Posted on: Sunday, August 9, 2009
Pride in Hawaiian culture reawakened
Seeds of sovereignty movement sown during 1960s-70s renaissance
By Michael Tsai
For five electric days in 1993, tens of thousands of Native Hawaiians and others sympathetic to Native Hawaiian causes marked the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy with a series of marches, demonstrations and historical re-enactments culminating in a dramatic march from Aloha Tower to ‘Iolani Palace, a journey meant to symbolize the rebirth of Hawaiian culture.
The commemoration, organized by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in cooperation with an array of Native Hawaiian organizations from around the state, was one of the largest gatherings of Native Hawaiians in modern times, stunning not just for its implications heading forward, but for what it represented given the experience of Native Hawaiians since statehood in 1959.
Participants in the events rallied under the motto “Onipa’a,” the Hawaiian word for “steadfast” famously invoked by Queen Lili’uokalani a hundred years earlier as she abdicated her throne to U.S. forces working in concert with American businessmen.
“Hold yourselves up high and be proud,” the queen told her subjects. “For each and every one of you has much to be proud of in yourselves and in your people. Hold fast to that pride and love you have for your heritage and your country. Yes, your country. For you nation, onipa’a. Hold fast.”
By the time of the statehood plebiscite in 1959, pride in country had withered to what John Whitehead, retired University of Alaska history professor and author of “Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawaii and the Battles for Statehood,” characterized as “nostalgia for what had been lost with no real belief that it could be restored.”
Perhaps worse, pride in Hawaiian identity had been undermined by social, political and educational systems calibrated to de-emphasize, even suppress, ethnic identity in favor of full Americanization.
Scared of questions
Lilikala Kama’eleihiwa, former director of the University of Hawai’i’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, was still a child when Hawai’i joined the union. She said the first decade of statehood did nothing to undo the years of disempowerment and shame many Native Hawaiians felt.
“I graduated from Kamehameha High School in 1970, and we never even heard of the 1893 overthrow,” she said. “In school, we learned that one minute we were a kingdom with ali’i and the next minute we were Americans. It was only after I graduated that I read (“Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen”). Then I asked my mother what had happened in 1893, and in 1959.
“She told me not to ask such questions because the Americans would put me in jail,” she said. “She was terrified of my political awakening. And I can only imagine that Hawaiians her age were equally scared about their children’s questions.”
Kama’eleihiwa’s mother recounted the infamous Massie case, in which Grace Fortescue, son-in-law Thomas Massie and two accomplices spent an hour with Gov. Lawrence Judd as punishment for kidnapping and murdering a Hawaiian man accused of raping Massie’s wife Thalia. (A report by the Pinkerton Detective Agency later concluded that Thalia Massie had not been raped; charges against other defendants in the rape case were eventually dropped.)
But while Kama’eleihiwa understood her mother’s fears, they did not deter her investigations of Hawaiian history. Indeed, for a generation of Hawaiians coming of age in the tumultuous 1960s and ’70s, a cultural and political awakening was just brewing.
The first Hawaiian Renaissance occurred during the reign of King David Kalakaua, who spearheaded a revival of hula, fresh examination of Hawaiian myth and legend, and a renewed interest in Hawaiian music.
The Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s, which was ignited, appropriately, with the establishment of the Merrie Monarch Festival, was far broader in scope, encompassing not just renewed interest and study of Hawaiian music, language (both Hawaiian and Hawaiian creole/pidgin), hula, agriculture and navigation, but also political activism on the part of young Native Hawaiians. For Kihei Soli Niheu, whose efforts on behalf of Kalama Valley farmers helped lead to a series of highly influential land battles in the 1970s and 1980s, the climate of political discontent percolating on college campuses across the United States in the 1960s provided a viable medium for personal political growth.
Niheu attended San Jose State College, where he befriended the school’s Black Student Union and was exposed to the revolutionary ideas of sociology professor Harry Edwards, who is best known for inspiring Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ famous Black Power protest at the 1968 Olympic Games.
In those formative years, Niheu read Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung and Karl Marx, followed the Angela Davis trial and participated in protests against American involvement in Vietnam.
Like other Native Hawaiians of his generation, Niheu said he knew little about his own history.
“I didn’t learn much about Hawaiian history at Kamehameha,” he said. “After eighth grade, they cut out Hawaiian language. They wouldn’t teach us Hawaiian because they said we had to become American. I remember thinking, ‘What? Who the hell are they?’ ”
Yet, as Niheu witnessed firsthand the struggles that African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, women and other groups undertook to assert their civil rights on the Mainland, Niheu said he couldn’t help but reflect on the state of Native Hawaiians like himself.
In 1970, Niheu returned to Hawai’i and quickly got involved in antiwar protests on the University of Hawai’i-Manoa campus.
Soon after, UH ethnic studies professor Larry Kamakawiwo’ole tapped Niheu for a talk-story session with fellow activists Pete Thompson, Kalani Ohelo and Kehau Lee.
The talk revolved around the worsening situation in Kalama Valley, where some 150 families – most of them Native Hawaiian, many of them previously displaced by development projects – were being evicted to make way for further Hawai’i Kai development.
The group resolved to do what it could to support the displaced families, a decision that would prove a milestone moment in the evolution of modern Native Hawaiian activism.
Despite a yearlong “occupation,” the arrest of dozens of activists and subsequent protracted legal battle, the movement could not ultimately prevent the displacement of the farmers and the development of the land.
It did, however, provide the impetus for the formation of several Native Hawaiian-led community groups that would wage similar battles across the state. It also inspired an emerging generation of Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian activists to resist the rapid development of traditionally rural and agricultural lands brought about by the state’s increased economic reliance on tourism and the island’s fast-growing population, and to begin to build a case for independence from the United States.
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.