By Robin A. Ladue
In the fight for indigenous rights across the United States, the original inhabitants of Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, Oahu, Kauai and
Niihau are far too often overlooked.
In fact, it is doubtful that even 1 percent of Americans actually know of the occupation, overthrow, and theft of the Hawaiian lands or the story of the beautiful and cultured people of all of Polynesia.
The story echoes experiences of other indigenous peoples of America: land grabs, destruction of natural resources and water, industrialization and commercialization, loss of land, language, and children.
My own personal love affair with the Hawaiian Islands, its culture and people began in 1971. I came to study at one of the colleges on Oahu, but my limited resources allowed me to stay for only one semester. For years, after I returned to California and then to Washington to complete my studies before beginning my career, I dreamed of Hawaii’s colors and birds, ocean and mountains. In 1980, I stood on the Hanalei overlook and promised myself that, someday, I would have a home on the North Shore, where Puff the Magic Dragon lived and where millions before me, and after me, made the same promise—invaders drawn to a land not ours but one whose beauty was unforgettable.
I achieved that goal in 1998 and 20 years later, I come to my place of peace and renewal to watch and listen to the waves and to spy on the whales, spinner dolphins, and turtles. This year has been very wet, with the road to the far north beaches of Haena and Ke’e washed out and inaccessible to tourists. And, I am told by many of the actual Natives, not the white land owners but the Native Hawaiians, that they like it this way. And, when I drive south to my own ancestral lands, past strip malls, tacky housing developments, fewer and fewer tress, I understand. And, in all honesty, it is not without a fair amount of guilt, that I understand that I have displaced a Native Hawaiian with my presence, as I am displaced on my own land.
Land, not private property, but land, is precious to indigenous people. For on the land and from the land, springs our connection to the ancestors and to the plants and animals and water that give us life. But, as I have known all of my life, not everyone views land as many indigenous people do.
This article is the third in a series of four. It will discuss the relationship between the land and current indigenous issues facing the Polynesian people of Hawaii.
Hawaii is an archipelago and the northernmost tip of Polynesia. It is estimated that the islands have been occupied since approximately the year of 124. Over the course of the next 18 millennium, the Hawaiian people spread across the main islands of Niihau, Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and the Big Island of Hawaii. Hawaiian culture, laws, social structure, religious beliefs and practices, trade among the islands, and agriculture were well established.
European contact began in 1778 with Captain James Cook, when he and his crew made landfall. From that time forward, indigenous Hawaiians have experienced the loss of land, population, the monarchy, language, culture, and the forced imposition of Christianity. A significant portion of the Hawaiian people died of European diseases. By the end of the 19th century, the Native Hawaiian population had declined from an estimated 700,000-800,000 to approximately 24,000 in 1900. This loss of life and culture followed the same trajectory as that of Native Americans. While many Native tribes were completely eradicated, Native Hawaiians have struggled mightily to retain their language. Today, Native Hawaiians and people of mixed race, including Native Hawaiian, make up 6 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of Hawaii’s population.
King Kamehameha III was the first of the Hawaiian monarchy to lease land on Kauai for sugarcane cultivation. This, along with the massive decline in the Native Hawaiian population, was a significant factor in the rise of American influence in the governance of the Islands. In an ironic reflection of the current tariff wars, the United States imposed tariffs on imported Hawaiian sugarcane. Plantation owners, along with the Christian missionaries who infiltrated the Islands beginning in the 1820s, sought to gain control of the Islands.
In addition to the wealth of the land, Pearl Harbor was desired for its military potential. In the past, Pearl Harbor was the home to millions of pearls, long gone due to water pollution. Pearl Harbor being bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, marked the United States’ entrance into World War II. Pearl Harbor remains a valuable military installation for the United States.
There have been many waves of immigration into Hawaii, corresponding to increased European/American control over the land and agricultural development, primarily sugar cane and pineapple cultivation. Filipino, Japanese, and Portuguese workers came to work in the fields. After decades, these immigrants purchased land, displacing the remaining Native Hawaiian population. In the 1980s, the Japanese purchased a great deal of land, driving up property values, which often forced Native Hawaiians off their lands. There is a new land rush in the Islands, once again driving the prices so high that indigenous Hawaiians are often unable to remain on their land.
Over the course of the first 200 years of occupation, much of the traditional agriculture of the indigenous people of the islands either disappeared, or was taken over by large corporations run by Americans. This was to remain the status of agriculture on the islands until recently. It was the political force of these corporations and their owners that led to the military invasion of the islands in 1893, with the resultant overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.
The Queen ascended to the Hawaiian throne in 1891, after the death of her brother, David Kalakaua. She attempted to reassert the power of the throne, install a new constitution, and restore voting rights for the disenfranchised Native Hawaiians. U.S. Marines invaded the islands and Hawaiian rule ended.
Similar to what had occurred in Alaska and in the continental United States, oil interests, land acquisition by large agriculture companies and the descendants of Christian missionaries, the near erasure of the Hawaiian people was almost complete.
However, in the past 30 to 40 years, a determination to reclaim what was lost, stolen, and destroyed has arisen among Native Hawaiians. There is a push to reclaim lands and language and culture. As with the First Nations, Native Americans, Maori, and Aboriginal peoples, the Hawaiian people were forbidden to practice their culture and spiritual practices. As with many indigenous peoples around the world, their language was nearly gone. The push for indigenous rights in Hawaii is getting stronger, and the voices are getting louder.
In 2017, it became public knowledge that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had purchased 700 acres on Kauai. He built a wall around the property, which reportedly blocked off access to Kauapea or Secret Beach (all beaches in Hawaii are public) and access to plots owned by Native Hawaiians. He filed hundreds of “quiet titles” to force Native Hawaiians to sell their lands, often for a few pennies on the dollar worth of value.
“This (Zuckerberg) is the face of neocolonialism,” said Kapua Sproat, a law professor at the University of Hawaii who is originally from Kauai. “Even though a forced sale may not physically displace people, it’s the last nail in the coffin of separating us from the land. For us, as Native Hawaiians, the land is an ancestor. It’s a grandparent. You just don’t sell your grandmother.”
Due to committed attorneys, determined indigenous Hawaiians and, interestingly enough a social media firestorm, including on his own Facebook, Zuckerberg, reportedly backed down. He said he did not know of the value of culture and spirituality of the land to Native Hawaiians. While this is undoubtedly true, it is in the same spirit of arrogance and entitlement that led to Hawaii being colonized, invaded, and made a territory, and eventually, a state of the United States.
On my most recent trip to Kauai, I had the pleasure of meeting a young man in his early 40’s, who was in the Starbucks at Kapaa, speaking in Hawaiian to his 8-year-old son. We struck up a conversation about his determination that his son would know the history of his people, his language, his culture and the true spirit of aloha. He spoke of the private immersion school his son attended and how hard he and his relatives and friends were working to reclaim their land and their culture.
When I asked him what obstacles were present to impede his and others’ efforts. He thought for a moment and said, “The greed of people like Zuckerberg, who do not know that we, as Hawaiians, still exist. The land grab that has always gone on since Cook landed is a problem. But, most of all, it is the lack of interest in what Hawaii truly was and is. Until people, like the rich ones that come to Hawaii, fall in love, and then want to possess a piece of it, realize that we are here and we have rights, the problem will continue.”
As with Native American and First Nations, it is the land and its resources that have driven acquisition and colonization and the destruction of Native people in Hawaii. But, it is also the determination of indigenous peoples to protect land, air and water that, hopefully, will become stronger, allowing a way of life, a way of living on the land, and a connection to the spiritual value of the land to continue.♦