Five men are drinking beer and staring intently at a giant fire pit whose coals are slowly heating up. Soon, one of the men will place a wild boar on those coals and the village of Pu’uhonua O Waimanalo will have its dinner.
“We have boar running all around here,” says Reno, a 14-year veteran of this village on the northern tip of O’ahu, as he points to a verdant mountainside canopied by eucalyptus and monkey trees, beyond the 22 jerry-built shanties that dot the landscape. Seeing as Pu’-uhonua O Waimanalo is run independently of any state, catching the boar is not just sport. Hunting boar is part of a sustainable game plan that allows the 85 residents of this village to function without outside interference.
This 45-acre plot was part of a compromise worked out between the state of Hawaii and Pu’uhonua Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a 54-year-old ex-con and founding father of the Hawaiian independence movement. When Kanahele, who has long called for complete secession and the return of Hawaii to its native people, commandeered a spit of Makapuu Beach in O’ahu in 1993, he set in motion a sort of Mexican standoff that eventually led to the government ceding him this land in the village of Waimanalo.
Wielding President Clinton’s Apology Resolution, signed in the White House in 1993, which acknowledged the complicity of the United States in overthrowing Hawaii’s monarchy in 1893, Kanahele dug in his heels and began building homes on the beach. After 15 months, Governor John Waihee offered a deal. If Kanahele and his people vacated the beach, the state would hand over 45 acres in the Koolau mountains. “I couldn’t stand the fact that our people were wasting their lives away,” says Kanahele, a gentle bear of a man who sports a tattoo of cartoon character Wile E Coyote on his arm.
“This isn’t ideal farmland, but we grow bananas, sweet potatoes, taro. We go with the flow.” As Kanahele sees it, his village is a minuscule concession compared to the two million acres of land that he feels should be given back to the native Hawaiians. Kanahele’s separatist village is the most visible manifestation of an independence movement that has many voices, all sharing a common goal: the empowerment of the native population and the endowment of mana (power) to the kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians).
Kanahele is the forerunner of a generation of street-smart activists who have in turn influenced a younger, educated class of independence agitators. The youngest activists have seen their land colonised by the tourist industry, with western cultural hegemony spreading to every part of the Hawaiian archipelago. “Sovereignty in Hawaiian is ea, which also means life, to breathe,” says Kaiwi Nui, 32, a land conservation manager for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a member of the independence movement.
“We must find sovereignty in ourselves. A good analogy might be Nelson Mandela, who was jailed but never broken. Hawaiian people are at war, make no mistake about that. But we are also imprisoned by our own mis-perceptions of who we are as a people.”
Depending on who you talk to, the independence movement is about achieving everything from cultural self-awareness to a complete secession from the US. What almost every native Hawaiian agrees on, however, is that their land was unlawfully wrested away from them.
Their version is that in 1893, the US government invaded Hawaii’s shores and overthrew a monarchy that had been internationally recognised as sovereign. Shortly thereafter, the US established a puppet government and signed a treaty of cessation, or annexation, of Hawaii. The treaty, as the movement’s advocates view it, was illegal, as it was never ratified by Congress. Thus the US is an occupying power. And many in the independence movement want them out.
“Our main goal is to expose occu-pation and bring it to an ultimate end,” says David Keanu Sai. A political science teacher and doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii, Sai is a member of an eight-strong underground group that has conducted a number of in-surrectionary manoeuvres against the alleged occupation. For the record he bears no resemblance to Mr Reeves.
In 1995, Sai declared himself Regent Pro Tem of the Kingdom of Hawaii and declared that all home titles were the property of the kingdom, a move that caused a small panic in the housing market when home owners stopped paying their mortgages. Since then, Sai has given up his guerrilla tactics for a more measured approach, teaching his theory of occupation at the University of Hawaii. “People for years have talked about the colonisation of Hawaii, but you can’t colonise a sovereign state,” says Sai. “It’s just a question of the laws being enforced. We are independent still, but the US will not recognise that they are here illegally.”
Not surprisingly, the notion of a complete break from the US has not curried favour with government officials at either the state or federal level. But a more moderate “nation within a nation” paradigm does have its supporters. In 1999, US senator for Hawaii Daniel Kahikina Akaka introduced a bill that would give native Hawaiians formal recognition by the US as an indigenous people. The bill, if passed, would provide greater legal muscle for native Hawaiians to lobby for state programmes and would also strengthen existing entitlements, which have come under attack from right-wingers on Capitol Hill.
“Every indigenous people in the United States is afforded formal recog-nition by the United States except Hawaiian natives,” says Hawaii attorney general Mark Bennett. As an Akaka bill advocate, Bennett has unsuccessfully defended the legislation, which has died multiple times on the Senate floor. “They have fought and died for their country as others have.”
Regardless of whether the Akaka bill is passed, there are those within the independence movement who would rather see native Hawaiians tap into their own rich, Polynesian-derived heritage, which is thousands of years old. The theory goes that if self-awareness blossoms, so the will towards self-recognition grows stronger. “Rather than fight, I challenge this generation to seek what is not readily accessible, to see what is not being shown,” says Kaiwi Nui. “That rehabilitates Hawaiian pride, it provides mana.”
“No one’s gonna give back the keys,” says Na’alehu Anthony, a film maker and independence sympathiser. “If we seceded from the Union, the tourists would stop coming... revenue would drop, the people perish.” The goal for Anthony and others of his generation is to keep the folk ways and traditions of his native people alive, and to pass down the Hawaiian language to their children.
“What we’re learning about our culture is important,” says Anthony. “We are now finding new ways to connect. Lose the language and you lose connectivity from one generation to the next.”
Five steps to independence
So what if the natives took over Hawaii and kicked the United States out for good? If the most salient ideas of the independence movement were applied, here are some fundamental reforms that might occur.
Recognition: Hawaii is internationally recognised as a sovereign nation. Military neutrality is restored.
Reparations: US government returns all the money it owes the Kingdom of Hawaii – a figure that would total billions.
Return of ceded land: the US returns two million acres of land that it took in 1893; land titles are returned to native Hawaiians.
Government: acting government takes over leadership of the Kingdom. US military leaves.
Education: Hawaiian language is taught as a compulsory subject. In-depth history of Hawaii is taught, leading to a greater understanding of the country’s rich cultural heritage.
For a potential economic model of how Hawaii could fare without the US, look to Iceland, an isolated island nation with a small population. “Iceland has close trading relationships with both the US and the European Union,” says Sumner La Croix of the University of Hawaii – Manoa. “Generally, small islands don’t have large per capita incomes, so opening up trade to as many partners as possible is imperative.”
If any secession took place, Hawaii would have to hope Japan and China maintained the same open-door trade policy that it shares with the US. In the absence of American tourism, Asian visitors would be crucial. “The US has approved destination status agreements with China so that tourists will be allowed from that country imminently,” says La Croix. “Would sovereignty be viable? Yes, but the standard of living would drop dramatically,” La Croix says. “In the absence of strong US ties, all kinds of problems would present themselves.”
Five US secession movements
- The Second Vermont Republic: one of the more widely publicised movements, it calls for a return to Vermont’s status as an independent republic, which it was from 1777 to 1791.
- Alaskan Independence Party: a state-recognised political party with Republican values and libertarian ideals, it doesn't call for immediate secession but a referendum on secession. The party slogan is “Alaska First – Alaska Always”.
- Republic of New Hampshire: a secessionist group founded in 2007 by Caleb Johnson. An independent New Hampshire would have no tariffs on trade, no income tax, no Patriot Act and no gun restrictions.
- Puerto Rican Independence Party: a semi-autonomous American territory,Puerto Rico demands independence based on the belief that it is a colony of the United States and has been denied sovereignty.
- United Republic of Texas Movement: leaders seek to restore independence, arguing that annexation by the US in 1845 was illegal and invalid.