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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 9, 2002

Sovereignty: Out of sight, not out of mind

By John Griffin

Hawaiian sovereignty has been almost a stealth issue in recent months. It may emerge bigger this election year, but so far, it has been off the hot-button list.

Sovereignty supporter Richard Kinney waves an inverted flag to protest a bill. The movement has been quiet lately because of reasons such as Sept. 11 and focus on other issues.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 30, 1998

Various reasons are advanced. Among them:

• Sovereignty was at least a temporary casualty of the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism. "With Americans caught in a wave of patriotism, it's hard to get a focus on our claims," said one sovereignty advocate.

• Court action by anti-sovereignty groups has been so successful that some fear that present entitlements, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, homestead lands and special social programs, could be endangered along with any further rights. A new court case will be heard in coming months.

• The Akaka bill, which many hope will protect present entitlements as well as allow more, is stalled in Congress, with fading hope for passage. It is opposed by those against sovereignty and attacked by some Hawaiians, who feel U.S. rule of the Islands remains as illegal as the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy.

• In this political year, candidates have focused more on pressing issues such as education, the economy and personality politics. Last weekend's state Democratic Party convention seemed preoccupied with pep talks and what to do after Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris' withdrawal from the governor's race.

• Political bickering among Hawaiians, in OHA and elsewhere, has turned off many people. Not only is there no clear consensus on the future, there's no agreement on how to look for it. "We need a strong leader with a clear, acceptable vision," one activist said.

Still, in talking to a dozen or so people on various sides of the sovereignty issue, I was impressed that more is going on than meets the general public's eye.

For example, independence advocate Poka Laenui points to quiet meetings on related social issues and how younger Hawaiians are getting involved in politics and government to work from within. He calls it "peaceful infiltration." He and others also are active in bringing the case for Hawaiian self-determination before the United Nations and other world bodies.

Others talked of Hawaiians moving toward the Republican Party and maybe becoming a swing vote in November's election. Some leaders say they will urge favored candidates to take a stand on Hawaiian rights.

OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona says the 2-year-old Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement i modeled after an Alaska organization i will hold a broad conference in September. OHA, which has "nationhood" as one of its goals, has five seats vacant in the coming election in which non-Hawaiians are now allowed to vote.

A group concerned with promoting more dialogue between Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians is planning a new "open space" approach. That will involve larger numbers of people and encouraging new groups to form around specific issues.

Hawaiian education is getting more attention, including at the University of Hawai'i. There, Hawaiian studies professor Jon

Osorio says the various arguments on sovereignty are interesting and important, "but most important is for Hawaiians to know why the arguments are made, and what the choices are."

Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele — known as a militant for urging Waikiki tourists to go home and occupying beach land at Makapu'u in the early 1990s — now sees economic independence and education as more immediately important than politics for Hawaiians.

Kanahele's Nation of Hawai'i group still has 100 people living in modest homes on 45 orderly acres of state-leased land in Waimanalo. But his emphasis is on broader-based programs for economic realignment, including plans for two banks (51 percent Hawaiian-owned) on Maui and O'ahu.

Demonstrators surround ‘Iolani Palace in 1996 to mark the 103rd anniversary of the monarchy’s overthrow.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 18, 1996

So much goes on. You can get some idea by typing in "Hawaiian sovereignty" on any Web search site such as Yahoo! or Google. That brings an array of Web sites, including those of anti-sovereignty organizations.

And yet vital decisions remain on form and approach. Among the possibilities:

• Full independence, with or without restoration of the monarchy. This could be exclusive, meaning for Hawaiians only, or inclusive of non-Hawaiians, with or without dual citizenship. Independence as a long-term goal does not rule out another status first.

• Nation within a nation. This could give Hawaiians limited self-government, more land to control, and status akin to American Indian tribes or Alaska's Inuit. The Akaka bill would move in this direction.

• Free Association. This would be similar to the status of some parts of Micronesia, which govern themselves but let Washington control defense and other foreign affairs in return for financial and other benefits. Few advocate this now.

• Anti-sovereignty groups would have Hawaiians treated like any other Americans in what some call a color-blind approach. This issue will play out in court cases, possibly in passage of the Akaka bill in some form, and in Hawai'i public opinion.

• Nobody I talked with advocated violence, and most said it was not in the collective Hawaiian character today. But one said, "There could be bloodshed if Hawaiian land is threatened."

And a woman activist mentioned that "in the early 1990s, there was a group training with guns."

I asked Kanahele about the possibility of violence back then. He said several men approached him. "They thought I was headed in that direction and were pissed off when I didn't approve ... I'm for 100 percent aloha."

There it sits, then, an issue that has been subdued yet won't go away.

My own feelings go like this:

I think it's wrong to screw people out of their independent nation-state, which is what happened with the 1893 overthrow by a small group of non-Hawaiian residents with the aid of the U.S. minister and American troops. The 1993 apology bill enacted by Congress has it right.

Some form of redress is in order. It's now up to Hawaiians to decide what they want. But that has to be something acceptable to most of the other people in Hawai'i. Independence as a distant possibility doesn't bother me, if that is what all the people want. With globalization and possible confederations, our nation and world may look much different before this century is over.

I have respect for the intentions, emotions and legal skills of some sovereignty opponents. They have won some important court battles. But I don't share the view that sovereignty demands are essentially racist (even though some Hawaiians have race-based attitudes).

This is not like a minority issue, giving special rights to African Americans, Latinos or Asian Americans. It's about a nation taken away, and also about a culture smashed. Hawaiians may not be exactly the same as American Indians with their various tribes, but Hawaiians are akin to other Native Americans Washington has recognized amid hundreds of treaties.

Whether then-independent Hawai'i could have remained uncolonized in the jingoistic 19th century is an open question. Looking ahead, I honestly don't know if sovereignty would unite the Hawaiian people, giving them a purpose and strength many now see as lacking. There's also a need for something I would call "inner sovereignty," a drive from within. Some Hawaiians are working on that.

But that's also beside the main point. The point is that, while it won't come soon or easy, Hawaiian sovereignty in some acceptable form should be a goal and should emerge as a matter of essential justice.