Kanaka lament

Once a proud nation, Hawaiians today are defined as just a race

By Alani Apio
Honolulu Advertiser
Sunday, March 25, 2001

In my first letter, "1,000 little cuts to genocide" (Advertiser, Feb. 25), I spoke from my na'au, my guts. In this second piece I offer my opinion on how I got to a place of such sadness, anger and confusion.

Queen's soldiers disarmedWhen the queen's soldiers were disarmed after the overthrow of a viable nation (above, in 1893), America was enabled to recognize Hawaiians solely by race.
Advertiser library photo
Understanding the roots of these problems won't be easy, but it will help us figure out what to do now.

Briefly: By aiding in the overthrow, then annexing and colonizing the sovereign Hawaiian Nation, America oppressed a native people and culture and created an enormous legacy of pain.

Then, using racism as a tool of power and control, America classified Kanaka (Hawaiians) as a race of people instead of citizens of an overthrown nation. This divided the Kanaka community within itself, and Kanaka from the larger Hawai'i community.

Furthermore, America has a national and international history of racism and sexism that has kept land and power primarily in the hands of land-owning, white males.

Finally, the ideals of America - truth, justice, equality, etc., do not match the reality of America. But they do provide the groundwork for the denial of any and all inequalities and discrimination.

The intense emotions I have about being Kanaka - Hawaiian - and about sovereignty tie my na'au in knots. These feelings come from watching and experiencing the loss of my culture and people in many ways, from understanding that huge portions of my culture were lost before I was even born, and yet being told personally and publicly, by individuals and government that "Nothing's wrong, your sense of loss is simply the 'victims' mentality brought about by believing that revisionist history crap about the 'alleged' overthrow."

This is the same ideology maintained by those who deny the reality of the Holocaust and by Japanese nationalists regarding Japan's role in World War II.

The most dangerous thing to do is tell oppressed people they're not oppressed and that there is no pain. When the oppressor denies even the existence of oppression, oppressed people eventually implode via self-destruction, or explode in acts of violence.

Young Kanaka males have had the highest rate of suicide in Hawai'i since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation. Likewise, Kanaka have had the largest percentage of population imprisoned.

This implosion and explosion of rage is one of the sad legacies of the Kanaka's forced assimilation into American society.

This legacy of pain, frustration, and anger has torn my own 'ohana apart. On my Kanaka family's side, two of my cousins committed suicide. Kanaka friends have committed suicide as well. 'Ohana and Kanaka friends have been, and still are, imprisoned.

The constant, deafening barrage that this is just "coincidence," that it has nothing to do with the overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation, and nothing to do with lost culture, or, worse yet, the daily, subtle and infuriating implication that we as Kanaka are not capable of handling life, is why I write.

If I didn't I'd erupt with rage, deep red and sorrowful over dead cousins and wars waged internally over how to be Kanaka as it has been defined for me, and how to live in a place that has become so foreign to me.

The boys I fished with in the waters off 'Ewa Beach and Wai'anae chose to hang themselves rather than live in a place that did not value them, did not understand them, and did not offer them a tomorrow - all the while calling itself "home."

Many people simply do not understand that there's been more than 100 years of violence here - only it's been almost completely internalized: We Kanaka have killed, continue to kill ourselves, either slowly (through alcohol and substance abuse, among many ways) or quickly through suicide, as a direct result of colonization. This is a world-wide problem faced by nearly all colonized indigenous peoples.

Hawai'i citizens neither want to acknowledge that universal reality, nor recognize that everybody has a breaking point.

A win for Barrett may be our breaking point (the Barrett v. Cayetano case seeks to find the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawaiian Homes Commission, and Native Hawaiian gathering rights unconstitutional). I don't want that.

I'm writing so we can truly, honestly start dealing with Kanaka anger, pain, and confusion, work toward justice, and in doing so, help heal na Kanaka and Hawai'i citizens alike.

Extremely important to note, though, is that there are many people of Kanaka descent who have assimilated (by force or choice) successfully into American culture here - and who want to continue that. Likewise, their children, because of the parents' assimilation, simply have not had the option or opportunity to identify with Kanaka culture. In either case, even if they are conscious of loss, they may not feel it personally, or the price of loss is minimal compared to the benefits, attained or perceived, of assimilation.

The issue of a stolen nation and oppressed culture has been turned into an issue of race - not by Hawaiians, but by America. And in doing so, it effectively uses its own laws, ideology and mythology to confuse the issue and make it appear that even the half-hearted attempts at reparations, like OHA and Hawaiian Homelands, are wrong and racist.

Racism is defined as "A doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior."

It is a Western, and later wholly American, import. The first overt, important, societal acts of racism in Hawai'i, in my opinion, came from the plantation owners who segregated imported contract laborers into ethnic "camps" for the express reason of pitting them against each other and not forming unions.

The next major act of racism was the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Act. By setting a blood quantum instead of a "nationality" quantum, America employed "race" - defined by blood quantum - to pit us against ourselves over land. Equally important, it gave all non-Kanaka the grounds on which to call the program racist.

The truly ugly legacy of that act is not that most Kanaka do not have access to the lands, or that monies and lands have been squandered or stolen from Hawaiian Homes, or even that it discriminates against non-Kanaka. The real atrocity is that it pits us Kanaka against ourselves, creates and perpetuates deep and jagged feelings of resentment, shame and confusion over self-identity (some are defined as "Native Hawaiian" and some are just "Hawaiian"), and as a result has allowed America to avoid blame for the overthrow.

It changed the issue from nation and culture to one of race.

This change in definition is key to understanding the whole issue: with Native American tribes, America defined them as overthrown nations made up of a homogenous race. With Kanaka, though, America has defined us as a race seeking nation status - thus providing the groundwork for calling the Hawaiian sovereignty movement racist.

America continues to recognize us solely by race because if it recognizes our Hawaiian nationality then they have to admit that the whole archipelago was stolen against its own and international laws at the time, and thus subject to the international laws of decolonization.

Contextually, affirmative-action programs in America try to bring equality to oppressed minorities: immigrants and blacks who are oppressed by the dominant power structure, but who do not represent colonized nations. Thus America does not address issues of land - no grounds for it.

Kanaka benefits and entitlements, like affirmative-action programs across America, are simply America's prima facie attempts to address its own deeply-ingrained racism. In the case of Kanaka, though, they are more: they are attempts to compensate for colonialism; the overthrow, subjugation and oppression of a sovereign nation.

Land and power. America is willing to give up small portions of Hawai'i to "Native Hawaiians" (as with Hawaiian Home Lands). America still retains ultimate sovereignty and most important, its military bases. But to give up, or negotiate in an international arena, the whole archipelago? That's "natives" asking for too much land and too much power.

Another reason for resistance from the American government is its critical need for a strategic military presence in the Pacific. Hawai'i is far more militarily crucial for America than any of the American Indian nations' lands. This is no small point. If the Hawaiian sovereignty movement ever threatens America's military presence here in a serious way, the ramifications for both sides will be enormous.

Today there are numerous groups across America seeking to abolish any and all race-based governmental programs. These groups view federal Kanaka entitlements, programs, assets and Hawaiian sovereignty as a linchpin: denying Kanaka sovereignty sets a precedent for taking down not only all affirmative-action programs for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, but the 500-plus Indian nations as well.

If America denies sovereignty for the indigenous people of Hawai'i, then it brings into question why any nation based on race can exist within America at all. I am not implying that the effort to take down the Indian nations will be successful.

Nevertheless, like last year's Rice decision, the Barrett case represents a potentially huge precedent. This is essentially the same strategy as the Hawaiian Homes Act: divide native peoples by making them fight over scarce resources and set the groundwork for calling all indigenous nations within America "racist."

Anti-sovereignty activists often say that because the Hawaiian Kingdom wasn't race-based, therefore it's wrong under both nations' laws for America to acknowledge only indigenous Kanaka.

Strictly speaking, they're right. But to stop there is to ignore the history of America and the legacy of colonialism racism.

We should not view Hawaiian sovereignty in an isolated context. History shows a pattern of global thievery by America. In 1898, America "annexed" not only Hawai'i, but also Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

There are sovereignty movements in Puerto Rico and Guam as well. America "granted" the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946, because America could not, without tremendous expenditures of money and lives, keep the Philippines. But the smaller, less powerful island nations have been "kept."

The "ideal" of America is that all people are free and equal. The reality is quite different.

Founders of America were white, land-owning males who defined black people as "chattel" who could be legally enslaved; indigenous North Americans as "savage Indians" who could be legally exterminated; and women as unfit to vote. The indigenous nations were granted quasi-sovereign status based on peace treaties. It took the Civil War to outlaw slavery. It took the women's suffrage movement before women gained the right to vote.

These momentous acts, however, still did not provide freedom and equality in America. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and the women's rights movement of the 1970s were necessary because of America's continuous, insidious racism and sexism.

Ideal versus reality: though governments can outlaw actions, they cannot change people's value systems, simply by enacting laws. The outcome of the Civil War made slavery illegal, but it did not make racist whites stop hating and hurting blacks.

Likewise, though women were granted suffrage in 1920, it didn't mean they were then treated equally in business, education or pay.

The ideal of a free and equal America espoused in the Declaration and Constitution has never matched the reality. It simply provides propaganda for the ongoing denial of any and all inequalities, racism and sexism.

Why do I want the Hawaiian Nation restored? Because I have a deep love for Kanaka culture and I see from history that a sovereign nation is the most sure way of preserving and perpetuating that culture. I am a nationalist - though I never lived in the nation I dream of as my own, I have a fervent love for the independent, free nation that Pai'ea - Kamehameha I - created and Lili'uokalani strove to keep.

I want the nation of our people restored because I love this 'aina, the very sand between my toes: it is who I am.

This land was stolen. America, that grandiloquent champion of global human rights is a hypocrite and has been a global thief.

Having said that, we, na Kanaka, are now complicit in the perpetuation of the problems. We have remained mostly silent while extreme voices from our community have advocated racism and racial separatism.

We have accepted the absurdity of "blood quantum," continue to fight and divide ourselves and 'ohana over an arbitrary, baseless, racist notion of koko - blood. We have even come so far in embracing the racist ideology of blood quantum that we boast of how much koko we have. If your mo'o ku'auhau, your genealogy, says you're kanaka, then you're kanaka - pau, end of story.

A shared genealogy means shared ancestors and common cultural roots.

By framing the issue on racial grounds instead of overthrown nation and culture, we have all allowed for an illogical and incorrect context to foster the heated, angry, frustrated debates and diatribes we have seen over the past several decades.

We, all of us, have been set up to fail in finding a solution by allowing ourselves to fight and debate over issues that are only the surface, not the problem itself: a nation was overthrown and its culture nearly destroyed.

Many here would like to avoid and forget what has happened. Many would like to believe this is all made up. My dead and imprisoned 'ohana remind me it's not.

Me, I say, "America, live up to your stated ideals. Do what is right: restore our nation."

Next: On to dreaming of what we can become.

Alani Apio of Kailua is a woodworker, playwright and actor.

Ho`iho`i Mai