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Native Hawai’ians in the United States of America

  • Profile

    Ethnicity: Native Hawai’ian

    First language/s: English, Hawai’ian

    Religion/s: Christianity

    Native Hawai’ians are the descendants of the original Polynesian settlers of Hawai’i, an eastern Pacific island chain. Formerly an independent kingdom and later a US territory, Hawai’i became the fiftieth US state in 1959. In the 2010 Census the number of Native Hawai’ians and Other Pacific Islanders was estimated at 1.2 million or 0.4 per cent of the total population: this included 540,000 Native Hawai’ian or Other Pacific Islander alone (0.2 per cent) and 685,200 (0.2 per cent) in combination with other ethnicities.  Native Hawai’ians are concentrated mainly in Hawai’i’s five counties, where they make up over a fifth of the population. Outside Hawai’i, Native Hawai’ians live mainly in California and Alaska.

    The colonial experience of Native Hawai’ians is comparable to the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide, with the added complications of tourism. The Hawai’ian tourism industry brings six times more visitors to the island every year than there are permanent residents. It has marketed the islands to the world as a historical ‘hula-hula girl’ paradise.

    Historical context

    Pre-contact Hawai’i was governed by a system of family groups and hierarchies, cultivating land on a communal basis. The natural world was regarded as a polytheistic, animistic network of familial relations. A rich culture of music, chant, poetry, dance, story and ritual supported this worldview. When white Europeans (haole) arrived in 1778 with Captain James Cook of Great Britain, they introduced a host of diseases that, within a century, reduced Hawai’i from a pre-contact population of over 800,000 to an indigenous population of fewer than 39,000.

    Hawai’i was recognized internationally as an independent kingdom from 1779 to 1893. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘big five’ US sugar companies dominated the Hawai’ian economy. To the anguish of the Hawai’ian people, Queen Lili’uokalani was forcefully overthrown by US marines in 1893, and Congress completed the process with the annexation of Hawai’i as a territory in 1898. Large numbers of Asian and US mainland labourers were imported to work the plantations; the US imposed tight economic control and established military bases. The Hawai’ian language was banned from schools, while traditional religious practices were marginalized or forbidden.

    During the Second World War, Hawai’i was placed under martial law by territorial governors. In the immediate post-war period, Japanese and Hawai’ian activists began to assume prominent roles in the local Democratic Party, which was instrumental in gaining statehood for Hawai’i in 1959. Today, no ethnic group in Hawai’i forms a majority. Institutional racism and US influence have preserved the dominance of the haole, but Japanese and Chinese residents have recovered from severe discrimination to assume powerful roles. Most Hawai’ians welcomed statehood as preferable to territorial status, but few benefits have flowed to the indigenous people.

    The US Congress allocated just over 800 sq km for Native Hawai’ians in the 1921 Homestead Land Act, and another 5,666 sq km in 1959 as ‘ceded’ lands. A series of state agencies has leased much of this land to industrial, resort or military interests, and most of the rest has never been provided the infrastructure necessary for homesteading. In 1993, President Clinton proclaimed Public Law 103-150, a public apology for the US role in the overthrow of the monarchy, but no new rights or reparations accompanied this gesture. Attempts to resolve questions of state and federal trustees’ misappropriation of lands and resources in court are frustrated by Hawai’ians’ status as ‘wards of the state’ – making Native Hawai’ians the only US group unable to sue the federal government or state for breach of trust.

    In the late 1970s, the state Democratic Party attempted to placate Native Hawai’ian pressure by establishing the Office of Hawai’ian Affairs (OHA), a semi-autonomous self-government authority. Many Hawai’ians believe that, as a state agency, the OHA has an inherent conflict of interest. Recent decades have seen the development of a large, radical Hawai’ian nationalist movement, led mostly by Hawai’ian women. The largest of about 40 groups opposed to the OHA approach is Ka Lahui Hawai’i (Hawai’ian Nation), founded in 1987 and with an enrolment of 23,000 ‘citizens’ by 1995. On 17 January 1993, over 15,000 people marched in support of Native Hawai’ian sovereignty. Ka Lahui Hawai’i opposed a state plebiscite initiative for 1996 designed to ratify wardship.

    The Hawai’ian nationalist movement has generated protest and discussion of a large number of related issues, including: the crowding, economic exploitation, pollution, land misuse and, in particular, commodification and misrepresentation of Hawai’ian culture caused by the state’s leading industry, tourism; the US military presence, which brings economic dependency, occupies and pollutes thousands of square kilometres of homelands, and may serve as a launching pad for aggression abroad; violation of sacred grounds through geothermal power extraction in the sacred Kilauea volcano on Big Island, the H-3 highway in the Halawa Valley, the disinterment of bodies from Hawai’ian burial grounds by developers and anthropologists, and the test bombing of Kaho’olawe Island; the arrest and imprisonment without bail in August 1995 of Ka Lahui Hawai’i’s official Head of State, Pu’uhonua B. Kanahele, for interfering with the arrest of a Hawai’ian protestor. US influence is heavy, and the ethnically based balance of voter influence discourages politicians from going far to accommodate Hawai’ian rights. Other minorities, notably Filipinos, fear that gains for Native Hawai’ian sovereignty will impede their own progress, while the haole minority continues to resist concrete action to compensate the islands’ indigenous peoples for colonization and to break down corporate power.

    Current issues

    Native Hawai’ians still face higher levels of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and ill-health, and lower levels of income and education, than the general US population. Native Hawai’ians also have one of the worst death and disease rates of any ethnic group in the US, and high rates of school failure, substance abuse, suicide, homelessness, welfare dependency and incarceration. According to a 2017 report issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hawai’I has the highest per capita homelessness rate of any state in the US.  Native Hawai’ians are overrepresented among the state’s homeless; in 2016, 42 per cent identified as Native Hawai’ian or Other Pacific Islander. Dramatic increases in housing costs, exacerbated by the booming tourism industry, have contributed to this trend.

    In their struggle to recover the integrity of Hawai’ian cultures, Native Hawai’ians have created a renaissance in politically charged versions of traditional arts, established immersion schools, made Hawai’ian an official state language and gained a constitutional guarantee of religious rights.

    The struggle for Native Hawai’ian self-determination gained some momentum with the proposed Senate bill, the Native Hawai’ian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, nicknamed the ‘Akaka Bill’ after its sponsor, Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawai’i. The bill, if passed, would have recognized Native Hawai’ians as an indigenous people similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and created a process for Native Hawai’ians, if they choose, to establish a government that could negotiate with the state of Hawai’i and the United States on issues such as housing, land use and cultural preservation. Those opposing the bill argue that it is unconstitutional because it would divide Hawai’i on the basis of ethnicity. On 8 June 2006, the Senate voted on a procedural motion that would have brought the bill to the floor for a full debate and vote. For that to have happened, 60 votes were needed, but the motion failed by a vote of 56 against and 41 in favour. The struggle for Native Hawai’ian self-determination will, undoubtedly, continue: in 2017, there were reports that Native Hawai’ian activists had meet to discuss the development of a constitution as a legal and constitutional blueprint.

    Land rights remains a pressing issue for Native Hawai’ians. In recent years, Native activists have been trying to stop the building of one of the world’s largest telescopes on top of Mauna Kea on Big Island. Mauna Kea is a sacred site for Native Hawai’ians. The mountain is also a crucial and fragile ecosystem, home to endangered plants and wildlife, such as the threatened palila, a bird that can only be found on its northwest slope within a narrow band of elevation.  Despite vehement protests and after legal action to try to prevent the project from going ahead, in October 2018, the state supreme court upheld the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT.

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