Accessibility links

Breaking News

Native Hawaiians Divided on Federal Recognition

FILE - In this June 23, 2014 file photo, Laulani Teale, left, and Liko Martin, right, sing while Palani Vaughan, center rear, holds up a copy of Queen Liliuokalani's protest of the overthrow of Hawaii at the Hawaii state Capitol in Honolulu.
Native Hawaiians Divided on Federal Recognition
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:05:26 0:00

More than 100 years ago, the American government took control of the Hawaiian islands and took away Native Hawaiians’ land rights.

Now, officials at the United States Civil Rights Commission are urging lawmakers to permit Native Hawaiians to establish their own independent government.

But many Native Hawaiians reject the idea. They say they will not accept anything less than Hawaii’s complete independence. And, they say, they want control of more than 400,000 hectares of the islands’ land.​

How did we get here?

Sailors from Polynesia first settled the Hawaiian Islands around the year 400. For more than 1,000 years, the Native Hawaiians lived together in small groups, farmed and fished for their needs, and governed themselves. In the late 1700s, one native leader overpowered the others and united the islands into a single kingdom.

But in the early 1800s, the area changed sharply. Other groups came. Many Native Hawaiians died from the new diseases that came with the foreigners. Others were forced from their lands to permit the newcomers to create large sugar cane farms. American planters soon dominated the islands’ economy.

In time, the planters, United States government officials and Marines ousted from power Hawaii’s last ruler, Queen Liliʻuokalani. In 1898 the U.S. government officially annexed Hawaii, and in 1959 named it the country’s 50th state.

Today Native Hawaiians are only about 20 percent of the state’s population.

Calls for sovereignty

Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua is an expert on Native Hawaiian social movements. She is also Native Hawaiian, or Kanaka Maoli.

Ka’opua says Native Hawaiians have been protesting the loss of their rights and calling for sovereignty since the 1800s. But they do not always agree on what they are asking for. Some want to form a government and operate as a kind of nation-within-a-nation, like Native American tribes on the U.S. mainland. Others want to be a country independent from the United States.

In 2014, U.S. government officials held a number of hearings across Hawaii to learn what Native Hawaiians thought about forming their own government. A large majority of people who spoke in the hearings said they did not want it. Instead, they argued the U.S. violated international law when it removed the queen as ruler. The kingdom, they say, continues to exist.

Yet in 2016, the U.S. government released a final rule to permit Native Hawaiians to form a government – in other words, the nation-within-a-nation solution.

Noelani Goodyear-Ka’opua points out that the rule does not permit Native Hawaiians control of any land currently controlled by the U.S. government.

“How is this in any way to our benefit?” she asks. “We wouldn’t even be getting the crappy deal that Native American nations have. And once you accept a lesser deal, a better deal is impossible.”

Another Hawaiian historian does not reject the U.S. government’s offer completely. Bavianna McGregor is a founding member of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She says the U.S. officially recognizing that Native Hawaiians have the right to govern themselves is an important step toward full independence.

She says she hopes to see an independent Native Hawaiian government within an independent Hawaii. But, she says, she does not think she it will happen in her lifetime.

I’m Caty Weaver.

Cecily Hilleary wrote this story for Kelly Jean Kelly adapted her report for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

dominate v. to overpower and take control

annex v. to seize

benefitn. something that leads to good results

crappyadj. of poor quality