Courtesy Wesleyan University
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University

Hawaiian Sovereignty 101: The Growing Fight for Native Independence

Gale Courey Toensing
6/28/14

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 103-150 – an apology to the Hawaiian people for overthrowing their government and stealing their land 100 years earlier. The apology acknowledges the illegality of the U.S. government's military-backed regime change of ''the sovereign Hawaii nation'' in 1893 and its support for the illegally created ''provisional government'' in violation of treaties and international law. There’s been a Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement ever since.

The late Sen. Daniel Inouye and former Sen. Daniel Akaka tried unsuccessfully for a dozen years to pass legislation granting federal recognition to Native Hawaiians – even though they aren’t an American Indian tribe. Now, in the face of a growing sovereignty movement of Native Hawaiians who want their country back, the Interior Department is exploring whether to establish a government-to-government relationship with “the Native Hawaiian community.”

RELATED: Working on Acknowledgment – Interior’s New Hawaiian Recognition Initiative

ICTMN interviewed J. Kēhaulani Kauanui for some insight into the thinking behind the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. A longtime critic of federal recognition in the Hawaiian context, Kauanui is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University whose research specialty is on Native Hawaiian sovereignty, indigenous politics and decolonization. She is the author of Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Duke University Press, 2008).

How does the Interior Department initiative through the executive branch look in light of the 14 years of the Akaka bill that failed through the legislative branch?

This seems to be a last ditch effort driven by the trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) to go the executive route since the legislative path did not work out for those wanting federal recognition. [According to the OHA website, the state government created the OHA in 1979 and funds it. Its mission is to “protect Hawai'i's people and environmental resources and OHA's assets, toward ensuring the perpetuation of the culture, the enhancement of lifestyle and the protection of entitlements of Native Hawaiians, while enabling the building of a strong and healthy Hawaiian people and nation, recognized nationally and internationally.” In fiscal year 2012 its total assets were $609,513,307.]

Without the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye's seniority in the U.S. Senate, and now retired Senator Daniel Akaka's political and symbolic clout as initial sponsor of the legislative proposal, it seems that officials of the "50th state" are pushing to go this alternative route, which could be facilitated given the possible changes to the regulations.

RELATED: Federal Recognition Proposal Praised – Except for CT’s ‘Third Party’ Veto

Who among the Hawaiian people support this initiative and why?

Many Native Hawaiians support this effort because they have been told that it is the only thing politically feasible. From 2000-2012 when the Akaka bill was on and off the table, and repeatedly revised to suit both conservatives in the U.S. Congress and "50th state" officials, those driving the proposal repeatedly misrepresented the legislation as one that would offer parity with federally recognized Indian tribes.

This was a farce since the dividing wedge over the last bill was when the state insisted that the sovereignty of any recognized Native Hawaiian governing entity would be "delegated" rather than recognized as "inherent." But even if regarded as "inherent," fed-rec would not resolve the contradiction between the existence of the Hawaiian Kingdom as an independent state and the push to convert that entity into a domestic dependent nation within U.S. federal policy. What's more, the legislative proposal made it clear that the 50th state would have both civil and criminal jurisdiction over that "Native Hawaiian governing entity"! Why? With no territory, there's no allowance for even limited jurisdiction over civil and criminal jurisdiction like most tribal nations exercise.

What about the growing number of Hawaiians who consider their country illegally occupied according to international law?

Like the Akaka bill that was reintroduced time and again from 2000-2012, federal recognition – whether through the legislative branch or the executive branch – is an effort by the U.S. government and its subsidiary, "the 50th state," to extinguish the outstanding sovereignty claims to national sovereignty under international law since if a substantial proportion of the Hawaiian people go the domestic route, their participation in the legal fiction could be used as evidence of acquiescence.

RELATED: No Aloha: Native Hawaiians Against Interior’s Relationship Proposal

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