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For Native Hawaiians, it’s a paradise lost

on March 27, 2009

Hawaiians struggle in their native islands against the forces of tourism and militarism, according to Ikaika Hussey, publisher of the Hawaii Independent, a Honolulu-based newspaper devoted to in-depth coverage of local issues.

On Sunday, March 15, at the Eastside Cultural Center in downtown Oakland, Hussey, joined by Malia Connor, founder of the Malia Movement Company, presented “Hawaiian Native Lands: Seized, Not Ceded,” a combination dance performance and discussion focused on Native Hawaiian struggles.

Throughout the presentation, the audience, most of whom were non-Hawaiians, listened intently, gasped with incredulity at some of Hussey’s historical retellings, and asked a barrage of questions, to which he responded at length.

“We’re dealing with burial rights, housing rights, cultural rights … all against the backdrop of these powerful forces,” Hussey said.  “These forces, these western forces, have challenged the survival of Native Hawaiians for over two centuries.”

On the island of Oahu alone, Hussey said, the U.S. military controls a quarter of the land.  “Everywhere you go on Oahu, you’re surrounded by military sites,” he said.  And many of these sites are sacred to Hawaiians, like Makua valley.  “Makua means ‘parents’ in Hawaiian, and it’s the birthplace of the Hawaiian people,” he said. “It’s been used for military practice for many years … just bombed with every kind of weapon imaginable … the toxins they released into the ground gets into our drinking water and flows to the ocean.”

The federal government also used the entire island of Kaho‘olawe – an island with more than 500 historically significant sites – for live-fire training from World War II until 1990, when it was returned to the state, which in turn transformed it into a rehabilitation reserve. Hussey said it would be a challenge to restore the island to its former state. “They destroyed the cap rock there,” he said. “Basically it means that the island’s aquifer is broken. It can no longer hold freshwater in its ground.”

Tourism and development present other challenges for Native Hawaiians.  “We have a woman who is contesting the building of a WalMart because her ancestors remains are buried there,” Hussey said. “This happens all over the islands where remains are found and people still build.”

Amid the unbridled construction around the islands, the state is trying to remove Hawaiians from their homes, like in Kahana valley, where residents and the surrounding community protested the eviction of several families due to a state law that prevented their lease renewals.  Because of the protests, the families were allowed to stay pending a legislative resolution. “These families have been living there for over a hundred years, before the overthrow of the Queen,” he said, referring to Queen Liliuokalani, who abdicated her throne in 1893.

And it’s not just the land that is up for sale, according to Malia Connor, founder and executive director of Malia Movement Company, an organization that advocates dance as a form of healing. In a performance called “Always Romanticized,” her dancers gave movement and vision to her spoken word as she described how her people are relegated to cultural oddities for the enjoyment of tourists. “It’s an observation from when I’m back home on Maui and Oahu,” she said.  “We’re objectified.”

In a contracted history lesson, Hussey discussed the key events that shaped the current condition of the native islanders — one of poverty, bad health, and cultural loss. It began when the English Captain James Cook set foot upon the islands in 1778, spreading diseases such as syphilis and the common cold that quickly ravaged the native population. The number of Native Hawaiians, estimated at 400,000 upon the captain’s arrival, decreased to 40,000 in the early 1880s.  According to the 1990 U.S. Census report, there are only 5,000 to 9,000 full-blooded Hawaiians left.

And along with disease, the western world brought its religion. Christian missionaries condemned the Hawaiian culture and its practices. Hula and native attire were discouraged, and the kapu system — sacred laws that upheld the Hawaiian schema of a balanced universe — were discontinued in favor of a Christian one.

The introduced western standard of land ownership, according to Hussey, was perhaps the most important change because it stripped Hawaiians of their ability to survive. “The Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) considered the land to be their parent,” Hussey said. “They didn’t believe in land ownership. They were simply its stewards and believed that if they took care of the land, it would take care of them.”

But once missionaries and businessmen introduced land ownership through deeds and titles –- and took possession of vast tracts of land for themselves -– the native people had to forego their subsistence ideology and become field workers for the vast sugarcane empire that would dominate the Hawaiian economy for more than one hundred years.

The overthrow of the monarchy in 1893 was the last major blow that stripped Hawaiians of their self-determination, Hussey said.  United States Marines entered the harbors of Honolulu and held Queen Liliuokalani captive until she relinquished her throne. The United States government annexed the kingdom, and, through a resolution by Congress, made Hawaii a territory. “The kingdom never ceded its right to its sovereignty,” Hussey said, noting that, under international law, in order for the transfer of power from one government to another be deemed legitimate, a treaty signed by both countries was required, not just a resolution by one.

Today, well over a hundred years since the overthrow, Hawaiians are still fighting for survival, and, according to Hussey, they’re using ideals that are over a thousand years old. It’s a concept called Aloha ‘Aina, which means ‘love of the land.’ It means defending the islands from frivolous development and military buildup and nurturing the lands so that they’re self sustaining, as much as possible given the circumstances.

Hussey ended with a story about the island of Kaho‘olawe that still inspires Hawaiians today.

Every year, Hawaiian children go to Kaho‘olawe to perform the hula and plant trees in an attempt to heal the island that was bombed for 50 years. But, back when the military still used the island, there was another group of young Hawaiians who secretly traveled there by boat in the 1970s. These youngsters, who would soon become fabled in their public opposition to the military’s bombing regimen, and some of whom would one day lose their lives at sea while traveling by surfboard from the island on another trip, made a simple gesture: They planted a tree on its shores. “They’re symbolic of where our values are,” Hussey said, “of life and respect for the land – as opposed to destruction.”

Lead image: Dancers perform “Always Romanticized.”


  1. Malia on May 7, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Thank you for this article Samson.
    I think it was an important event and am thankful that we have venues like Eastside Arts Alliance that are willing to provide a forum for truth…

  2. Gina Pereira on August 23, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    “..along with disease, the western world brought its religion. Christian missionaries condemned the Hawaiian culture and its practices. Hula and native attire were discouraged, and the kapu system — sacred laws that upheld the Hawaiian schema of a balanced universe — were discontinued in favor of a Christian one”

    Wow, you know, even if I hated Christians, I wouldn’t post a blog like this unless I got my facts straight. I don’t know where to begin, but your badly mistaken about the missionaries. I’ll give it this much, they are human and made mistakes but do you honestly have any idea about what occured here in regard to Hawaiian’s who emrabraced the Spirit of Chritianity way back when? They are here..still living and breathing! They had kids who like them, made good choices and bad? At any rate, you owe it to yourself to take a trip to the library and look at the other side-

    • sreiny on August 26, 2009 at 12:07 am

      Hi Gina,

      The article was a transpiring of what was said at this particular event–it is not an espousal of support for the speaker’s views. That being said, as a Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) from the Waianae Coast, I am well aware of the complexities of some of the issues addressed by Mr. Hussey: Hawaiians are of many beliefs, and Mr. Hussey’s views regarding Christianity in particular are not held by all Hawaiians. That facet could have been emphasized more in the piece. Perhaps I assumed too much that the overall tone of his speech, from his protestations of the military to his staunch criticism of development in the islands, would have led people to the understanding that he’s coming from a very particular perspective.

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