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The Politics of Statehood in Hawai‘i and the Urgency of Non-Statist Decolonization

Kiaʻi (protectors) gather together for noon ceremony on July 20, 2019 at the base of Mauna Kea. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Uahikea Maile.

As I reflect on the 60th anniversary of the United States claiming the Hawaiian Islands as the 50th state of the union, August 21, 1959, I want to call attention to something powerful unfolding at a place of refuge, established at the base of Maunakea (aka Mauna a Wākea and Mauna Kea), a sacred mountain on the Hawai‘i Island that iscurrently under threat.  The Royal Order of Kamehameha declared the sanctuary—called Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu—in collaboration with, and in support of the kiaʻi (protectors) of Maunakea at sunrise on July 13, 2019. The Royal Order is an order of knighthood established by Kamehameha V in 1865, to promote and defend the Hawaiian sovereignty, and thus to honor the legacy of his grandfather who established the monarchy. In Hawaiian tradition, during times of conflict, a Puʻuhonua is a place designated to provide safety and protection.

The pronouncement was made in advance of what was to be the start of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.4 billion project for an eighteen-story observatory on the summit of this mountain (the highest in the world at 32,000 feet, from seafloor to summit). That same weekend over three thousand individuals gathered at the site, to effectively halt construction trucks from ascending the mountain.  At the time of this writing the blockade is still active. Thus far, it has survived the police arresting dozens of elders the first weekend and the state governor’s July 17 declaration of a “state emergency”—an excuse to call in the National Guard along with riot police from several other islands. But the kia‘i are still there now, holding steadfast to protect the site

The Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu can be seen as a microcosm of the history of Hawai‘i’s (U.S.) statehood and earlier American encroachment. In both cases, the settler colonial state breaches its own laws, degrades the Hawaiian people’s culture, and abuses our homeland in the name of “progress” and “development.” All this while destroying the environment and island ecosystems for profit and violating the collective will of Kanaka Maoli governance.

Following a protracted legal battle, on October 30, 2018, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled in favor of the TMT and affirmed the Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to issue a permit. By June 2019, the governor issued a notice for development to proceed, and announced that construction would commence on July 15, 2019. The TMT project desecrates the sacred site and causes gross ecological damage to the Maunakea aquifer. Additionally, it violates the state of Hawai‘i’s responsibility to manage “public lands” (constituted in part by Mauna Kea) and to fulfill constitutional and statutory obligations to Kanaka Maoli.

Looking deeper at the politics of land in the islands, one finds that the “public lands” are stolen lands. They are the Crown Lands of the Kingdom, which the U.S. government itself admitted were stolen in the 1993 U.S. apology acknowledging the illegality of the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893. The apology states: “the indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States, either through their monarchy or through a plebiscite or referendum.”[1] That language implicitly references both the overthrow and annexation, as well as the fraudulent statehood vote of 1959.

The U.S. annexation of the islands effectively masked an illegal occupation of an independent state, which followed the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.  After annexation, the U.S. government treated Hawaiʻi as a colonial territory, and in 1946 added it to the United Nations’ (U.N.) list of non-self-governing territories in compliance with Chapter XI of the U.N. Charter. The Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories, Article 73, delineates the obligations of members of the U.N. regarding territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government. These obligations included promoting the well-being of inhabitants and the development of self-government.[2] Although Hawai‘i already had a nation-state recognized the world over by the end of the nineteenth century, and therefore had already “attained a full measure of self-government,” Hawaiʻi was on that list until 1959, when the U.S. administration held a plebiscite to deny a chance at restoring full independence. This vote was a sham in that it only offered two “choices”—remain a colony or become a state of the United States—while also allowing settlers and military personnel a vote on the question of political status.  Moreover, the referendum also preempted the application of protocols established by the 1960 U.N. Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which were already under negotiation at the time of the 1959 Hawai‘i vote.

In his important book, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2006), New York Times foreign correspondent, Stephen Kinzer, argues that the case of Hawaiʻi served as the model for subsequent U.S.-backed regime changes, given how the elite white minority worked in collaboration with the U.S. Marines, and Washington’s local representative to conspire to remove Queen Liliuʻokalani from the throne in order to protect the continental U.S. sugar market.[3] Yet, although Kinzer argues that the Hawaiʻi case set the paradigm, he remains an apologist for the Hawaiian case by setting it apart from the other case studies by wrongly claiming that there was no resistance there because Native Hawaiians gained so much by becoming fully incorporated within the United States. Kinzer further suggests that Native Hawaiians are pleased with statehood, and that when the U.S. government assumes responsibility for the territories it seizes, “it can lead toward stability and happiness”[4] – eliding continuing settler colonial domination entirely.

Kanaka Maoli continue to endure the structural violence of settler colonialism. It includes: ongoing institutional racism, military expansion, criminalization, homelessness, disproportionately high incarceration rates, low life expectancy, high mortality, and high suicide, the constant unearthing of traditional burials to make way for hotels and private housing developments, economically compelled outmigration, and many more outrages – not least, of which is ongoing land expropriation and the desecration of sacred sites.[5] Maunakea is one such case.

In my new book, Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism, I advance a critical study of contemporary statist Hawaiian nationalism as manifested in two political projects: the bid for federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian Governing Entity, and independence claim that calls for U.S. deoccupation and restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom.[6] The project offers a focus on mid-twentieth-century Hawaiian social changes concerning land tenure, as well as gender roles and sexual relations. The newly established Hawaiian Kingdom (founded in 1810, the real date of Hawai‘i statehood) was able to secure international recognition by the 1840s and later, by all European nations, once it had conformed to Western norms, including the privatized of land, the legal subordination of women, and the active criminalization of a range of sexual practices. Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty rethinks the status of the Hawaiian Kingdom and indigeneity for envisioning Hawaiian decolonization, liberation, and self-determination. As I argue, since coloniality does not just disappear with political and historical decolonization—and because neither federal recognition nor deoccupation alone can remedy settler colonialism, we need enduring decolonial modes of restructuring our world that are non-statist. Thus, I suggest that it is imperative to reconsider Hawaiian indigeneity as an epistemological resource for rethinking land, gender, sexuality, and the very concept of sovereignty. We must look to indigenous values that are not premised on gender supremacy, sexual subordination, destructive land tenure practices, and capitalist exploitation – in order to suggest a new ethics of relationality that are life sustaining. And this is precisely what is unfolding at Maunakea.

We see through the indigenous resurgence at Maunakea a reassertion of Hawaiian knowledge and ways of being by the protectors who are engaged in traditional protocols, ceremonies, chant, hula, and song—all guided by the enduring principle of aloha ‘āina (love of the land). Kanaka Maoli there (and elsewhere) are engaged in stewardship that centers decolonial and nonproprietary relationships between and among people and all living entities, what we might call self-determination (but none of which hinge on state recognition).  Their actions are deeply grounded in a Hawaiian ethics of care and responsibility while creating meaningful alternatives, with decolonized gender roles and sexuality front and center in terms of the prominence of Hawaiian women’s activism, as well as māhū (nonbinary gender) and individuals in same-sex relationships not having to downplay their orientations. We see the direct action and mobilization of people on the front lines there moving in unity, backed by the elders with the youth guiding the way.

The political struggle to free Hawai‘i is linked to a range of diverse global struggles currently unfolding, from the U.S.-Mexico border to Kashmir, from Palestine to Puerto Rico! As Pua Case—one of the plaintiffs in the legal battle to stop the TMT who is coordinating the blockade as a protector—put it, “Our Mountain is a symbol of unity for the entire world. It is a symbol of how to stand when you must protect the sacred, protect your world that you live in, protect your resources and your source and your life ways.”[7]

Kēhaulani Kauanui is Professor of American Studies and affiliate faculty in Anthropology at Wesleyan University, where she teaches courses on indigenous studies, critical race studies, settler colonial studies, and anarchist studies. She is the author of Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity (Duke University Press 2008) and Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (Duke University Press 2018). She is also the editor of Speaking of Indigenous Politics: Conversations with Activists, Scholars, and Tribal Leaders (University of Minnesota Press 2018). Kauanui is one of the six original co-founders of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), established in 2008.


[1] United States Public Law 103-150, To acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, 103d Congress Joint Resolution 19, Nov. 23, 1993.

[2] In 1947 General Assembly set up a special committee to report on the information received. In 1949, this committee was established as the Committee on Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories. https://www.un.org/en/decolonization/history.shtml.

[3] Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books, 2006), 88.

[4] Kinzer, Overthrow, 88.

[5] For more information regarding all of these issues, see Noelani Goodyear- Kaʻōpua, Ikaika Hussey, Erin Kahunawaika’ala Wright, eds., Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land, and Sovereignty (Durham, 2014).

[6] J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism (Durham, 2018).

[7] Pua Case, “If Not Now, When Will We Stand?” Native Hawaiians Fight Construction of Telescope on Mauna Kea, interview on Democracy Now! July 22, 2019. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/7/22/mauna_kea_thirty_meter_telescope_resistance

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