Hawaiians say Goodbye to Aloha: A campaign to reclaim Polynesian land and culture threatens ties with the United States

BEHIND the 'Aloha' welcome and the lei garlands of island flowers, all is not well in Hawaii. Two hundred years after Captain Cook's first landfall, the native Polynesians want their culture back.

Fed up with their lowly walk-on role as extras in the islands' all-embracing tourist industry, they are advocating change so radical that it could sever ties with Washington. Their campaign for Hawaiian 'sovereignty', a cause never taken seriously by the islands' other races - the Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and European settlers - has suddenly gained a new momentum.

'There will be no more Aloha for the tourists', says Kaleikoa Kaeo, 27, a teacher of the Hawaiian language and an activist on the most radical wing of the emerging pro-sovereignty movement. 'It is about time that we, as Hawaiian people, demand our rights. We can use the tourists as a tool. We will go to the airport and the beaches and ask them not to come.'

With a history of subjugation that can be traced back to that first contact with Cook - who in 1778 came across the island archipelago by accident as he searched north from Tahiti for the legendary north-west passage to the Atlantic - native Hawaiians have long been in a numerical minority at the bottom of the social heap in their own land. Today, only one-fifth of the 1.2 million population can claim even a drop of aboriginal blood. And all the worst social statistics are theirs: jailings, homelessness, low life-expectancy and so on.

While sovereignty sentiment has been rising among native Hawaiians since the late 1970s, events this year have suddenly combined to give it a new drive and credibility. Most importantly, this year has seen the 100th anniversary of an event that most on the American mainland, and even in Hawaii, had long forgotten about: the overthrow in 1893 of Queen Liliukalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, by a cabal of white businessmen.

The date itself, 17 January, was marked by a two-day rally of about 15,000 supporters of native sovereignty outside the Iolani Palace in Honolulu - the only royal palace in the US - and the temporary lowering, by order of Hawaii's governor, John Waihee, of the US flag from the State Capitol.

What has followed has shocked even some native activists by its swiftness. A commission has been set up by the state legislature to examine options for granting native Hawaiians self-determination within the state. It is due to finish its work this week and formally recommend the holding next year of a referendum on native sovereignty. Just as startling was a bill passed by the US Congress two weeks ago, belatedly apologising to the Hawaiian people for the overthrow of Liliukalani, and pledging to 'provide a proper foundation for reconciliation between the United States and the native Hawaiian people'.

Last month, Congress also moved to answer one of the most potent of the native grievances, approving a bill ordering the return to Hawaii of the island of Kahoolawe, used by the US Navy since the Second World War as a bombing target. The bill stipulates that, on its return, the island - named after Kanaloa, the god of the ocean, and covered in archeological remains - should be held in trust by the State of Hawaii only until the 'native Hawaiian entity' is finally established, which will then take possession of it.

The battle to reclaim the island stems from 1976. Members of the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (family) began by illegally crossing the seven-mile channel between Kahoolawe and Maui and staging brief occupations; two died on one such expedition. In 1990, they persuaded the US military at least to end the bombing. Throughout that time Ohana leaders have taken groups, sometimes of 100, to the island to tend the ruins and practise Hawaiian religious rituals. They can barely believe the war has been won.

The US Navy has been granted dollars 400m ( pounds 270m) in federal funds to clear the island of munitions within 10 years. Plans discussed by the Ohana include establishing a celestial navigation school on the island and re-creating ancient canoe voyages between Hawaii and the other Polynesian islands, which, scholars believe, used to be launched from Kahoolawe's southern tip.

Frenchy De Soto, an Ohana member and a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, set up in 1978 to promote native interests, emphasises the importance of the island's return. 'Kahoolawe is a symbol of what has been done to us,' she explains. But its rescue can mark only the beginning of a process. 'It is an important place to begin a healing for our people. Many have attached themselves and their political idiom to Kahoolawe. But deeper than that, it is the very basis of who we are.'

Despite the progress of the past few weeks, the future remains uncertain. The immediate step will be the recommendation for a referendum that will, according to state commission member, Kinau Kamalii, be open to any Hawaiian who can 'at least trace some ancestry beyond Captain Cook'. They will be asked whether a conference should be convened to agree upon a model for self-determination.

That Hawaiians will back the holding of the conference is not in doubt; what model may eventually be agreed upon is another matter. Mrs Kamalii foresees something akin to that granted to native Indians on the mainland: the not necessarily advantageous status of a nation within a nation.

The signs of dissent are already visible. The biggest sovereignty faction, the Ka Lahui Hawai'i, which dominated the Iolani Palace rally, is boycotting the commission's work, claiming that its members are puppets of the state. It has already proclaimed the existence of a native nation within Hawaii and, with funds provided partly by the US federal government, has been carrying out training sessions in the skills of government.

Crucially, nothing has happened yet to defuse the issue at the heart of Hawaiian sovereignty movement: land ownership. The grievance of native Hawaiians is twofold. In 1959, when Hawaii voted for US statehood, the federal government returned to the state 1.2 million acres of former Hawaiian crown lands. None has been passed on to the native population. Worse, 200,000 acres of land set aside for native Hawaiians by a homesteading act of Congress in 1921, have largely been given over to commercial developers.

It is anger over the land that has driven some, such as Kaleikoa Kaeo, to propose not just self-determination, but secession from the US. So far, it is only a fringe view. But as the eruption of sovereignty spirit in Hawaii has already shown, what is currently regarded as extreme may quickly move into the native mainstream.

(Photograph omitted)

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