A Hawaiian National on Independence Day

Flickr: Scazon

There are two words in our language that can be used to mean independence: kuokoa and ea.

Kuokoa — to stand apart — means a kind of intellectual as well as political independence. Kuokoa is an easier term for Americans to understand because it connects so easily to the image of the Minuteman, the yeoman farmer, the frontiersman.

Ea means that spiritual sovereignty as a kind of rightness, Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. The sovereignty, the life force of the land, endured because of the rightness, the goodness of our people. Proclaimed by Kamehameha III on July 31, 1843, he acknowledged that the British had ceased their occupation of Hawaii and unlawful seizure of the government, setting a path for his heirs to follow — to trust in the rule of law and not armed might and to believe in their inherent right to be independent.

In one of the ironic warps of history, the Independent Party, established in 1883 and purporting to be an independent voice in the Kingdom, was principally responsible for ending the national government. The founders of the party included Lorrin Thurston — already a professed annexationist; William O. Smith, who joined him in his most nefarious political scheming; Sanford Dole and William Castle, all members of the haole business class in Hawaii, who would all play significant roles in the destruction of the independent Kingdom of Hawaii. As early as 1884 the founders of the Independence Party were confidentially referring to themselves as the Reform Party, although the newspapers and general public identified them as the Independents. Reform suggests something very different than independence and in fact bears the strong whiff of the Mission, something that Castle himself was anxious to avoid — missionary already having become a distinctly derogatory term in Hawaiian politics.

Their actions were not irony so much as deviousness. What was ironic was the membership in that party of Hawaiian patriots like Representative Joseph Nawahi, whose opposition to the King sprang from a deep fear that Kalakaua’s policies were disastrous for the nation. Nawahi was acting from the conviction, learned in part from his upbringing in mission schools, that he had a duty to be an independent voice in the legislature and to speak honestly and directly to those he felt threatening his country and in 1883, he believed that threat to be the King. When those same individuals who invited him to join their political party in the 1884 elections turned to military force in order to humiliate the King and institute the Bayonet Constitution that elevated the business community to control of the legislature, the courts and the cabinet ministry, Nawahi cut his ties with them and became a tireless opponent of the provisional haole government and American annexation.

Kuokoa was the name of the longest-running newspaper in the Kingdom’s history and given to be an independent analysis of the politics of the time. In fact, Ka Nupepa Kuokoa was published and edited by former members of the ABCFM mission — men like E.O. Hall and Henry Whitney, whose criticism of the Monarchy was most contemptuous when they were describing the native Hawaiian as voters and legislators. The ideology of the missionary turned publisher, land-owner, attorney and politician was fairly simple. The government of the Kingdom was more credible and reliable the more members of the white business class dominated it. And whether the much larger Native electorate believed this credo or not, it is worth pointing out that haole businessmen and attorneys represented close to 50 percent of the legislature despite the fact that haole were less than 6 percent of the population for most of the 1880s.

So long as Hawaii was a monarchy, however, a non-Hawaiian would never have complete control of the government and therein lies the tale of Bayonet, the Overthrow and the American annexation.

The same founders of the Independent/Reform Party in 1883 made up the committee of safety that took control of the government in 1893 under the protection of American soldiers and warships. In 1895, in a particularly spiteful and cynical piece of timing, they declared their republic on July 4, a “government” that had all of 4,000 mostly white citizens, and declared Sanford Dole president for life. That this “republic” was set up for no other purpose than to encourage the Americans to annex the islands makes it impossible to commemorate the Fourth as a day of independence. I cannot imagine how any Hawaiian, knowledgeable about this history and feeling any sense of kinship with his or her nineteenth century ancestors, celebrates the Fourth of July.

Even the word independence has become increasingly problematic in the 21st century. Is the American nation an independent country? Not of foreign oil, not of entanglements in other countries, not of the Chinese yuan. Americans mostly understand that they are either interdependent with other nations or that the U.S. should stop pretending that it is anything but an empire and get on with the business of running the world. It is interesting that the last blockbuster film about Independence Day featured an Earth nearly conquered by alien hordes that had ravished countless worlds before getting outsmarted by Americans. Globalization forces people to see themselves differently and to acknowledge on some level that all of humanity is connected.

Yet the word independent continues to drive the American imagination, so that now it is an unofficial almost third party in America. Without question, it is this group of independent voters that swings the national elections, especially in presidential contests in key states. But what do independents stand for? The answer is troubling. They stand for almost anything in the political spectrum but appear integrated by a common belief that the electoral system in America is so politicized by interest groups on the left and right, that government itself is the enemy. One hears terms like balancing, and making sure that one party never dominates, and while that is a legitimate political aim, it underscores the deep cynicism governing Americans’ view of politics and the conviction that the country is so divided and polarized that union and unity cannot be seriously entertained.

Today’s American politics, then, is simply trying to find a balance — pono is our word — between right and left that acknowledges both as uncompromising and divided. But for the little nation of Hawaii with fewer than 100,000 native subjects in 1843, there was no division. When our country was threatened by a renegade British naval officer, we called on the British to live up to their professed ideals and reaped the proper benefit: the restoration of our government and proof that our Kingdom was on the correct path to maintaining our independence. Independence — ea — for us was a basic right that was enshrined by law. We may either give in to the cynicism of the age and in the face of such enormous power wielded by the United States, conclude that self-determination is a foolish delusion, or we can press Americans to live up to a better standard of behavior and perhaps, a better version of themselves. But in the end, it is more important that we Hawaiians refuse to surrender our own faith in ea. We know better than the Americans how precious independence truly is.


DISCUSSION: Share your thoughts about this essay in our discussion about this and other Independence Day essays Civil Beat is publishing to mark the holiday this year.

  • Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, PhD, is Professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a historian of the Hawaiian Kingdom, and a practicing musician and composer. He has been an advocate for the restoration of Hawaii's political independence, and writes about the sovereignty movement in Hawaii. He and his wife Mary live in Palolo, and have sent all of their children to public schools and Kamehameha High School.
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