AT A COOL new bookstore in Honolulu called Da Shop, I met the foreign minister of the Kingdom of the Hawaiian Islands, Leon Kaulahao Siu. He spends much of his time lobbying at the United Nations and at international missions in Europe. His biggest challenge is persuading diplomats that the Kingdom of Hawaii exists. When they ask if Hawaii is not part of the United States, Mr. Siu hands them a pamphlet called, “The Basis for the Restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom.”
“The Kingdom of the Hawiian Islands is actually an existing, sovereign, independent country,” the pamphlet asserts. “The United States never lawfully acquired the Hawaiian Islands. The so-called ‘State of Hawaii’ is a fictional entity fabricated by the United States in order to make its presence in the Hawaiian Islands appear to be legitimate.”
Hawaii is the only American state that was once a kingdom. The royal family was overthrown in 1893 with decisive help from President Benjamin Harrison and US Marines. Soon afterward a new president, Grover Cleveland, condemned the overthrow as “an act of war” and asked Congress to return the royal family to power. Congress refused. Instead, in 1898, it voted to annex Hawaii. In 1959 Hawaii was admitted to the Union as our 50th state.
The foreign minister insists that all of this was illegal. He has a good case. Nations, however, usually follow international law only when it suits them. The prospect that the United States would allow Hawaii to resume its place as an independent nation seems far-fetched. Nonetheless, visiting these islands makes clear that while Hawaii is in the United States, it is not of the United States. A few dedicated activists like Siu are working for Hawaiian independence. What Hawaiians call the “sovereignty movement,” however, has various faces. Many of its supporters would like something short of independence — a form of autonomy, still undefined, that would give Hawaii more self-government than other states have. Washington should hear them out.
The Hawaiian archipelago is more than 2,000 miles off the coast of California. Less than a quarter of its inhabitants are white. Nearly 40 percent are Asian. Tokyo is closer than Washington. The press is full of stories from Japan and the Philippines, and rarely carries reports from further-off places like New York or Massachusetts.
Native Hawaiian culture is enjoying a renaissance. Cities and towns have passed ordinances stipulating that most streets should bear Hawaiian names. Clubs have sprung up to promote traditions ranging from hula dancing to navigation with double-hulled canoes. The University of Hawaii has opened a center for the study of native Hawaiian law. Courses in the Hawaiian language, which not long ago seemed on the brink of disappearing, have become steadily more popular. Some elementary schools offer instruction in Hawaiian only — a far cry from days when schoolchildren were required to speak English and punished if they did not.
History, like ethnicity and geography, makes Hawaii distinct. The arrival of European and American mariners set off a series of devastating plagues. Within sixty years of Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778, the native population had fallen by more than 70 percent. The mariners were followed by hundreds of Christian missionaries, most of them from New England. They were horrified by native customs and worked tirelessly to suppress them. Some of their descendants went on to assemble vast sugar and fruit plantations, depriving natives of their traditional land. A handful of them organized the 1893 uprising in which Queen Lilioukalani was deposed, ending a monarchy that had ruled for nearly a century. They succeeded only because the United States, by prior arrangement, immediately recognized them as the legal government and landed Marines to secure their power.
The annexation that followed this overthrow, according to Siu and other advocates of Hawaiian independence, was illegal because it was accomplished by an act of Congress rather than a treaty — unlike, say, our annexations of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and northern Mexico. He and three other Hawaiians have constituted themselves as a “regency council,” modeled after the self-appointed “governments in exile” that claimed to speak for Belgium, Poland, and other countries occupied by Nazi armies during World War II. They have filed legal complaints at the United Nations and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The sovereignty movement has not won any substantial concessions from Washington, where Hawaiian statehood is an article of faith. Hawaii is heavily militarized, with nearly twenty bases including the Pacific Missile Range. All American military activity in the Pacific — where tensions seem certain to rise in the coming years — is directed from a base in Oahu. This month, the world’s largest international naval exercise will begin in waters near Hawaii. Given increasing tensions in the Pacific, and especially China’s assertive naval ambitions, the United States would hardly be willing to let Hawaii go. An independent Hawaii might be able to remain neutral, but could just as easily be pulled into another country’s sphere of influence. Hawaii is as intimately tied to the United States militarily as it is politically and economically.
Even without political independence, sovereignty activists can achieve much. They already have. Their movement both reflects and encourages the revival of cultural and historical consciousness. People took notice last year when Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred dismissively to Hawaii as “an island in the Pacific.” He was recognizing that Hawaii is a Polynesian archipelago, thousands of miles from North America. Congress should do the same. Hawaii’s unique history, including our evidently illegal annexation, qualifies it for some form of special status within the United States.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.