Hawaiians vote for greater independence

In search of sovereignty: In Europe and the Pacific, old political systems will have to adapt to calls for greater autonomy
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The Independent Online
Native Hawaiians voted overwhelmingly in favour of self- government in a referendum held earlier this summer, organisers said, even though formal release of the poll's results was delayed at the last moment.

About 80,000 Hawaiians of indigenous descent were asked whether they favoured electing delegates to a convention to consider self-government which could range from the creation of a nation within a nation within the United States' 50th state to the secession of Hawaii from the Union.

"It's very definitely a 'yes' vote," Poka Laenui, a member of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council said. He noted that the ballots had been colour-coded yellow for "yes" and pink for "'no" and that the ballots cast had been overwhelmingly yellow.

Further progress was unexpectedly halted, however, by a US district court in California. The stay will allow a further hearing into a lawsuit lodged by a non-native resident of Hawaii who claims the referendum discriminated against non-Hawaiians and was unconstitutional. Many native Hawaiians believe they have been treated as second- class citizens in their own land ever since the overthrow by US Marines of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Hawaii remained a territory of the US until it became a state in 1959.

The stay, issued minutes before the formal results were to be released on Monday, infuriated election council officials. "We're very disappointed," said Jon Van Dyke, the lawyer for the council. "But I'd be very surprised if the stay lasted very long." It was unclear when the hearing would take place.

Undaunted, Sol Kahoohalahala, the council chairman, declared: "We waited 100 years. What's another day or so? We're going to come through. We're going to be victorious."

Hawaii's tentative move towards greater autonomy is part of a wave of movements towards self-government amongst the world's indigenous peoples. But Aidan Rankin, of Survival International, said that in global terms their progress towards self-determination showed "a patchwork of losses and gains".

Technically, America's Indian tribes are already "sovereign" nations. In fact their position is complex. On reservations, Native American and not US law prevails in many areas - a situation upheld by a 1978 ruling of the US Supreme Court that federal courts had no jurisdiction to protect the civil rights of a Native American living on the reservation. But Native Americans hold federal citizenship and pay most federal taxes, while Congress has "plenary powers" over them, including the right to abolish entire tribes.

In Australia the Aborigines scored a significant victory in 1992 when the High Court declared void the the legal concept of terra nullius, on which modern Australia was founded. This said the country was empty when Europeans arrived. The Mabo judgment sent shockwaves through the business, legal and political establishments, and the government moved quickly to enshrine the judgment's findings in legislation, though the battle for Aboriginal rights is far from over.

In New Zealand, a proposed law would return and - leased in perpetuity by New Zealanders of European descent - to the Maoris. Many leases date from when land was forcibly handed over to British settlers.

Many indigenous Canadians argue they have never ceded sovereignty to the colonists. The Canadian constitution protects aboriginal rights for hunting and trapping as well as the right to "self-determination". In 1999, the territory of Nunavut will be created in the Canadian Arctic where about 30,000 Inuit people will control 2.2 million square kilometres, or one-fifth of the Canadian land mass.

Canada, Mr Rankin said, showed how the patchwork of progress and regression can co-exist in one country.