Hawaiian Sovereignty and the Limits of Statehood: De-Occupation or Decolonisation?

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui discusses her monograph, Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty: Land, Sex, and the Colonial Politics of State Nationalism, with Ntina Tzouvala (TWAILR Editorial Collective). 

Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty examines the contradictions that emerge in relation to colonial biopolitics and governance techniques by the Hawaiian Kingdom – taken up by Indigenous elites to transform a range of cultural practices – in an effort to resist western imperialism and protect Hawaiian sovereignty. Kauanui makes this powerful argument by examining early nineteenth century changes in land tenure, gender status, and sexual norms and possibilities.  

Kauanui theorizes the relationship between the processes of enclosure and the imposition of proprietary relations to land, gender, and sexuality as core aspects of the encounter between Hawaiian elites, white missionaries, and western forces in the early nineteenth century.  Importantly, the book documents how these historical genealogies are playing out in the contemporary nationalist movement. In this engaging and relevant analysis, Kauanui reflects on contemporary decolonial struggles in Hawai‘i and the meaning and limitations of self-determination, sovereignty, and statehood. 

What motivated you to write this book?

I have been affiliated with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement since 1990 – participating while located outside of the islands as a diasporic Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiian). I have seen many changes in the political landscape since then. Regarding my project, over the last twenty years, there has been a perplexing shift in political discourse, in which some pro-independence leaders have increasingly denied that the Kanaka Maoli ever historically experienced colonialism. This is because, as the logic goes, the Hawaiian Kingdom is an independent state that is merely illegally occupied by the United States (U.S.). The crux of this position is based on the notion that occupation and colonialism are mutually exclusive. This book project explores decolonization in relation to land, gender, and sexual politics given this political impasse.

As I show, to tackle this predicament it is imperative to understand the hybrid status of the Hawaiian case. There is here a legal genealogy of independent statehood, which is separate from the U.S. state and Hawai‘i as the so-called “50th state.” I also examine why some Hawaiians oppose any acknowledgement, let alone critical analysis, of colonialism, and clarify what the stakes are of this denial. In turn, I insist on engagement with settler colonialism as an analytic and social form of domination while also drawing on normative frameworks of international law in order to expose the limits of de-occupation, decolonization, and Indigenous rights.

In the 1960s and 1970s, colonised peoples around the world generally understood decolonisation as a process of universalisation of the nation-state. Despite the initial euphoria, this process led to the rise of states that have turned out to be profoundly repressive and exploitative of both humans and nature. In your own book, you make a powerful case against statehood and western conceptualisations of sovereignty as forms of genuine decolonisation for Hawai‘i. Do you want to share with us your thinking on this front? 

Paradoxes argues that the Hawaiian situation demands an approach that is not state-centered (whether part of the U.S. or Hawaiian Kingdom) in order to fully explore recuperating a decolonial modality. Without exceptionalising Hawai‘i, our history differs from most of the countries that fought for decolonization in the 1960s and 70s. The Hawaiian Kingdom was established in 1810 in response to western encroachment. By 1843, the United States, Great Britain, and France recognized the monarchy as an independent state. From that time, until the 1893 U.S.-backed overthrow, all nation-states throughout the west and several in other parts of the world recognized Hawaiian sovereign statehood. The 1893 U.S. backed coup – orchestrated by U.S. Minister John L. Stevens in unison with a dozen settlers – constituted an illegal occupation, which the U.S. later admitted was an “act of war.”  

The U.S. government then purportedly annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898. But several things transpired in between the overthrow and the annexation. For one, when the U.S. government did not annex the islands right away after the overthrow, the settlers formed their own provisional government, and by 1894 formed the ‘Republic of Hawai‘i.’ That entity moved to have the U.S. annex Hawai‘i through a treaty once William McKinley succeeded Grover Cleveland as U.S. President.  However, Kanaka Maoli organized en mass to stop the annexation by mobilizing the entire population to express their opposition through what they called the Ku‘e Petitions in 1897. As a result, the U.S. Senate could not garner the two-thirds majority vote to pass the treaty of annexation. However, the U.S. government passed a congressional resolution purportedly annexing the Hawaiian Islands the following year, in violation of international law. Noenoe Silva has documented this history in her important work based on Hawaiian language sources, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Opposition to U.S. Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2004).

As I mentioned earlier, some kingdom nationalists dismiss any analysis of settler colonialism as a social formation and enduring structure, exclusively drawing attention to the U.S. occupation. In turn, rather than UN protocols for decolonization, they assert that the case of Hawaiʻi ought to be guided by The Hague Conventions (1899 and 1907), which have the status of customary international law and provide a definition of occupation upon which the Fourth Geneva Convention relies. My own work suggests that it is both the normalization of U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism that contribute to the erasure of Hawai‘i as a site of enduring occupation, which the U.S. government continues in order to assure its military expansion to control more than half the world through the U.S. Pacific Command. And yet, the U.S. government—if ever pressed by the international community—cannot substantiate its claim to the Hawaiian Islands since the archipelago was never ceded through treaty or conquest. 

Even the U.S. government acknowledged this illegitimate taking in its 1993 apology to the Hawaiian people. U.S. Congress passed the Apology Resolution (Public Law 103-150), admitting that the overthrow was illegal and apologizing for the U.S. role in that act of war. The joint-senate resolution states that ‘the Indigenous Hawaiian people never directly relinquished their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people or over their national lands to the United States, either through their monarchy or through a plebiscite or referendum.’  After this resolution passed, the entire Hawaiian sovereignty movement seemed to shift as this admission from the U.S. government seemed to clear a space for a new generation of independence activism.  

In terms of the critiques of statist nationalism I present in the book – examining the shortcomings of the federal recognition and de-occupation models, I show how they insufficiently deal with the particularities of the Hawaiian case, since neither federal law nor international law fully reckons with these historical injustices. Under the Obama Administration, and before that under Bush, the proposed tribal model for Hawaiians is a federally driven ‘solution’ to the so-called Hawaiian problem – an attempt to extinguish the Hawaiian sovereignty question as a moral, political, and legal one.  Despite attempts by state officials to contain the outstanding Hawaiian sovereignty claim within U.S. federal policy (now at a standstill under the Trump Administration anyhow), the claim to Hawaiian independence endures.  

Your historical approach focuses on the domestic transformations promoted by Hawaiian elites as responses both to external pressures and as means to maintain and extend their own power and privilege. This is a methodological choice that has not always been obvious or dominant in histories of colonialism and settler-colonialism. Why did you feel it was important to highlight this aspect of the encounter between Hawai‘i’s and U.S. imperialism? 

This is one of the paradoxes of Hawaiian sovereignty; Kanaka Maoli have an un-extinguished claim to independent nationhood related to the fact that the Kingdom was internationally recognized as an independent state. At the same time, however, this legal development was dependent on the very things that degraded the Indigenous polity in the early to late nineteenth century that constituted a form of ‘respectability politics’ to prove Hawaiian capability for self-governance.  The long legacy of colonial biopolitics under the Kingdom – internal reforms initiated by Hawaiian elites – included the introduction of private property, the imposition of marriage (while criminalizing all other sexual interactions outside of church and state-sanctioned unions), and the legal subordination of women. These historical changes continue to impact Kanaka Maoli today.

Attentive to the limits of the law, Paradoxes turns to non-statist forms of decolonization that tend to land, gender, and sexuality based on Indigenous Hawaiian sovereignty, which can be found in what Hawaiians refer to as ea – the power and life force of interconnectedness between deities, ancestral forces, humans and other animals, and all elements of the natural world.  As I show, land, gender and sexuality – targeted early for ‘reform’ – are crucial sites for the production of life for an ethical future and a substantiation of sovereignty through remaking indigeneity without the reliance on juridical regimes of power. 

 Protesters commemorating 126 years since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Photo: (Image: Hawaii News Now/file)

Even though your work does not exclusively focus on international law, its concepts feature prominently in your narrative, including for example the insistence by Hawaiian nationalists that the islands were never colonised, but they remain under unlawful occupation to date. Can you tell us more about the different forms of engagement with international law (and international politics) by the Kanaka Maoli? 

My initial exposure to Hawaiians taking up international law was in 1993 in Hawaiʻi, when I attended Ka Hoʻokolokolonui Kanaka Maoli – The People’s International Tribunal on the Rights of Indigenous Hawaiians. People’s Tribunals are mounted outside state entities, and differ from Judicial Tribunals (which are set up by governments and Member States of the United Nations). Esteemed Kanaka Maoli elder Kekuni Blasdell, M.D. (now deceased) convened the Tribunal, which consisted of members of civil society and world-renowned human rights experts to adjudicate the Hawaiian case. This was important on many levels, especially given the grassroots participation, but another reason is because U.S. government considers the Hawaiian people wards of the state that, therefore, cannot pursue any legal claim as a people in the courts. Therefore, this was an issue of calling on the world community to hear our case – a different politics of recognition, if you will.

There is also a long and robust history of Kanaka Maoli going to the United Nations to bring attention to the Hawaiian case. One of the earliest I am aware of was Gail Kawaipuna Prejean who worked with the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) until his death in 1992. Founded in 1977, the IITC was the first Indigenous NGO to gain Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council. Finally, Hawaiian leader Dennis ‘Bumpy’ Kanahele has served on the board of the IITC since the 1990s and continues to do so.

Also, Pōka Laenui (aka Hayden Burgess), Mililani Trask, and Nālani Minton have all been crucial actors in terms of engaging international law. In 1983, Laenui joined the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and was tasked to be the political spokesperson at international forums, including several agencies within the United Nations.  He was selected as the Indigenous Expert to the International Labor Organization’s drafting committee on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Convention (ILO 169), and subsequently played an instrumental role in the drafting of the UNDRIP. Mililani Trask was a member of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace and she helped author the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). She was elected Vice Chair of the General Assembly of Nations of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. After the UN General Assembly passed the UNDRIP, Trask served as one of eight representatives to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in its inaugural term. Nālani Minton attended the UN meetings of the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples on behalf of Ka Pākaukau (founded by Blaisdell, mentioned earlier) and also worked over a decade helping with the drafting process of the UNDRIP. I should also note Maivân C. Lâm, a tireless ally to Kanaka Maoli who has lent her expertise to the movement for decades, and who worked closely with Blaisdell as she served a one of the advocate prosecutors for the Hawai‘i Tribunal – also played a crucial role in the Working Group and drafting process for the UNDRIP.

There are other engagements with international law that focus on testing the legal waters for the Hawai‘i case. For example, in 1999, an individual who identifies as a subject of the Hawaiian Kingdom took a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) asserting that the Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom was ‘negligent’ because he had been convicted under U.S. laws and was incarcerated as a result. He argued that the Kingdom had not taken affirmative steps to prevent the imposition of U.S. laws. An arbitration agreement was reached in Honolulu and then submitted to the PCA – and the court suggested that David Keanu Sai, a sovereignty leader who identifies as an agent for the Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom, should formally invite the U.S. to join the arbitration proceedings.  The idea in this instance was to compel the U.S. government to contest the existence of the Kingdom as an independent state – which juridically would be hard to dispute.

There are other ways Hawaiians have pressed the case in various international forums. Groups including Ka Lāhui Hawai‘i and Ka Pākaukau (mentioned above) pressed the sovereignty issue at the international level for nearly two decades prior to the 1998 hundredth year anniversary of the U.S. claiming to have annexed Hawai‘i in 1898. In turn, a UN report recommended that Hawai‘i be returned to a UN List of Non-Self Governing Territories, which would mean eligibility for decolonization through a UN-sponsored plebiscite.

Your book deals extensively with the transformations of gender and sexuality that came about as a result of the spread of Christianity and the efforts of domestic elites to repudiate accusations of immorality and savagery. At the same time, you appear deeply skeptical about the idea that the legalisation of same-sex marriage undoes this colonial legacy. Is this skepticism related to the rights-form as a means of emancipation?

Yes, definitely – but there’s more to it than that.  Marriage is about property, and my work is about challenging all forms of proprietary relations.  The pre-colonial Hawaiian world, which is well documented given that we are talking about a period up to the late eighteenth century, allowed for same-sex sexual expression, polyandry and polygyny. Marriage was introduced by Calvinist missionaries from New England in the early nineteenth century, and with marriage came coverture – the subordination of women’s civil status. 

All of this is not to romanticize pre-colonial Hawaiian society, which had a stratified and hierarchical kinship system. Women and men were positioned in relationship to each other in an egalitarian way, but with an important qualifier—in relation to each other within their respective genealogical rankings. And, of course, there will always be debates about what constitutes ‘tradition’ when engaging in projects of Indigenous resurgence.  Hawaiians had a range of models of gender and sexual diversity. For example, traditional ways of registering interest in an enduring intimate relationship were called awaiulu (to bind securely, fasten, or tie) or hoʻao (to stay until daylight). The intimate relationships between kane (man) and wahine (woman) – and probably māhū (intersex subjects), although that research needs to be undertaken given the historical erasures of those with indeterminate gender – are sometimes referred to in the literature as ‘marriage’ but that term does not correspond to Kanaka relationships. Bisexuality was the norm and people of all genders could have multiple partners. 

In Paradoxes, I discuss nation-based accounts of Indigenous sovereignty, interrogations of the legal power of the settler state, and foreground Indigenous criticism of the overarching colonial and gendered/sexualized power relations facing Kanaka Maoli within the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Jumping ahead to more recent history, I argue that while there is Indigenous cultural revitalization of Hawaiian concepts that may be considered part of broader cultural decolonization, the state legislature’s passage of the same-sex marriage bill is a form of settler colonial continuity. In light of the unlawful 1893 U.S.-backed overthrow and 1898 annexation of an independent state, those in the Hawaiian nationalist movement contest the legitimacy of the ‘50th state’.  In Hawai‘i, then, same-sex marriage extends the colonial imposition of male-female marriage to the contemporary politics of assimilation and affirmation of U.S. occupation under the cover of inclusion in a multiracial liberal democracy in the ‘land of aloha’.

Photo credit Kyle Kajihiro

The idea of the ‘paradox’ runs through your account. Do you think there is a way out of this paradox for the Kanaka Maoli, or living with contradictions is the best one can hope for? 

I am not trying to arrive at the ‘right’ approach to Hawaiian sovereignty, because the constitution of the category itself is paradoxical.  My project is a broad critique of statist nationalism – focusing on the two most prominent models in the contemporary sovereignty movement in order to show their structural limitations with regard to addressing ongoing settler colonialism, and bringing about decolonization of our social world to challenge premises that render Indigenous sovereignty an unthinkable political reality. I do not construct any binary to take on proponents of federal recognition and Kingdom nationalists; instead, my aim is to challenge these as the two dominant forms of statist nationalism, and to show how neither confronts settler colonialism effectively due to the limits of statist solutions, and the actual paradoxes of Hawaiian sovereignty. What I hope readers understand is that the central aim in Paradoxes is precisely to expose the paradoxes. These are not contradictions that can be resolved; they are structural and thus need to be navigated carefully. This is why I look to land-based Indigenous resurgence projects, to track how they confront that structure of domination, and therefore enable decolonial futures.

Apart from your scholarly work, you are also an activist, including in the context of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to bring the oppression of Palestinians by the state of Israel to an end. How are your work and your own identity related to BDS and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination? 

At Ka Hoʻokolokolonui Kanaka Maoli mentioned above, one of the judges was Asma Khader, a Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist based in Jordan. At the end of hearing ten days of testimony on that historical occasion in Hawaiʻi, she passionately drew parallels between the condition of Kanaka Maoli and Palestinians. Her insistence on mutual solidarity was very compelling, and has stayed with me, even though it took some time before I became involved in related activism. 

I have been involved in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement since Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) when the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott (USACBI) was launched. I have had the opportunity to travel to Palestine twice. The first time was in January 2012 for a 5-scholar delegation organized by USACBI, which was focused on meeting political activists and scholars. The second time in May 2015 was as a participant in a faculty development seminar sponsored by the Palestinian American Research Center, which involved meeting with scholars teaching at Palestinian universities (not Israeli institutions subject to boycott) in Jerusalem and the West Bank to share common research interests and facilitate academic exchanges. I have also worked on academic boycott initiatives within three academic associations: American Studies Association, Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Anthropological Association. 

I am invested in meaningful solidarity from an anti-statist and anti-capitalist political orientation. The BDS campaign makes clear that it is rights-based; the movement does not advocate for a particular solution regarding statehood. I feel strongly that it is not for me as a non-Palestinian to weigh in on what form of self-determination is best for the Palestinian people. Nonetheless, as a scholar of sovereignty who is invested in decolonization and anti-authoritarian political praxis, I explore the contours of a ‘no-state’ to consider the contradictions of self-determination, and to enable more optimistic ways to explore what the ‘no state’ could make possible.

What I have found consistent in my time engaged in BDS solidarity politics is that apologists for or defenders of Israel often allege hypocrisy or inconsistency vis-à-vis the history of the U.S. They suggest that we should not criticize others for having the ‘same faults’ – and here they are referring to the U.S. mistreatment of Native Americans. Yet, in my scholarly and activist work exposing and protesting the U.S. occupation of Hawai‘i, I routinely challenge the U.S. government’s legal claim, expose the roots of the United States as a settler colonial state, and critically engage the history of U.S. imperialism in Native America and its military occupations and/or colonial subordination in Oceania (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, as well as American Samoa) and in the Caribbean (the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico). Therefore, I find the charge of hypocrisy curious, especially given that those who typically evoke it have no real interest in challenging U.S. domination in any of these contexts, let alone in the world at large, through its imperial force as the world’s sole superpower.

That said, just because Zionists may raise this question in a disingenuous way does not mean it is an issue that BDS activists based in the U.S. (or any other settler colonial context) can ignore. Indeed, I am currently completing a book manuscript provisionally titled ‘Indigenous Implications: U.S. Settler Colonialism and Palestine Solidarity Politics’, which urges activists to take a more ethically consistent approach. Thus, ‘Indigenous implications’ is also a reminder that as U.S.-based activists we are all implicated in the politics of Indigeneity given the settler colonial context.

Demonstrators block a road in Mauna Kea on July 15, 2019.
 Photo: Caleb Jones/AP

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Indigenous struggles, including the movement against the construction of a mega-telescope on the sacred Mauna Kea. How does your own thinking meet with these struggles? 

Since mid-July 2019, something powerful has been unfolding at the base of Maunakea, a sacred mountain on the Hawai‘i Island that is currently under threat. The Royal Order of Kamehameha declared a place of refuge (a sanctuary in Hawaiian customary practice), which they named Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu.  The Royal Order is an order of knighthood established by Kamehameha V in 1865, to promote and defend Hawaiian sovereignty, and thus to honor the legacy of his grandfather who established the monarchy. In Hawaiian tradition, a Puʻuhonua is a place designated to provide safety and protection during times of conflict. This effort made by the Royal Order was done in collaboration with an Indigenous Hawaiian direct-action protest group called HULI – Hawaiians United for Liberation and Independence – at sunrise on 13 July 2019.  

That pronouncement was made in advance of what was to be the start of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), a $1.4 billion project for an eighteen-story observatory on the summit of this mountain (the highest in the world at 32,000 feet, from seafloor to summit). 

The case of Maunakea can be seen as a microcosm of the history of Hawai‘i’s (U.S.) statehood and earlier American encroachment. In both cases, the settler colonial state breaches its own laws, degrades the Hawaiian people’s culture, and abuses our homeland in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. All this is accomplished while destroying the environment and island ecosystems for profit and violating the collective will of Kanaka Maoli governance. Additionally, the process thus far (and project as a whole) violates the state of Hawai‘i’s responsibility to manage ‘public lands’ (constituted in part by Mauna Kea) and to fulfill constitutional and statutory obligations to Kanaka Maoli. However, looking deeper at the politics of land in the islands, one finds that the ‘public lands’ are stolen lands. They are the Crown Lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which the U.S. government itself has admitted.

The kia‘i (protectors) at the Pu‘uhonua engaged in stewardship that centers decolonial and nonproprietary relationships. Their actions are deeply grounded in a Hawaiian ethics of care and responsibility while creating meaningful alternatives. And Hawaiian women and non-binary activists are at the forefront. If we consider anarchist praxis as a form of political practice that is horizontal and grounded in mutual aid and free association (consent-based relationships), we can see the direct action and mobilization of people on the front lines at Mauna Kea moving in unity within that tradition, while deeply grounded in Kanaka Maoli ethics of care and responsibility. There is so much power and beauty there at the Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu Maunakea camp, which clearly looks to be well coordinated and highly organized. And what we are witnessing at camp right now is the future: Hawaiian unity for the protection of our lands and waters in a deeply respectful way that is based on the principle of aloha.