While most of the world knows Hawaiʻi’s six main islands of Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lāna‘i and Hawaiʻi Island, the complete island chain is actually 1800 miles long stretching from Kure Atoll in the northwest and ending with Hawaiʻi Island in the southeast where active volcanoes are still birthing new land. Further south, the new island of Lōʻihi is emerging from the ocean floor. Picture a submerged 1800 mile mountain range from Seattle, Washington, to Baja California, with mountain peaks that break the surface of the water in 132 places thereby creating the “islands” of Hawaiʻi. As an entire archipelago, of the 50 states, Hawaiʻi is second only to Alaska in size.
Hawai‘i lies 2800 miles from the nearest land mass. The evolution of its geology, flora, fauna, and marine life occurred for over a million years in total isolation. It houses the most unique set of natural environmental conditions which emerged from centuries of exploding volcanoes that gave birth to a spectacular and dynamic chain of islands with steep volcanic walls that fell into a pristine sea. The emergence of a dynamic sloping volcanic coastal zone with rich soil, abundant fresh water, and perpetual sunshine then became host to thousands of species of plants and animals in an unbroken articulation of new life that stretched from the mountain tops to the outer edges of the coral reefs that married land to sea— a place so beautiful it can easily be imagined as the Biblical Garden of Eden. This was what the first wave of Polynesian voyagers found in their dramatic discovery of Hawai‘i around 900 A.D.
Distinguishing Characteristics of Native Hawaiians
The first settlers to Hawai‘i came as a result of a bold and skillful tradition of deliberate exploration that had been occurring over centuries as Polynesia was being settled from the western Pacific. However, two-way voyaging ceased about 1200 A.D. and for the next several hundred years a globally unique culture evolved in total isolation from any further contact or influence from the outside world.
The several distinguishing characteristics of these island people were first, their advanced seamanship and knowledge of the ocean that—without benefit of sextant, compass, stern-post rudder, keel, and jib sail—were able to explore and discover every speck of land over two-thirds of the world’s surface, hundreds of years before the Vikings dared to leave sight of landfall. Their knowledge of astronomy not only distinguished them as the world’s greatest navigators, but their observations of the earth’s rotation as noted by the star movements led them to conclude the world was round.
Another distinguishing characteristic was their amazing power of observation of the natural environment, over the centuries, which resulted in a story of creation that paralleled Darwin’s theory of evolution of lower to higher life forms, first evolving from animals of the sea, transitioning on to land animals and then humans. This biological evolutionary cultural account of their creation included a track of mythological sophistication that included over 40,000 demi-gods. The mythology acknowledged the evolutionary process by creating shape shifting gods whose animal forms could transit land, sea or sky.
A third distinguishing characteristic was their skill at natural resource management in organizing their activity around the environment of the landscape to produce food in abundance and to provide themselves with amazingly sophisticated creature comforts and utilitarian objects, all fashioned from nature in a communion with the earth. Theirs was a cultural lifestyle founded in balance and harmony. In isolation, they developed a totally sustainable lifestyle that at once preserved and enhanced the natural environment.
Governance and Land Management
As the islands’ population proliferated, there evolved a codified social and political order which was driven by the need to preserve natural land management systems and fundamental ecological considerations. What emerged was a ruling hierarchy and division of labor stratification that formed the basis of a Hawaiian community that lived within the natural boundaries of land divisions called ahupua‘a. Ahupua‘a boundaries extended from the top of a mountain, bordered on each side by valley ridges, and extending down through the coastal zone to the outer edges of the reef. It was essentially a natural pie-shaped ecosystem that merged land and sea into a political and social sub-district. Each ahupua‘a generally contained everything the population living within the ecosystem needed for a quite comfortable subsistence. Land and access to fresh water and the sea were available to all as a fundamental condition of life extended by authority of the gods. Ruling chiefs were not free to deny this basic right to quality of life. The division of labor was organized around families, each dedicated to specific functions such as fishermen, farmers, canoe builders, craftsmen, navigators, priests, ruling chiefs, and so forth, as their traditional station in the economic order of the community. The social and political hierarchy was supported by a subsistence economy taxation system where a percentage of the goods and services were allocated to the ruling chiefs of an ahupua‘a. A striking characteristic about ahupua‘a life was that people were free to move from one to the next. Loyalty to a ruling chief was contingent on that chief being a fair and benevolent dispenser of benefits and justice.
Although life in an ahupua‘a was generally one of quality, there was still the reality of human nature that competition and sometimes conflict between ruling chiefs would occur. The warrior class was ever present in ancient Hawaiian society as an important factor in the advancement of a ruling chief to higher levels of rulership. Although the right to rule was a matter of birthright and genealogy, it was inevitable that war would break out sometimes between members of the same family as a simple consequence of human ambition. However, one reality that prevailed and had the effect of controlling the amount of war that could be waged was that during these periods of conflict the production of goods and services were seriously curtailed, thereby reducing the amount of “taxes” a ruler could receive, and negatively affecting the quality of life for everyone. So there were several months each winter-spring set aside where war was forbidden. This period was called the season of the Makahiki during which the community would celebrate their lives and the chiefs would collect their taxes.
The late 1700’s found each island divided into one or more “kingdoms,” each with a supreme ruler who was served by a complicated system of subordinate chiefs with their own entourages of subordinates, and each governing their own districts as parceled out by the ruling chief.
This was the culture found by English Captain James Cook in 1778, when he became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands. He and the westerners who followed changed the Hawaiian way of life forever.
In 1795, Hawai‘i’s most dynamic and well-known ruler, King Kamehameha the Great, aided by the introduction of muskets and cannons, was successful in waging a long and bloody war that finally united all the islands under one supreme ruler and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was established. Hawaiʻi is the only state in the United States that was once a Kingdom. Beginning with Kamehameha, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i enjoyed political and economic sovereignty recognized by the United States as well as European and Asian nations. The last king of Hawaiʻi, Kalākaua, was the first leader of any nation to travel around the world, and when he returned he built ‘Iolani Palace as the government headquarters of the Kingdom, that still stands today.
Loss of Political Sovereignty
Considering that the 1800s was a time of global colonization by world powers in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, it was notable that Hawai‘i remained sovereign for as long as it did. Under Hawaiian monarchs, especially Kamehameha III, who ruled from 1825 to 1854, sweeping changes took place as a result of the interaction between Hawaiians and foreigners, especially those from Europe and the United States.
One result of this interaction, beginning with Captain Cook, was the introduction of diseases to which Hawaiians had no immunity. In the hundred years since first contact, it has been estimated that more than 80% of the Hawaiian people died. This caused a huge disruption in the fabric of the culture.
In addition, the whole western concept of “owning” land was completely foreign to the cultural land stewardship model that had been in place for centuries which provided unlimited opportunities for Hawaiians to access the land. When this traditional system of access impeded the growth of the ranches and plantations owned by non-Hawaiians, a momentous change was adopted. The legal concept of private ownership was thrust upon the native population through the Mahele, a sweeping land division edict little understood by the commoners. It was followed by a blatantly and obvious land grab scheme whereby the law of adverse possession was used to wrest land from native owners. As a result, most Hawaiians lost the lands they and their ancestors had lived on for generations.
In 1893, a small band of businessmen with allegiance to the United States instigated an overthrow of then-ruling Queen Lili‘uokalani. Immediately following the overthrow, the insurgents declared a provisional government and petitioned the United States for annexation. Being refused by the U.S. Congress on the first attempt, the provisional government was transitioned into the Republic of Hawaii. The second effort at annexation was successful despite the cries of Native Hawaiians still protesting their loss of sovereignty. Indeed, the majority of Hawaiians signed petitions pleading with the US to return their sovereignty. Nonetheless, Hawai‘i was annexed to the United States as a Territory, and in 1959 became the 50th state.
The Hawaiian loss of sovereignty in 1893 and the incorporation of the islands into the United States, generated an abiding residual resentment and general discomfort between the Hawaiian community and the state and federal governments.
It is impossible to fully document the tragic consequences of the loss of sovereignty on the Hawaiian people. Much of what was lost was their culture, their dignity, and their pride as a people. They suffered the intellectual insults, the subserviency, and the greatest tragedy of all, the usurpation of their value system and their relationship with the land. The attempt by post-kingdom governments to assimilate the Hawaiian people was only successful in forcing them to deal with the new reality of a market economy.
Cultural and Political Resurgence
There was a long period of mostly silent submission to the loss of sovereignty that ensued for the next eighty years until two events sparked a resurgence in Hawaiian self-determination for justice. One was a high-profile, emotional, and powerful protest movement to stop the bombing of one of the Hawaiian islands called Kaho‘olawe, a strategic target training facility used by the U.S. military as a bombing practice range. This was a historically significant event because what started as a pretty ragtag protest movement of a few young Hawaiians invoking some deeply held Hawaiian values about the relationship with the land was turned into a statewide campaign that was eventually supported by the majority of Hawai‘i’s people and its leaders. The island, after several years of ordinance disposal activity, was returned to the jurisdiction of the State of Hawai‘i and officially accorded joint stewardship to a Hawaiian organization, the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana.
A second event was a project called the Hōkūle‘a. Begun by anthropologist Ben Finney in 1973, he enlisted the Hawaiian community to help reconstruct the voyaging heritage that all thought long lost. The challenge was daunting if not impossible. Would it be possible to regain the navigational and voyaging skills used by ancient Polynesians to recreate the most dramatic period of ocean exploration in the history of mankind? Driven by illustrations of artist-historian Herb Kane, the project captured the front pages of Hawai‘i’s news media for months and sparked a major renaissance in Hawaiian culture that exploded into Hawai‘i society. Its effects are still snowballing today with the revival of every aspect of Hawaiian culture and new generations of Hawaiians as well as non-Hawaiians who are inspired to pursue the Hawaiian cultural revival.
This dramatic cultural resurgence since the 1970s has had a curious effect on the relationship between Hawaiians and Hawai‘i. If anything, it has heightened the political tension on the political and economic landscape. High profile political constituencies began calling for a process to address the question of Hawaiian sovereignty to attempt to right the wrongs, restore lost dignity, retrieve almost irreparably harmed cultural traditions, and hopefully emerge with a political model that restores some of the sovereignty of nationhood in a redefining of the relationship between Hawaiians, the state and federal governments, and the international family of nations.
In 1982 the state of Hawai‘i, by state Constitution, created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an agency that is semi-autonomous from the state, led by an elected trustee body of native Hawaiians. OHA’s role is to manage land revenues generated by a government trust created by the US Congress in 1959 for the purpose of improving the lives of Native Hawaiians. The rising Hawaiian consciousness and calls of broken trusts create a sometimes uneasy social landscape. Hawaiians and Hawaiian supporters frequent public hearings and vociferously file their protests against Western expansion. There is no question that until what Hawaiians generally feel as injustices of long standing are brought to closure, Hawai‘i society will continue to shift about with an uncomfortable and almost threatening uneasiness.
The Economy of Hawai‘i
Tourism today is Hawai‘i’s number one industry. It surpasses sugar and pineapple as the dominant economic driver of the Hawaiian economy. Tourism permeates every aspect of the economic, social, and political life of Hawai‘i. It is joined in its importance to the economy by our military-industrial complex, which ironically also brings thousands of strangers to Hawai’i. These industries are the current political outcomes of a western economic system that resulted – without the approval of Hawaiians and at the expense of their sovereignty – from the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893. The growth of these industries did not happen with our consent (the consent of the governed), and they continue without our consent. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the impact of tourism in this historical context.
The Native Hawaiian view of tourism is rooted in the uneasy relationship between Native Hawaiians and the mainstream of Hawai‘i’s political and economic institutions. The tourism industry is the dominant sub-set of those institutions. That is, the industry does not exist in a vacuum and therefore cannot be totally isolated as a focal point for study. Tourism has to be considered as part of a larger landscape of historical conditions, circumstances, events, decisions, and attitudes that have resulted in a diminished status of Hawaiians as decision makers in Hawai‘i’s economic future. In this context, tourism rises as a present day flash point on the long trail of historical disappointments.
The majority of native Hawaiians do not fully and comfortably embrace the prevailing business model of corporate tourism as generally contributing to the betterment of their conditions. This is not to say that native Hawaiians would deny that tourism brings economic benefits or disagree that tourism is an important activity for the State of Hawai‘i. But the experience has been such that many native Hawaiians feel the industry’s growth has contributed to a degradation of their cultural values, compromised their cultural integrity in the global marketplace, diminished their presence in Hawai‘i’s visitor centers, devalued their wahipana (sacred places), and seriously compromised a Native Hawaiian sense of place in places like Waikiki.
Tourism followed sugar, pineapple, and the military in a chronology of reincarnations of western land systems that alienated many native Hawaiians from their most fundamental cultural need—access to land. To a native Hawaiian, being alienated from the land is a cultural tragedy of major proportions. Some might say it is unfair to connect this historical alienation to present day tourism, since much of it occurred well before the visitor industry became a factor in Hawai‘i’s economy. However, from a Hawaiian perspective, as a business model tourism embraces the same concepts and values as its predecessors. It is a variation of an economic theme that yields the same result—Native Hawaiian alienation from their culture.
Tourism has had the further debilitating effect of distorting the culture through commercially driven presentations that lack cultural depth and dignity. Our culture is perverted by homogenized presentations that sandwich Hawaiian culture between layers of other Polynesian cultures so that it fails to be distinguishable as unique to the Hawaiian heritage.
Tourism also has contributed to the development of vast swaths of the islands into resorts, towns and cities. Today, Hawai‘i is the home of more endangered species of plants and animals per square mile than any other place on earth.
Yet there are new models of tourism evolving that have been embraced by some Hawaiians. One of these is cultural tourism. This model brings visitors to a cultural activity that exists for its own sake, a tradition or ceremony that would occur with or without tourists, that the hosts engage in for themselves. For instance, a hula school exists for its own sake. If there were no tourists, the school would still exist. As a visitor experience, a hula performance staged by a hula school is a deep and moving experience. This is in contrast to the Las Vegas style stage productions of hula we are used to seeing at the standard hotel lu‘au. Such a production may be entertaining but is far removed from a genuine expression of native culture. Visitors seldom have the opportunity to encounter authentic native experiences because they occur outside the scope of the gatekeeper sales and marketing system that dominates the visitor markets. There are scores of Hawaiian cultural experiences throughout Hawai‘i’s communities where visitors are welcome but seldom seen. These cultural celebrations are not tourist directed but nevertheless are sometimes seen as a threat by commercial venues because visitors might be lured away from mainstream ticketed and commissioned events.
Whether the issues are real or perceived the great challenge of addressing the disconnect between Hawaiians and tourism is the lack of “safe harbor” forums where the two sides can meet and carry on productive discussion. There is an irony in the relationship between tourism and Hawaiians in that the two are symbiotically connected and neither can move forward without the other.
Beyond tourism, opportunities to expand Hawaiʻi’s economy abound. Hawaiʻi imports 90% of its food and fossil fuels. The level of dependency on its imported food supply and energy puts Hawaiʻi one maritime strike away from catastrophe. Ironically, it also rises two great opportunities for economic growth: alternative energy, and food production. Hawaiʻi’s geo-climatic conditions and prolific mix of natural resources makes pursuit of self-sufficiency in both of these growth sectors deserving of attracting serious attention for long term investment.
Federal and state government and the military-industrial sectors dominate the local economy, with education and the technology sectors hovering on the edges of investment growth. State and federal governments maintain a high presence in island life and their influence on growth snakes through every island community in profound ways. State government policies affect all the economic growth sectors and quality of life opportunities for the local population. Construction development is a prominent economic activity and a beast to be fed. Though all of these offer jobs for Hawaiians, many feel that Hawaiʻi is approaching its carrying capacity with respect to development. The military-industrial complex with its string of military installations that occupy one-third of the state’s land mass strategically occupying all important inland waterways, shorelines, and mountain regions makes the military presence somewhat contentious, though supported by the majority of islanders.
The Future of Hawai‘i
Today, the pluralistic Hawaiʻi population finds itself to be a collection of ethnic minorities without a majority. The mix includes American, European, Hawaiian, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, other Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, Portuguese, Filipino, Korean, and Southeast Asian. Hawaiʻi’s global uniqueness is its high level of inter-racial cultural tolerance rooted in the host Hawaiian culture’s history of genuinely welcoming all to its shores and color-blind acceptance of the immigrant populations who first arrived as migrant workers for the sugar plantations in 1850. The cultural blending is particularly evident in the hybrid children of third and fourth generation inter-racial marriages as well as in the hybrid food menus of popular restaurants.
As proud as Hawaiʻi is of its cultural diversity, spirit of aloha, and its reputation of being the kind of place the world strives to emulate, it can never be truly whole until the Hawaiian question is resolved and – Hawaiʻi Loa Kū Like Kākou – all Hawaiʻi can stand together.