When white Christian missionaries first arrived in Hawaii in the 1820s, the natives began to feel a growing threat to their sovereignty, culture, and way of life. Many even resisted for two centuries.
The danger started early. Some scholars estimate that by the 1840s, Hawaii’s native population had declined by as much as 84 percent. The reason for this was the diseases that came there with the western colonists. In 1893, a conspiracy by a handful of white traders and colonists seized power there and displaced the sovereign monarchy of Hawaii. Five years later, the United States annexed Hawaii, seeing the abundance of agricultural resources and a strategic base in the Pacific. Then in 1959, the US Congress voted to make Hawaii the 50th US state.
During that long period, the colonists occupied much of Hawaii’s agricultural land and some of it was militarized. They suppressed traditional culture and spiritual practices, and they banned the use of the local Hawaiian language in school instruction and government functions.
Hawaii’s Raithane (local) residents responded to these actions with protests, defiance, and displays of indigenous cultural self-respect. In the 1880s, King David Kalakawa reignited nationalism and introduced Hawaii to the international world as an independent sovereign state. Not only this, he also revived cultural practices such as the traditional ‘hula dance’, which is known as Hawaii’s first renaissance. The hula dance is an integral part of the storytelling of the Raithane people of Hawaii. Missionaries did not understand the cultural significance of ‘hula dance’ and declared it illegal since 1830 considering it unchristian. In the 1960s and 1970s, a second renaissance flourished in Hawaii. Today, Hawaiian native sovereignty continues to be a critical issue, informing contemporary forms of opposition to militarism, colonialism, and dispossession.
Noeno Silva, a scholar of indigenous politics at the University of Hawaii, writes, “Resistance and nationalism have been intertwined throughout Hawaii’s past two hundred years of history.”
Even before the annexation of Hawaii, the Raithanés (local) organized and resisted the annexation of their country to the United States. Six years earlier, in 1887, a group of sugar merchants and other businessmen at gunpoint forced King Kalakawa to sign the so-called Constitution (Beanit Contusion), disenfranchising the native Hawaiians.
In response, Hawaiians formed a separate organization (Hui) to protest. A rebel leader, Robert Kalanihiopou Wilcox of Maui, launched an armed rebellion against members of the white-man-led government to repeal and enforce Bayonnet Conquest, but he was unsuccessful. The rebellion of the native Hawaiians finally came to naught on January 16, 1893, when U.S. troops invaded the Hawaiian kingdom and forced the conditional surrender of Kalakaua’s heir, Queen Liliokalani.
After a major political upheaval in Hawaii, the interim government, consisting of white people, wanted to begin the process of annexing Hawaii to the United States. President Grover Cleveland knew that Hawaii’s interim government was not functioning properly, and he delegated the power to Congress to decide whether to annex Hawaii to the United States. Many members of Congress were in favor of annexing Hawaii to the United States because Hawaii’s strategic location provided important access to Asian trade markets.
William McKinley, who succeeded Cleveland as president of the United States, signed a treaty to bring Hawaii under American rule despite widespread opposition from a coalition of organizations related to the native Hawaiians. In Hawai’i’s vernacular and English-language newspapers, they wrote articles that voiced their opposition. They stopped offering ‘hokupu’ (offerings) in white churches and started singing traditional songs in protest. In a rousing protest speech to thousands of people in Hawaii in 1897, rebel leader James Kaulina Kwala said, “To subjugate our nation to America is as if we consented to be buried alive.”
Expressions of dissent were widespread. According to Silva, 95 percent of the approximately 40,000 natives of all the islands of Hawaii, i.e. 38,000 people, jointly signed two ‘Que A Petitions’ to cancel the annexation of Hawaii and restore the monarchy.
In December 1897, Kuala Hawaii accompanied three others to Washington, DC to deliver the memorandum. There he met Queen Liliokalani. Both officially opposed the annexation of Hawaii. Rani Liliokalani said that her government was overthrown in violation of international law.
After more than three months of intensive campaigning together to sway public opinion in their favor, they referred the issue to the senators. With that, they succeeded in repealing the State Deer Act.
But their success was short-lived. When the Spanish–American War broke out the following year, Hawaii’s strategic location as a fuel supply center for the US Navy in the Pacific attracted it. Congress then voted in favor of establishing Hawaii as a US territory. When Ame in HawaiiRika was shocked, thousands of native Hawaiians put on smiles. Among those most affected was Queen Liliokalani. Hawaii’s last ruler, Queen Liliokalani, could only express regret that she had failed to fulfill her ‘lahui’: her responsibility to her nation and her people.
For the next several years, the traditional culture of Hawaii became a secondary theme in all activities involved in its transformation. Due to the expansion of commercial traffic, the extensive American military presence during World War II and the Cold War, and the rise of the tourism industry, Hawaii is no longer what it used to be. However, with civil rights voices and growing support for Native peoples and their identities, interest in Hawaiian culture began to grow.
In the 1960s and 1970s, agitators began to raise their voices to revive sovereignty. Hawaii’s second renaissance began to blossom. Native languages and cultural practices such as hula and slack-key music reemerged, energizing Native Hawaiian resistance. There is a resurgence of interest in the ancient Polynesian method of viewing the constellations for traditional boats and sea transportation.
Native Hawaiian activism during this period focused on militarism and land development. The Kalama Valley, Bayahole, and Bekani were rehabilitated and protested against the expulsion and displacement of local farmers. In 1976, a group of young resistance fighters seized Kahulwe Island. This is the same island that was not used for military bombing practice since 1953 after President Dwight D. Eisenhower handed it over to the US military, causing great damage to its cultural and spiritual significance.
After more than a decade of opposition, the campaign to save Kahulwe Ohana achieved successes such as a no-bombing exercise, return of control of the island to the state, and environmental cleanup.
The most notable breakthrough for Native Hawaiians came in 1978, when the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to address historical injustices against Native Hawaiians and pave the way for the return of Kahului. At the level of the Constitutional Convention, the original language of Hawaii was also listed as an official language of the state for the first time since the deregistration there.
On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States after the voters of Hawaii overwhelmingly approved the Hawaii State Code, but many Native Hawaiian activists protested and continued to protest. What they believed was that the state code was just another page in Hawaii’s history of militarism, imperialism, and colonialism.
Although Hawaii has long been a US state, the contemporary sovereignty movement is still fragmented in that regard. Those who believe the US illegally occupied Hawaii are in favor of returning their land with compensation. The other side, which believes that full restoration is impossible, advocates that Hawaiians should be given federal recognition as Native Americans and that some land be returned. Some argue against sovereignty and national identity, but instead argue that Hawaii should be granted political independence under the International Trusteeship System, a United Nations system for territories under the control of foreign powers.
In 1993, the US federal government formally apologized for the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and admitted that the native Hawaiians had never given up their land. In 2009, the US Congress passed a federal law seeking to recognize the original inhabitants of Hawaii as indigenous people, but it has not yet been implemented.