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Native Hawaiians Call for Sovereignty

A century after American business interests overthrew their monarchy, Hawaii's Na Kanaka Maoli demand autonomy and ancestral lands

By Sally-Jo BowmanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 11, 1993


IN mid-January Honolulu will step back a century with a re-enactment of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. The event was accomplished by a group of mostly American businessmen, bolstered by a contingent of United States marines called out by the US minister to the kingdom.

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For Na Kanaka Maoli - the native Hawaiian people - the scene near 'Iolani Palace will be no mere curious piece of theater. Rather, it will be an enactment of living history that remains an unresolved issue. It is part of a growing call to restore political sovereignty to the largest group of indigenous people in the US still not recognized by the federal government.

The Hawaiians also plan a series of vigils Jan. 15 to 17. This month not only marks the centennial anniversary of the coup d'etat, but it is also the beginning of the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, as proclaimed by the United Nations.

A decade ago, the few Hawaiians who publicly advocated native sovereignty in the 50th state of the US were dismissed even in the Hawaiian community as the radical fringe.

Today, the idea has the backing of dozens of native groups with memberships that include well-educated and articulate lawyers and scholars as well as judges, physicians, and business leaders. Last October, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by Hawaii Democrat Daniel K. Akaka, a native Hawaiian, apologizing to Hawaiians for the "illegal overthrow" of their government.

Other support comes from some of the 84 percent of the state's 1.2 million citizens who are not native Hawaiian. The most powerful of these is Hawaii's senior US senator, Daniel K. Inouye, a man of Japanese ancestry and the Democrat who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Senator Inouye has repeatedly said he supports the federal policy of self-determination.

Like American Indian nations, Inouye says, Hawaiians "also entered into treaties with the United States, but the native Hawaiian government was subsequently overthrown with the support and aid of the United States government - much like the conquering of the Indian nations. Vast amounts of land were ceded to the United States by the native Hawaiian government."

In 1893, a small group of white businessmen seeking to maximize and stabilize profits in sugar and related industries expected the US to annex the islands immediately after the usurpers took control of Hawaii. But Queen Lili'uokalani "yielded to the superior force of the United States" under protest and only until such time as the US conducted an investigation and returned her to her throne.

Before Congress could consider an annexation treaty, newly elected Democratic President Grover Cleveland appointed just-retired congressman James Blount to investigate. The Blount report recommended restoring the monarchy, and President Cleveland himself decried the US role in the overthrow. But his call for the US "to vindicate its honor and its sense of justice by an earnest effort to make all possible reparations" languished, and on July 4, 1894, the provisional government declared the independent "Re public of Hawaii."

William McKinley, a pro-annexation Republican, was elected president in 1896. Two years later, the US annexed Hawaii - without a vote of Hawaii's electorate - in a period of expansionist island-seizing from which the US emerged with control of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippines, Guam, and Samoa in the Pacific.

With Hawaiian sovereignty went some 1.6 million acres of crown and government lands, which many Hawaiians now want returned as a native land base. It's a sizable amount - about 40 percent - in a state with an area of only 4.1 million acres. Almost 20 percent of the "ceded lands" are in federal use for national parks or military installations. Some of the remaining land under state jurisdiction is used for facilities like the Honolulu International Airport.