HONOLULU — Mshrslsni Ksmsu'u ran leaping from her tiny schoolhouse. Bells rang wildly. Excitement spilled into Hawaii's palm-shaded streets. At every turn, adults cheered. Children danced the hula.
The year was 1959 and Hawaii citizens had elected (by a 17-to-1 margin) to become America's 50th state. Ms. Kamau'u, then a fourth-grader in Honolulu, recalls one thing vividly: "It was a good thing.... No one said it was bad."
Thirty-seven years later, Kamau'u, now a member of the state-funded Hawaii Sovereignty Elections Council, is out front fighting to reverse that day in history. "It's time," she says softly. "Time we got our lands back."
This month, in the most important vote here since statehood, 80,000 indigenous Hawaiians are being asked whether they want to start the process of creating their own government.
Capping a 20-year quest by many native Hawaiians for more self-determination, the vote could radically change life in the 50th state - and holds implications for the rest of the US and other Pacific islands.
A yes vote would lead to a new, but as yet undecided, form of government. Models range from the radical (restoration of Hawaii as a sovereign nation, with or without a US military presence) to the more subtle (a system similar to that of mainland native Americans, where tribal bodies have been given legal authority).
Yet the plebiscite isn't without controversy. It has been marked by ballot burning and legal challenges. The opposition is coming from some indigenous Hawaiians themselves, who believe they are being misled by the government to participate in a vote that will foreclose rather than facilitate true self-determination.
"I think there's a trick here," says Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
On the ballot, voting-age Hawaiians are being asked a single question: "Shall the Hawaiian people elect delegates to propose a Native Hawaiian government?" People of Hawaiian descent living on the islands, the US mainland, and other parts of the world are participating in the mail-in vote. The deadline to return ballots is Aug. 15, and results are scheduled to be announced Sept. 2, pending a ruling on two lawsuits that challenge the vote's constitutionality.
If the vote is yes, preliminary plans call for 100 to 200 Hawaiian delegates to be elected and begin the tedious process of shaping the islands' future. It's too early to tell which direction Hawaiians might go, other than to say it will involve change. In looking for possible government models, one group is casting an eye toward New Zealand, a sovereign state whose government is based on the British parliamentary system. Another is looking at Tahiti, a territory granted partial self-government by the French in 1977. Still a third option is to set up a "free association" government, allowing dual citizenship.
Last fall, the Honolulu Advertiser found that more than half of 400 Hawaiians surveyed said they favored the idea of sovereignty, but the less radical the better. More than half also said a sovereign Hawaiian nation should still be governed by state and federal laws.
Whatever the outcome, and little change is expected before 2000, the skyline that springs from concrete jungles in Honolulu and Waikiki will remain intact. Convoys of jets will continue to ferry deep-pocketed tourists here.
Yet supporters of self-determination believe a new system of government could alter the pace and look of future development. Lulani McKenzie, executive director of the Sovereignty Elections Council, the group administering the vote, envisions a "healthier tourism for the long-term environment of the islands. You don't have to have overdevelopment from huge, mass resorts," she says. "It's too late for Waikiki. But it's starting to happen on the Neighbor Islands and that can be stopped."
Ms. McKenzie sees more village-type resorts with genuine Polynesian culture. Like other Hawaiian leaders, she also foresees the growth of international banking - a plum that could lift dependence on the service industry. "We've relied on tourism since ... statehood," she says. "After an initial transition period, you could ... develop an economic model for the new independent nation of Hawaii."
The push toward self-determination first gained momentum in 1976 when, after a long struggle and many arrests, Hawaiian activists rallied to stop the US Navy from target-bombing remote Kahoolawe Island. The victory was emotional for Hawaiians and began a sort of Polynesian renaissance.
Two years later, during a constitutional convention, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was created to oversee money derived from 2 million acres of ceded land once belonging to the Hawaiian crown government. Twenty percent of the revenue, millions of dollars annually, is supposed to go directly to native Hawaiians through education, housing, and other programs.
But many people remain angry that most of the profits from the lands are funneled to the state, while Hawaiians struggle on their own soil. While people of full or partial Hawaiian descent make up 13 percent of the islands' 1.2 million people, they suffer the worst poverty and are the most incarcerated of all races, which include whites, Japanese, and Chinese.
With their own government, Hawaiians would have a rare opportunity to regain complete control of ceded lands. "It's like I am opening the avenue for you to come and reclaim your stolen property," says Dennis Kanahele, an outspoken Hawaiian activist. A "no" vote on the referendum, Mr. Kanahele says, will show that Hawaiians are content with business as usual.
Yet critics worry that the government will use this plebiscite to stymie Hawaiian independence, and somehow illustrate that natives don't want responsibility for their land. They question the state's $1.8-million funding of the Elections Council: Why would the government pay for a process that could rob it of control?
Lawsuits to stop the vote have been filed in federal court. Anti-plebiscite commercials are running that urge voters to rip up ballots. "There have been physical threats," says one election consultant. "This has become way more than I ever thought it would be."
But the Elections Council's Kamau'u says the opposition represents only a small fraction of Hawaiians. Anything is possible, she says of the potential for a new direction for Hawaii.