Admission Day Reflections


August 17th is Admissions Day in Hawaii and I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a look at some historical elements that led us to where we are today. Please understand, in advance, that this is not an attempt at historical review or revision.

In a little over 100 years from the first contact with Europeans until the overthrow of the monarchy, the rulers of Hawaii struggled to come to grips with their place in the wider world. In many instances, they were taken advantage of, in some their machinations with western powers it led to their undoing, and in the end, it was greed for raw power by Americans with less-than-noble interests that brought down Queen Liliuokalani.

It is definitely a tragedy that a proud people lost sovereignty over their land. And that it happened at the hands of an America caught up in the throes of a colonial period. Still, while it is regrettable, it somehow seems to have been inevitable. It’s not that they were more deserving, it just happened that Americans were “in the right place, at the right time”.

While reading up on the post-contact history, I was amazed at how readily the Hawaiian warrior chiefs accepted guns in trade. Kamehameha I used the guns and cannon he acquired to consolidate his power and become the first ruler of the islands. I seriously doubt he would have been able to achieve this without the superior firepower. I certainly can’t blame him since the other chiefs were doing exactly the same thing.

The rule of Kamehameha I began in approximately 1810 and the immediate impact of western contact was felt as their diseases decimated the population which was halved in less than 25 years. Although he retained the kapu system to maintain control over his people through traditional law, the reality of the intrusion by the outside world would force his successors to adapt. His favorite wife, Kaahumanu was instrumental in breaking the kapu system (likely to consolidate her power as a woman) but it was probably the maneuvering by international powers like France and Russia that forced the monarchy to adopt western ways, Amazingly enough, the first western-style laws were enacted in 1832, less than 45 years after Captain Cook first landed his ships in the islands.

By this time, the wheels of change had been irrevocably set into motion and each succeeding ruler did their best to retain their cultural identity while coping with the inevitable western influence. Some were more successful than others but, by the time Liliuokalani came to the thrown, the die was cast. For me, the saddest part of this story is that she was an exceptional ruler who was both highly intelligent and musically talented; the embodiment of an enlightened ruler. The fact that the Americans used illegitimate force to take her kingdom away only makes the tale sadder.

The path to statehood was set and like the adaptations the monarchs had tried earlier, nothing was going to stop eventual inclusion in the American Union. When Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, the abuse of the Hawaiian people finally seemed at and end. Looks can be deceiving because statehood did nothing to promote or preserve the Hawaiian culture. In 1978, a group of motivated citizens of Hawaiian ancestry took matters in their own hands at the state Constitutional Convention. Building on words and deeds of many unheralded advocates for the cause, they crafted an amendment to the constitution that recognized the Hawaiian people had special rights and that their land and culture need protection. Thus, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was born.

It has been nearly 33 years since the creation of OHA and the battle for proper recognition continues. However, there is still the lingering resentment that something was stolen and that restitution is owed. I cannot answer that question. All I (as an outsider) can do is offer these words.

Your queen was overthrown but you should never let your spirit be a victim of that act. I see too much emphasis on the establishment of a nation and the acquisition of land. The glory of the people must be evident from the righteous work that they do. In our modern world, any effort that is performed without weighing the consequences of what others think about the correctness of actions, will be quickly decried as a fraud and undermined.

Don’t confuse the tears you shed for your queen with those of your lost kingdom. Keep your personal loss as a reminder of what happens when your spirit lapses and you let your guard down. If you romanticize the monarchy, you gloss over the fact that they were fallible and didn’t always have the best interest of the people at heart. A majority of the public want to make amends for what is now almost universally recognized as an illegal overthrow. However, these same people need to know what can be done to right this wrong. With every passing day, support for redress wanes. The “repayment” cannot continue into perpetuity.

I also suggest that you recognize that studying, learning, and understanding a culture is sometimes best done through an objective lens. And, that there is a big difference between cultural preservation and cultural stagnation. Take the opportunities provided as a citizen of the United States and carve out that niche that is rightfully yours. If you do it with grace, it will benefit us all.

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