Typically the construction of a new telescope doesn’t draw much controversy. But at a recent groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Hawaii’s latest telecscope on Mauna Kea, protesters in favor of Hawaiian independence gathered to shut down the event. “Akua [the Hawaiian divinities] gave us all this to respect and love each other,” said Kaliko Kanaele, an executive officer of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, an advocacy group for Native Hawaiians oppposed to development on traditionally holy lands. “We can’t keep on desecrating,” Kanaele added.
Protesters like Kanele are not unique. Activists have unified under the tag #FreeHawaii on social media, while others discuss the question of sovereignty everywhere from surf competitions to cafes. Pro-independence group the Kingdom of Atooi has taken claims to sovereignty one step further, printing its own UN-recognized currency, issuing driver’s licenses, designing its own license plates, and earning formal recognition by the World Court in legal proceedings. Increasingly, support for the movement is making the jump to the mainland as well: in October, Super Bowl-bound running back Marshawn Lynch sported a Hawaiian Independence flag for a warm-up mask.
But the movement for Hawaiian independence is not new—rather, It’s been around ever since the island kingdom was wrested from the hands of Queen Lili'uokalani by sugar-plantation owners backed by the US military in 1898. One hundred years later, President Clinton signed a law that formally acknowledged and apologized for the pillaging of Hawaiian lands, but still, most Americans are completely unaware that there’s lingering discontent in the nation’s 50th. And they may be surprised to learn many Hawaiians aren’t content with just an apology. They’re looking to international law to regain their nation.
The real stumbling block for liberation is and always will be the USA. Hawaii is far too valuable economically and militarily for America to let it go. But before you ask: why can’t the Native Hawaiians just sue America and get their country back? The World Court, who has recognized Hawaiian sovereignty, has, essentially less power than Judge Judy. (Its arbitration only matters if both parties agree to its ruling.) And finally, the US government says Hawaiians voted away their sovereignty when they became a state, a statement with which mainstream Hawaiian politicians, like governor Neil Abercrombie, tend to agree.
Nevertheless the Native Hawaiian movement continues to argue that there’s no legit paperwork that proves their islands are part of his United States. And they insist that they’d be better off as a sovereign nation for economic and cultural reasons. Many Native Hawaiians oppose the toxic practices of industrial agriculture on the islands. Others are concerned about rampant poverty among Natives. Activists claim that without federal recognition, they constantly must fight federal bureacrats to keep alive programs designed to help Native Hawaiians.
That last reason explains why, at the moment, the Department of the Interior is currently in closed-door meetings debating what to do about Hawaiian sovereignty. Some observors believe they’ll emerge from their meetings and offer Native Hawaiians federally recognized status as an indigenous people, which many Hawaiians want, and will lead to further negotiations. But no one thinks the Feds will come out and offer Native Hawaiians the chance to become their own country, or form a reservation system similar to that of Native American tribes.
There’s one stat Hawaiians should keep in mind: 25% of all Americans think their state should secede. This national average is actually higher than the 20% of Hawaiians who want to secede. The raw emotions and vigorous legal fight for Hawaiian Independence reveals how deeply countries can live on in the hearts of their people, even after they disappear from the land, and can not be proven by law. In this small way, the Kingdom of Hawaii may outlive us all.