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Hawaiian nationalist discusses rights Constitution doesn't recognize
Issues surrounding race and ethnicity in Hawaii can sound more like those in Germany, France or Bosnia than like those in other parts of the United States, students in Stanford's program in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity discovered at a recent guest lecture by a Hawaiian nationalist.
Haunani-Kay Trask, professor and director of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, spoke of her lifelong effort to return Hawaii to native Hawaiians, by which she does not mean second- and third-generation Hawaiians whose ancestors immigrated from Japan to work colonial sugar plantations or European Americans who came to run the plantations and military bases. She means instead Polynesian peoples who can trace their Hawaiian ancestors back 2,000 years.
Trask, 48, a descendent of former rulers of Maui, refers to European and Japanese Americans in the island state as "settlers," because the term, she said, challenges America's ideology of itself as a land of "immigrants" and conjures up instead the image of South Africa. Unlike the cases of many American Indian tribes who negotiated treaties with the U.S. government, Hawaii's indigenous population was never given a chance to negotiate a treaty, she said. The Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown by U.S. Marines and white settlers who then sought annexation as a territory of the United States. By the time Hawaiians voted for statehood in 1959, indigenous people were a minority. President Clinton apologized in 1993 for the overthrow, she said, "but apologies are cheap."
Trask last spoke at Stanford in 1987, not long after her sister Mililani was elected to head Ka Lahui Hawai'i, an indigenous Hawaiian nation that has registered its constitution with the United Nations but has yet to gain legal status comparable to that which the federal government has given to American Indian nations. Since then, Trask said, Ka Lahui Hawai'i has had some successes, including state-funded Hawaiian language-immersion schools and the organization of a march in January 1993 by 15,000 Hawaiians in support of indigenous rights. In her role as a professor of Hawaiian studies, she said, she has trained a new generation of Hawaiian nationalists who she hopes will carry the movement forward until it is successful.
Officially, Ka Lahui Hawai'i seeks control of 200,000 acres of land that the federal government has given to the state of Hawaii to hold "in trust" for indigenous Hawaiians. The state government, dominated by Japanese American Democrats, decides whether to built airports, high schools or refuse dumps on the land, she said, whereas American Indian tribes keep that control over their lands in other states. The nationalist organization does not seek to overturn private property rights, Trask said, although she left no doubt that if it were feasible, she would prefer to eliminate all settlers' property rights in Hawaii.
"The context [of ethnic politics] in Hawaii is very different from an urban area on the continent," Trask said. "Hawaii is a colony of the United States, just as Tahiti is a colony of France." The high cost of living in a tourist economy controlled by corporations in Japan and the mainland United States, she said, results in a diaspora of native Hawaiians to the mainland. Meanwhile, Americans take for granted their right to enter Hawaii without a passport, she said. While other minority groups lobby for civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, she said, that same constitution is silent on the sovereignty rights that Hawaiians seek because it is "an immigrants' document."
The state's population is about 20 percent Hawaiian, and most who stay have no choice but to work in tourism, which, she claimed, "prostitutes" the native culture to create a mythological paradise for tourists. As in all of her mainland talks, Trask asked her listeners not to visit Hawaii. "We are under siege by 6.5 million tourists [annually]. It's the softest kind of siege it doesn't look like war."
Several students and faculty asked Trask to relate her stance to other situations of ethnic conflict. History Professor George Fredrickson asked if nativist rights for Hawaiians was any different from calls by conservatives in Germany and France to deny rights to non-white immigrants on the grounds that they are not the original residents. A student asked how Trask reconciled her view with archeological evidence that humans all originated in Africa, and a student of Russian Jewish descent asked if "settlers" who were forced out of their original residence, as her ancestors were, should be regarded differently from those who simply move of their own accord.
Trask said the archeological evidence of a shared human beginning was a "Haole view of the world," using the word that in Hawaiian means "foreigner." Her culture shares with other indigenous cultures a different "creation story" that links one's family to the cosmos through an obligation to care for the land and waters that nurtured one's ancestors, she said.
France and Germany face influxes of immigrants because they built empires, she said, which Hawaiians did not have. "The French conquered Algeria and empires create problems. I'm sure Algerians, or at least the first generation, would have rather stayed in Algeria," she said, but France "underdeveloped" Algeria.
She said she made no distinctions among Hawaiian settlers based on their reasons for leaving their original settlement. "It's all the same. The Japanese think they should have a different status [in Hawaii]. I say, 'You do. You have power.' History is a mean, awful thing. . . . I never deny the Japanese suffered. But they do they deny we are native."
Many residents of Hawaii call themselves "locals," she said, to distinguish themselves from tourists but also to blur the distinction between residencies of six months and 2,000 years. "It pits second- and third-generation Asian Americans against our sovereignty movement."
History Professor Albert Camarillo noted that indigenous people often lack political unity following suppression of their language and other aspects of the culture. Given that, he asked how Trask would build a majority among native Hawaiians for her movement's goals.
"You get out there and do it, year after year, decade after decade," she said, adding that she agreed with her sister that it was important to begin by re-establishing traditional Hawaiian spirituality and not simply demanding land sovereignty.
"In Hawaii, I am probably the most famous racist," she said, adding that she felt it was impossible for a native Hawaiian not to be considered a racist by other Hawaiian residents unless "you dance in a hotel and fulfill the profile of a soft, alluring person."
The lecture was the last in the winter series sponsored by the Research Institute of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity; a spring quarter series will follow.