Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movements

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The Kingdom of Hawai'i was an independent country with formal treaty relationships with the United States and other countries until it was overthrown in 1893 by a rebellious group of westerners, many of whom were U.S. citizens, with the active support of U.S. diplomats and military troops. President grover cleveland condemned the overthrow and rejected the request of the rebels that Hawai'i be annexed to the United States. But congressional leaders refused to support his desire to restore the monarchy and for five years Hawai'i was governed by those that had led the revolution. In 1898, after william mckinley had become President and gave his support to annexation, this option was formally presented to Congress. The two-thirds vote necessary for the U.S. senate to ratify a treaty could not be obtained, but a simple majority in both the U.S. house of representatives and the Senate adopted a joint resolution supporting annexation, and Hawai'i became a territory of the united states. Pursuant to this annexation, 1,800,000 acres of land that had been previously governed by the monarchs and government of the Kingdom of Hawai'i were "ceded" to the United States.

In 1921, Congress transferred 200,000 of these acres to the Hawaiian Home Lands Commission to be made available to persons with at least 50 percent Native Hawaiian ancestry. In 1959, the residents of Hawai'i voted overwhelmingly to became the fiftieth state. Congress then accepted Hawai'i into the Union and transferred about 1,200,000 acres of the ceded lands to the state, to be used for specific public purposes, including "the betterment of the conditions of the Native Hawaiian people." In 1978, the people of Hawai'i amended the state constitution to create the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), which thereafter received 20 percent of the revenues produced by the ceded lands held by the state government to promote Native Hawaiian culture and economic interests.

The U.S. Congress passed another joint resolution in 1993, which President william j. clinton signed, apologizing for the participation of U.S. agents in the overthrow, characterizing the overthrow as "illegal" and in violation of international law, acknowledging that the subsequent "cession" of 1,800,000 acres of lands to the United States was "without the consent of or compensation to the Native Hawaiian people of Hawai'i or their sovereign government," and calling for steps to be taken to achieve a "reconciliation" between the Native Hawaiian people and the U.S. government. Hawai'i's state legislature has enacted statutes expressing similar views, and has taken steps to facilitate the establishment of a sovereign Native Hawaiian nation.

Since 1972, Congress has included Native Hawaiians in many federal programs designed to benefit american indians and Alaskan Natives. In Morton v. Mancari (1947), the Court ruled that preferential and separate programs for natives are based on a "political" relationship rather than a "racial" classification, and are constitutional if they are rationally linked to the protection or promotion of self-government, self-sufficiency, or native culture. Congress has stated explicitly in many enactments that a special political relationship exists between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people, similar to the status of other Native Americans. However, the legitimacy of this conclusion is occasionally challenged by those who argue that preferences for Native Hawaiians constitute racial discrimination. This issue is being reviewed by the Supreme Court in Rice v. Cayetano during the 1999–2000 session.

Many Native Hawaiians have acted individually or through organizations to promote the establishment of a sovereign Native Hawaiian government. Some Native Hawaiians favor complete independence from the United States, arguing that the 1993 Apology Resolution recognizes the illegitimacy of U.S. annexation of Hawai'i and that the 1959 vote for statehood was tainted because Native Hawaiians were not properly educated, because the option of independence was not given to the voters, and because the United States violated international law by allowing nonnatives to immigrate to the islands and surpass the Native Hawaiians numerically.

Other Native Hawaiians favor a nation-within-a-nation model similar to the relationship between federally recognized Indian tribes and the United States. Under this approach, the Native Hawaiian nation would determine its own membership, control land and resources, tax and zone, charter corporations, establish schools, administer justice, and so on. It would have a direct relationship with the U.S. government and would be immune from most state regulations. A final approach sometimes mentioned is the state-within-a-state model; that is, to become a political subdivision of the state. Under this model, Native Hawaiians would have the same rights as a county or municipality, with some autonomy and control of land and resources, but subject to overall regulation by the state.

In 1996, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council, a twenty-member group established by the state legislature, organized the Native Hawaiian Vote, a mail ballot asking whether Native Hawaiians supported moving toward self-determination. About 73 percent of those who responded voted yes, but this process was criticized by some Native Hawaiians because fewer than half of those who received the mail ballots returned them. In 1997, the Hawai'i Legislature enacted a statute calling for a "lasting reconciliation" and "a comprehensive, just, and lasting resolution," and established a joint committee to determine which lands should be transferred to the Native Hawaiians.

As of this writing, most of the Native Hawaiian groups interested in sovereignty are meeting together to develop a process to create a Native Hawaiian nation. Although difficult issues remain to be resolved, the momentum to achieve this goal now seems irreversible.

Jon M. Van Dyke

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Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movements

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Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movements