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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's a shame we can't celebrate statehood


By David Shapiro

The first thing you see on the home page of the Alaska Statehood Celebration Commission is a picture of joyously smiling Alaskans when they became the 49th U.S. state on Jan. 3, 1959.

There was similar jubilation in Hawai'i when we became the 50th state on Aug. 21, 1959 and pictures to prove it but you see none of these on the home page of our 50th Anniversary of Statehood Commission, which takes pains to project nothing celebratory about this event.

Alaskans started counting down to their 50th anniversary with a big New Year's Eve ball a year before and marked the anniversary itself with a gala featuring national and international dignitaries.

In between, celebrations around the state featured parades, dances, concerts, fairs, fireworks, forums, historical recreations and air shows.

The only event so far marking Hawai'i's 50th anniversary was a low-key joint session of the Legislature on March 18, the date President Eisenhower signed the Admissions Act.

The state will observe the Aug. 21 anniversary with a one-day conference billed "New Horizons for the Next 50 Years."

There will be no official parades or parties to celebrate the historic day. The 25-member planning commission appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature avoids the word "celebration" in favor of "commemoration."

The effect is to convey to the rest of the nation that we're conflicted about statehood like we're holding our noses as we suckle the federal aid that props up our economy.

It comes on top of other signs of our civic disengagement such as bottom-scraping voter turnout in a presidential election with a Hawai'i-born candidate.

Statehood Day used to be a major holiday in Hawai'i, reflecting the overwhelming 94.3 percent public vote in 1959 in favor of joining the union, but celebrations fizzled as discontent grew among Hawaiians over unsettled native claims.

The conflict came to the surface three years ago when a group led by state Sen. Sam Slom drew angry protests by holding an in-your-face Statehood Day celebration at 'Iolani Palace, a place of special significance to Hawaiian nationalists.

Shortly after, Lingle and the Legislature set in motion their commission charged with making it look like we were doing something for the 50th anniversary without actually doing anything that could lead to further unpleasantness.

It all points up perhaps the greatest difference between Hawai'i and Alaska in the statehood experience.

The federal government settled claims of Alaskan natives in the 1970s out of fear that their unrest could disrupt oil drilling in the state.

There was a move to also settle Hawaiian claims stemming from the overthrow of their monarchy, but with nothing so valuable as oil at stake, the Reagan administration deemed that Hawaiians had no legitimate claims and left the raw feelings to fester for another quarter-century.

Blowing off the 50th anniversary is a lost opportunity on many levels.

The statehood commission's conference on Hawai'i's future might have been useful if it had been a yearlong effort aimed at truly engaging the community in a discussion of our feelings about statehood and how we might heal our differences.

But a one-day event with thin participation is mostly for show and without lasting impact.

Beyond politics, we could have used a good party to boost our spirits in these dark economic times and a party worth being at could have given our visitor industry a needed lift.

It's just sad that our community has become so fractured that we can't let out even a little "hip, hip hooray" on a day any other state would find to be cause for great celebration.