really no more than a club hiding out in the bushes.”
One such group is the Nation of Hawaii, formed in 1994 by Native Hawaiian activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele. Before he acquired a state lease for the 45-acre compound that serves as the Nation of Hawaii’s land base, Kanahele, in a gesture of defiance, led 300 people in the occupation of a popular east Oahu beach. A 15-month standoff with law enforcement ended when Hawaii Gov. John D. Waihee offered a trade for peace: A $3,000-a-year land parcel on which Kanahele and his supporters, many of them homeless, could exercise a measure of sovereignty.
Today the Nation of Hawaii has about 70 resident members. The group does not limit its membership to Native Hawaiians, since people of all ethnicities were governed by the Hawaiian Kingdom at the time of the overthrow.
Kanahele was one of 152 participants in last year’s constitutional convention. He decamped before the vote that adopted the document.
“That was like a 20-day cleanse,” said Kanahele, who is in the process of launching Aloha Coin, a virtual currency for the Nation of Hawaii. “People there were just learning about nation-building. They have no idea how to be responsible for 100 people, 200 people, 1,000 people. Their nation is in the four corners of the classroom. They are more theory; we are out here leading by example.”