World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - United States of America : Native Hawai'ians


Estimated population in 2000: 401,162

Ethnicity: Native Hawai'ian

First language/s: English, Hawai'ian

Religion/s: Christianity

Native Hawai'ians are the descendants of the original Polynesian settlers of Hawai'i, an eastern Pacific island chain. Formerly an independent kingdom and later a US territory, Hawai'i became the fiftieth US state in 1959. In the 2000 Census 145,809 people reported a Native Hawai'ian origin, and 255,353 people reported being Native Hawai'ian and one or more other race. Eighty-three per cent of Native Hawai'ians spoke only English, and 12.7 per cent were bilingual and spoke a language other than English at home. Native Hawai'ians are concentrated mainly in Hawai'i's five counties, where they make up over a fifth of the population. Outside Hawai'i, Native Hawai'ians live mainly in California and Alaska.

In 2000, 71 per cent of Native Hawai'ian men, and 63.4 per cent of women aged 16 or over were in the labour force, represented in all occupations but more likely to hold sales and office jobs (28.3%), jobs in the management, professional and related sectors (26.4%), and services (20.9%).

The colonial experience of Native Hawai'ians is comparable to the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide, with the added tragedy of colonization-by-kitsch. The burgeoning Hawai'ian tourism industry brings six times more visitors to the island every year than there are permanent residents. It has marketed the islands to the world as a historical 'hula-hula girl' paradise.

Historical context

Pre-contact Hawai'i was governed by a system of family groups and hierarchies, cultivating land on a communal basis. The natural world was regarded as a polytheistic, animistic network of familial relations. A rich culture of music, chant, poetry, dance, story and ritual supported this worldview. When white Europeans (haole) arrived in 1778 with Captain James Cook of Great Britain, they introduced a host of diseases that, within a century, reduced Hawai'i from a pre-contact population of over 800,000 to an indigenous population of fewer than 39,000.

Hawai'i was recognized internationally as an independent kingdom from 1779 to 1893. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the 'big five' US sugar companies dominated the Hawai'ian economy. To the anguish of the Hawai'ian people, Queen Lili'uokalani was forcefully overthrown by US marines in 1893, and Congress completed the process with the annexation of Hawai'i as a territory in 1898. Large numbers of Asian and US mainland labourers were imported to work the plantations; the USA imposed tight economic control and established military bases. The Hawai'ian language was banned from schools, while traditional religious practices were marginalized or forbidden. During the Second World War, Hawai'i was placed under martial law by territorial governors. In the immediate post-war period, Japanese and Hawai'ian activists began to assume prominent roles in the local Democratic Party, which was instrumental in gaining statehood for Hawai'i in 1959. Today, no ethnic group in Hawai'i forms a majority. Institutional racism and US influence have preserved the dominance of the haole 30 per cent, but Japanese and Chinese residents have recovered from severe discrimination to assume powerful roles. Most Hawai'ians welcomed statehood as preferable to territorial status, but few benefits have flowed to the indigenous people.

Native Hawai'ians have one of the worst death and disease rate of any ethnic group in the USA, and high rates of school failure, substance abuse, suicide, homelessness, welfare dependency and incarceration. In 2000, the median earnings of Native Hawai'ian men aged 16 or over in full-time employment ($32,762) were lower than those of the general US population ($37,057). The median earnings of Native Hawai'ian women were substantially lower ($26,793), though there was less disparity between their earnings and those of women in the general US population ($27,194). The per capita income of Native Hawai'ians was substantially lower than that of the total US population: $14,199 compared to $21,587. Further, 9.9 per cent of Native Hawai'ian households have an income of less than $10,000 annually. In 1999, the poverty rate among Native Hawai'ians was 15.6 per cent, higher than the poverty rate of the total US population (12.4%). Unemployment rates were also higher than those of the total US population: 7 per cent for men and 5.7 per cent for women, compared to 4 per cent and 3.3 per cent, respectively, for the total US population.

More Native Hawai'ians were high school graduates (36.5%) than the US total population (28.6%), but fewer had a bachelor's or higher degree (15.2%) than the US total population (24.4%).

In their struggle to recover the integrity of Hawai'ian cultures, Native Hawai'ians have created a renaissance in politically charged versions of traditional arts, established immersion schools, made Hawai'ian an official state language and gained a constitutional guarantee of religious rights.

The US Congress allocated just over 800 sq km for Native Hawai'ians in the 1921 Homestead Land Act, and another 5,666 sq km in 1959 as 'ceded' lands. A series of state agencies has leased much of this land to industrial, resort or military interests, and most of the rest has never been provided the infrastructure necessary for homesteading. In 1993, President Clinton proclaimed Public Law 103-150, a public apology for the US role in the overthrow of the monarchy, but no new rights or reparations accompanied this gesture. Attempts to resolve questions of state and federal trustees' misappropriation of lands and resources in court are frustrated by Hawai'ians' status as 'wards of the state' - making Native Hawai'ians the only US group unable to sue the federal government or state for breach of trust. The number of leases that have been awarded since the Department of Hawai'ian Home Lands' creation in 1960 totals only 7,200. As of 2006, the waiting list of homestead applicants is 20,000, including 12,000 residential applicants.

In the late 1970s, the state Democratic Party attempted to placate Native Hawai'ian pressure by establishing the Office of Hawai'ian Affairs (OHA), a semi-autonomous self-government device. Many Hawai'ians believe that, as a state agency, the OHA has an inherent conflict of interest. The past two decades have seen the development of a large, radical Hawai'ian nationalist movement, led mostly by Hawai'ian women. The largest of about 40 groups opposed to the OHA approach is Ka Lahui Hawai'i (Hawai'ian Nation), founded in 1987 and with an enrolment of 23,000 'citizens' (1995). On 17 January 1993, over 15,000 people marched in support of Native Hawai'ian sovereignty. Ka Lahui Hawai'i opposed a state plebiscite initiative for 1996 designed to ratify wardship.

The Hawai'ian nationalist movement has generated protest and discussion of a large number of related issues, including: the crowding, economic exploitation, pollution, land misuse and, in particular, commodification and misrepresentation of Hawai'ian culture caused by the state's leading industry, tourism; the US military presence, which brings economic dependency, occupies and pollutes thousands of square kilometres of homelands, and may serve as a launching pad for aggression abroad; violation of sacred grounds through geothermal power extraction in the sacred Kilauea volcano on Big Island, the H-3 highway in the Halawa Valley, the disinterment of bodies from Hawai'ian burial grounds by developers and anthropologists, and the test bombing of Kaho'olawe Island; the arrest and imprisonment without bail in August 1995 of Ka Lahui Hawai'i's official Head of State, Pu'uhonua B. Kanahele, for interfering with the arrest of a Hawai'ian protestor. US influence is heavy, and the ethnically based balance of voter power may discourage politicians from going far to accommodate Hawai'ian rights. Other minorities, notably Filipinos, fear that gains for Native Hawai'ian sovereignty will impede their own progress, while the haole minority continues to resist concrete action to compensate the islands' indigenous peoples for colonization and to break down corporate power.

Current issues

Native Hawai'ians still face higher levels of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and ill-health, and lower levels of income and education, than the general US population. On 9 August 2005, the 9th District Circuit Court ruled 2:1 in the Kamehameha Schools case to overturn the 117-year-old precedent allowing the school to give admissions preference to Native Hawai'ians.

On the positive side, a survey of Native Hawai'ian business owners carried out by the US Census Bureau in 2002 found that the number of Native Hawai'ian and other Pacific Islander-owned businesses grew 49.4 per cent between 1997 and 2002, over three times the national average of 10.3 per cent for all businesses.

The struggle for Native Hawai'ian self-determination has recently gained some momentum with the proposed Senate bill, the Native Hawai'ian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, nicknamed the 'Akaka Bill' after its sponsor, Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawai'i. The bill, if passed, would have recognized Native Hawai'ians as an indigenous people similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and create a process for Native Hawai'ians, if they choose, to establish a government that could negotiate with the state of Hawai'i and the United States on issues such as housing, land use and cultural preservation. Those opposing the bill argue that it is unconstitutional because it would divide Hawai'i on the basis of race. On 8 June 2006, the Senate voted on a procedural motion that would have brought the bill to the floor for a full debate and vote. For that to have happened, 60 votes were needed, but the motion failed by a vote of 56 against and 41 in favour. The struggle for Native Hawai'ian self determination will, undoubtedly, continue.

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