Hawaiians, Indigenous

Alternative names: “Native Hawaiians”
Location: Hawaii
Population: 180,000 with 50% or greater Hawaiian ancestry
% of population: 18% of Hawaiian population
Religion: Christian, indigenous religious practices
Language: English, Hawaiian languages

Indigenous Hawaiians are the descendants of the original Polynesian inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, a group of islands in the eastern Pacific. Formerly an independent kingdom and later a US territory, from 1959 Hawaii became the 50th US state. Today two groups are recognized under US law. “Native Hawaiians” are those with over 50% Hawaiian blood while “Hawaiians” have less than 50% Hawaiian blood or cannot prove their exact descent. The two groups are roughly equal in size and together total about 180,000 of the one million strong mixed immigrant population.

Polynesian peoples have lived in the Hawaiian islands for thousands of years. Although they were skilful navigators and traded with other Pacific peoples they were relatively isolated. European contacts began from the eighteenth century, when explorers and missionaries came to the islands. Hawaiian society was complex and hierarchical in many respects with traditional chiefs, royal lineages and a ruling monarch. From 1779 to 1893 the kingdom of Hawaii was recognized as a sovereign nation, entering into treaties and conventions with many governments.

Despite its independence Hawaii was placed under considerable pressure from foreign contacts. Christian missionaries arrived from 1820 and established a strong influence in religious and secular life. Land ownership was codified into an Anglo-American system where it could be sold in fee simple, in contrast to the Hawaiian system where it was not owned in the western sense but allocated by the moi, the ruling chief of each island. Since Hawaiians did not understand the new land laws, they did not register their title, and thus large areas passed under the control of foreign individuals and corporations. Because many Hawaiians refused to work on the new sugar plantations at the low wages offered, workers from Asia were imported. The “missionary party”, an alliance of missionary offspring and business, became the most powerful force in the islands.

US annexation

It was these groups who urged that Hawaii should have closer links with the USA, either by Treaties or Reciprocity or, preferably, by annexation. This was both to secure markets for plantation produce and to gain Pearl Harbor as a US naval base. The Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua, opposed these plans, but in 1887, under force of arms and threat of death to himself, his family and supporters, he signed what became known as the “Bayonet Constitution”. This constitution stripped him of power and gave control of the House of Nobles to the missionary party. Pearl Harbor was handed over to the US and the Reciprocity Treaty was extended. Kalakaua died in 1891 and was succeeded by his sister Liliuokalani, who was shortly after petitioned by two-thirds of Hawaiian voters (this included settlers as well as Hawaiians) to restore the old system of government. By January 1893 she had completed the draft of a new constitution and stated … “I shall firmly endeavour to preserve the autonomy and absolute independence of this Kingdom”.

Those who favoured annexation, who were now joined by John L. Stevens, the American Minister Plenipotentiary who had control over the American military based in Hawaii, launched a military takeover and established a “provisional government”. Liliuokalani was forced to surrender her authority but did so to the US government rather than the “provisional government”. President Harrison was willing to legalize annexation but the incoming President Grover Cleveland refused to do so and authorized an investigation into the circumstances of the military action. The investigation found that “the lawful government of Hawaii was overthrown” as a result of a conspiracy involving US forces. Cleveland refused to forward the Treaty to the Senate but the members of the provisional government refused to yield their power and US forces continued to remain in Hawaii. The provisional government announced the convening of a Constitutional Convention for the “Republic of Hawaii”. Only those who renounced their loyalty to Queen Liliuokalani and who passed other tests could vote; in the event only 20% of eligible electors did so. The “Republic of Hawaii” was established on July 4,1894.

It lasted for only four years for when William McKinley succeeded to the US presidency in 1898 the provisional government ceded “absolutely and without reserve to the USA all rights of sovereignty of whatsoever kind in and over the Hawaiian Islands”. McKinley then obtained a joint resolution for the annexation from both Houses of Congress. The Organic Act of April 30, 1900 established a territorial government and declared all citizens of the Republic of Hawaii as automatically American citizens.

This period from 1900 saw an increase in the total population as many settlers came from the mainland USA and Asia to work on the plantations, a tightening of US economic control and the development of Pearl Harbor as an important military base. Hawaiians became a small and unprivileged minority group. In US-run schools children were forbidden to speak native languages, while traditional religious practices, dancing, music and healing practices were discouraged and parents were encouraged to give children English rather than Hawaiian names.

US statehood

Most native Hawaiians welcomed statehood in 1959 as they saw it as a means of gaining equal treatment with other Americans. Yet “Native Hawaiians” and “Hawaiians” remain massively disadvantaged economically and socially. Most Hawaiians today are city-dwelling wage labourers, concentrated in low-wage service sectors, with high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Few have direct access to land. Land Trusts were established during the period of direct US control and were later transferred to the Hawaiian state government, for benefit of Hawaiians, but only a small amount of this land has been transferred to Hawaiians while some areas have been leased to industry, agriculture and the US military. Hawaiians were found by a US Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs to have lower life expectancy, higher levels of disease, higher rates of social problems and limited availability to social services than other Americans.

In the 1970s a Hawaiian “nationalist” movement has emerged focusing on many of the issues that have engaged other colonized indigenous peoples; land rights, language, cultural and religious practices, discrimination. In 1976 religious claims were first brought against the federal government for respect for Hawaiian sacred sites, including burial areas. In response state legislation created an Office of Hawaiian Affairs to recognize Hawaiians and their concerns as identical to those of Native Americans. However at the federal level Hawaiians do not have the same “nation to nation” relationship as implied in treaty agreements with indigenous American Indian communities, since no treaties were signed at the time of the US annexation.

There have been attempts by Indigenous Hawaiians to recreate a Hawaiian identity. There has been a revival of interest in relearning the Hawaiian languages, which few Hawaiians today speak fluently, and in learning traditional arts such as chanting, weaving, feather lets and the hula . Traditional religious practices, such as pele, or the spirit of the volcano, which were once forbidden and are now guaranteed under the Hawaiian state Constitution (Article 12, Section 7) have been retaught to a new generation. Campaigns have been launched around the protection of land, especially sacred sites, from desecration by the military, energy interests or the tourist industry. For example the Protect Kaho’olawe’Ohana movement has organized since 1976 to stop the US and other military forces from shelling the sacred island of Kaho’olawe in military exercises; Indigenous Hawaiians joined environmental groups to protest the building of a geothermal energy-producing facility at Kilauea Volcano, Big Island, and in 1987 protests took place against the exhumation of a traditional burial site to build a hotel.