Statehood traumatic for Kanaka Maoli

August 9, 2009

Hawaii’s move into statehood traumatic for many Hawaiians

Illegal overthrow still stung for many Native Hawaiians

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Manny Fernandez was in Fort Bliss, Texas, when he and his fellow National Guard officers from back home heard the news that Hawai’i had officially joined the United States.

“We were all in one room,” Fernandez recalled. “When the announcement came, it was very solemn. There was no rejoicing. We just all stood together, joined hands and sang ‘Hawai’i Pono’i.’ A lot of us had tears in our eyes.”

Fernandez would serve in the Guard for 25 years. He took pride in his position as a chief warrant officer. But as a Native Hawaiian, Fernandez said the realization of Hawai’i’s long march to statehood was nothing to celebrate.

“Even though I was an officer in the military, the fact remained that I still had loyalty to my heritage,” he said. “It just felt like we had lost another thing.”

The historical record shows that an overwhelming majority of those who voted in the 1959 statehood plebiscite – 94 percent (or roughly 35 percent of all eligible voters) – favored Hawai’i’s inclusion in the union. The only precinct to reject the invitation was Ni’ihau, the restricted island whose population is almost entirely Native Hawaiian.

To be sure, there was ample justification for the seeming consensus. As a territory, Hawai’i lacked official representation in Congress, its governor and judges were appointed by the president, voting rights were restricted, and its social, political and economic fortunes were governed by a de facto oligarchy of concentrated business interests. Statehood, it was exhaustively argued, would allow the population at large to partake in the liberties and opportunities guaranteed to full citizens of the United States.

Even those among the entrenched power structure of the territory came to support the statehood movement as their vulnerabilities were gradually exposed through the federal government’s heavy-handed reactions to threats real or perceived.

Sugar planters who initially opposed the move from territory to state largely fell in line after the passage of the Jones-Costigan Act of 1934, which set limits on the amount of sugar that could be exported tariff-free from “off-shore” producers, as Hawai’i was then deemed. While the guidelines were later changed to minimize the impact on Hawai’i growers, local plantation owners were left to ponder how easily such seemingly arbitrary decisions could affect their future.

On a broader scale, the threat of martial law during the notorious Massie/Kahahawai case of 1931 and the actual imposition of military rule during World War II affirmed to many Hawai’i residents the difference between ownership by the United States and membership in the union.

The stage was amply set by the dogged efforts of such territorial delegates as Samuel Wilder King, Joseph and Elizabeth Farrington and John A. Burns, who established the case for Hawai’i statehood with key allies in Washington.

Further, the distinguished service of Hawai’i nisei in World War II continued to be an effective umbrella retort to those who argued – often spuriously – that Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic population and supposed vulnerability to communist influences (via its labor unions) posed a threat to national interests.

By the time the statehood plebiscite was put before Hawai’i voters, the outcome seemed virtually assured.

Still, as many historians now concede, support for statehood within the local community was hardly unanimous.

against statehood

Retired University of Alaska history professor John Whitehead noted in his book, “Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawaii and the Battles for Statehood,” that the main opposition to statehood was posed by Native Hawaiians still stinging from the illegal overthrow of their monarchy and the subsequent annexation of Hawai’i by the United States, and by the territory’s white elite, who feared that statehood might compromise their standing.

“The gossip in the 1950s was that statehood was opposed by Native Hawaiians and old-line haoles,” Whitehead said in a phone interview from his home in Georgia. “In Statehood Commission minutes, there are mentions of gossip that taxi drivers were telling tourists that statehood was no good for Hawai’i. That was the chit chat.”

Yet there is no evidence of any organized attempt by Native Hawaiians to turn the tide of public opinion regarding statehood. As Fernandez and others note, whatever dissent may have existed was typically expressed within the safety of private conversation among like-minded individuals.

Such caution, Native Hawaiian scholars argue, was bred in part from years of political and cultural oppression.

“By 1959, there were very few Hawaiians, if any, who knew that we had any rights,” said Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa, professor of Hawaiian studies and former director of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. “Beaten for speaking our language since 1896, defined as a Stone Age culture, and denigrated in a most racist manner for even having Hawaiian names, Hawaiians had been raised for three generations to believe that it was bad to be Hawaiian. Moreover, we were raised in ignorance of our human rights by the American school system.”

Kame’eleihiwa said her mother, like other Native Hawaiians, did not vote in the plebiscite, partially out of fear but also as a form of resistance.

“When it came to the statehood vote, as a Hawaiian she was scared to say no, and most of her friends were, too,” she said. “So she, like them, didn’t vote. It was her small way of protesting. Some Hawaiians argued that we would be safer under statehood because martial law could no longer be declared. The funny thing is that my mother never felt any safer under statehood, and she was really afraid that my speaking out would get me put in jail.”

campbell testimony

Then there was Alice Kamokila Campbell, daughter of sugar mogul James Campbell and the former Abigail Kuaihelani Mai-pinepine.

Campbell, a territorial senator widely regarded as the richest woman in Hawai’i, was a figure of intense local interest and her appearance before a Congressional hearing on statehood in 1949 provided one of the only public testimonies against statehood by someone of Native Hawaiian ancestry.

The hearing was orchestrated by Joseph Farrington as an opportunity to make a positive impression on undecided lawmakers back in Washington. Campbell’s heartfelt, if at times confusing, testimony did nothing to help the cause. The Honolulu Record printed much of Campbell’s testimony in a series of excerpts starting in January 1950.

“I naturally am jealous of (Hawaiian land) being in the hands of any alien influence,” Campbell said in her introductory comments. “It took us quite a while to get used to being Americans – from a Hawaiian to an American – but I am very proud today of being an American. I don’t want to be ashamed of being an American. But I think that in the last 10 years, I have lost a sense of balance here in Hawai’i as to the future safety of my land.”

Campbell would go on to accuse local Japanese citizens of providing intelligence to Japan in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and criticize the “stranglehold” that Chinese and Japanese businesses had on the local economy, a condition she said made it plausible for Chinese and Japanese citizens of the territory to conspire with Russia for control of Hawai’i.

“I don’t want to have a Japanese judge tell me how to act in my own country, no more than you Americans over on the other side would want an Indian to overrule you, or a Negro, which are among your American people,” she testified.

Whitehead said Farrington was “humiliated” by Campbell’s testimony even though the general public “didn’t take her seriously.”

Campbell, whose larger legacy involves her efforts to promote Hawaiian music and culture, would express shifting takes on the statehood issue over the years. However, her primary interest in protecting her native people remained constant, according to her granddaughter Mary Philpotts McGrath.

“She was opposed to statehood but her primary reason was that she felt it would further disenfranchise Hawaiian people,” McGrath said.

Campbell’s claim that disloyalty among certain ethnic groups in Hawai’i would jeopardize the rest of the nation should Hawai’i gain statehood was an established tactic used by “old-line haoles” who were ever cognizant of the chilling effect such suggestions would have on Mainland lawmakers.

on communism

Walter Dillingham, by general acknowledgement the most powerful businessman in the territory, was one of the first to posit Hawai’i’s vulnerability to communism as a reason to put aside talk of statehood.

Ingram Stainback, the presidentially appointed governor of the territory from 1942 to 1951, was perhaps the most prominent anticommunist crusader in Hawai’i during his time and enjoyed the support of the leaders of the Big Five companies, who sought to discredit the territory’s increasingly powerful organized labor movement.

Honolulu Advertiser publisher Lorrin Potter Thurston also was initially opposed to statehood, and he used the front page of the newspaper to reinforce fears that Hawai’i’s labor unions represented an internal communist threat to the nation with his infamous “Dear Joe” letters, fake correspondence from supposed union officials to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Ultimately, the various positions taken by those opposed to statehood proved no match for the mass of public opinion, which held that statehood would correct social, economic and political imbalances and allow Hawai’i residents to assert their beliefs in Congress.

Yet, while the communist trope was quickly discarded after statehood was achieved, Campbell’s concern that statehood would continue the disenfranchisement of her Native Hawaiian people would prove somewhat prescient.

“The Native Hawaiian view was that while they may not have been for statehood, it was better than territorial status because haoles controlled the appointment process for the governor and judges,” Whitehead said. “With democratic elections, Hawaiians could gain more power back. They felt they could achieve more through statehood than through continuing as a territory. I think it was a decade after that that they started to feel disillusionment (with statehood).”

That disillusionment would eventually lead to a dramatic re-examination of Native Hawaiian history and culture – the second Hawaiian Renaissance – which in turn would pave the way for Hawaiian sovereignty movements that today seek to redefine Hawaiian’s relationship to the United States.

Additional Facts

Tomorrow: Hawaiian sovereignty and the modern case against statehood.


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