Hawaiians take first step to reclaim native paradise

David Usborne on rumblings in the 50th state
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The Independent Online
Kauai - The legions of tanning tourists wedged side by side on the beaches of Waikiki may not notice, but Hawaii, America's paradise state, is expected today to take a tentative first step towards wresting back some of the autonomy it was robbed of by an invading force of United States marines more than a century ago.

Barring any last-minute legal obstacles, state officials are this morning scheduled to announce the results of a postal referendum held earlier this summer, in which native Hawaiians were asked to vote on whether to begin debating the re-establishment of some form of sovereign self-rule. If, as expected, the majority says Yes, a process will begin that could, in the most radical of scenarios, lead to the ultimate secession of America's fiftieth state from the Union.

The referendum is the product of a growing, if highly factionalised, grass-roots move-ment that has been growing among indigenous Hawaiians since the 1970s. Its goal, as well as to rekindle awareness of native Hawaiian culture, has been to seek recompense for the events of 1893, when, at the urging of US businessmen irked by sugar tariffs, the marines stormed into Honolulu and overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani.

It is barely three decades since Hawaii voted overwhelmingly in 1959 to move on from its status as a territory of the US and to become a fully- fledged state. The sense of grievance that has surfaced since then has been fuelled in part by the relatively impoverished position of native Hawaiians in the state's multi-ethnic society. Making up roughly 13 per cent of a population of 1.2 million, native Hawaiians suffer disproportionally from low income and high levels of ill-health, homelessness and incarceration.

Anger at the federal government is also fed by land-ownership disputes. At the time of the invasion - an act that, even then, provoked an official apology from the US President, Grover Cleveland - roughly 2 million acres of native land were seized from native Hawaiians. Much of that land still houses federal institutions such as US military bases.

"If the result is Yes, we can at last start talking about what kind of sovereignty we want,"said Lulani McKenzie, the executive director of the Sovereignty Elections Council.

The plebiscite was almost derailed at the last moment by two lawsuits alleging that it was unconstitutional because it was reserved only for the roughly 80,000 native Hawaiians on the island. A federal judge ruled only on Friday that the results could be unsealed, barring any eleventh- hour court stay. But he added that a trial to determine the constitutionality of the poll could be held.

A Yes vote would lead to the election of a 100-member convention of native delegates charged with proposing the best solution. Ms McKenzie believes the possibilities range from a demand for control of the lost native lands to a request for full Hawaiian independence.

Complicating the process, however, is the considerable disunity of the various native organisations. Among the most influential is the Ka Lahui Hawaii. Though it is fiercely sovereigntist, it objected to the referendum being sponsored by the state government and urged its members to boycott it.

Thus Iokepa DeSantos, who is half Hawaiian and half Portuguese and Chinese, ignored the ballot even though he is passionately sovereigntist. While he admits that the treatment of natives may have improved, he remains angry at how it used to be.

"My grandfather and father were tormented. Children could be beaten at school if it was found that their parents were allowing them to speak Hawaiian," he said. "I just think [the referendum] is too soon. We need to buy time to help all Hawaiians properly understand what they are voting on."

Some natives argue for the status quo in part out of fear of losing federal benefits if sovereignty is pursued. "I don't think it's the right thing to do," said Butch Soares, a hula dance instructor on the island of Kauai. "I want to have social security when I'm old."

For certain, the search for sovereignty, in whatever form, will be a long one. But a Yes result today will launch a process to give back to indigenous Hawaiians at least something of what they lost.

"We must all remember that this beautiful place we call home was once their kingdom," said Ben Cayetano, the state Governor, recently. "Few dispute that their land was stolen. And along with their land, the economic base, their culture, and their dignity. We must make amends to native Hawaiians. Justice demands it."

How the Americans moved in

In 1893, marines stormed into Honolulu and overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani. The islands became a US territory, then in 1959 a fully-fledged state. Since then the 80,000 native Hawaiians, in a population of 1.2 million, have remained relatively impoverished.

A divided grass roots movement, seeking recompense and renewed awareness of Hawaiian culture, has been growing since the 1970s.