Today, the third Friday in August 2018, is a holiday in Hawaii, commemorating the day Hawai’i was accepted as the 50th of these United States of America. Hawai’i was admitted as a state on Aug. 21, 1959. This is not exactly a day of celebration, but is kind of a day of celebration. Like everything in Hawai’i: it’s complicated.
In some ways it’s undeniable that being part of the richest, most powerful country in the world has been good for Hawai’i, particularly because of its geographic isolation. Being a state of the U.S. comes with technological advantages, federal funding and investment in infrastructure, military protection (ha), access to high-quality health care, resources galore.
It’s also an ugly truth that Hawai’i was beautiful enough to be coveted by all colonizing nations and it was inevitable that it would have been colonized by some nation at some point. There’s no way to qualify what could have been, but if it was inevitable that Hawai’i was going to be colonized, maybe there is an argument to be made that Hawai’i has been better off as a part of the United States rather than as part of a different colonizing nation. I feel icky saying that, but there it is.
There is a very real sense, however, that the granting of statehood can be seen as a concession or “least we could do” offer of reparations for the evils visited on Hawai’i throughout its history post-Cook. Before Capt. James Cook came upon the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, estimates list the Native Hawaiian population at around 600,000. (Some estimates claim up to 1 million, some as low as 200,000.) Within a couple years, the introduction of new diseases to these formerly-isolated populations devastated the native peoples. By 1800, the population had diminished by 48%. By 1840, a scholar estimates the population had diminished by 84%. A census in 1920 listed the number of Native Hawaiians as down to 24,000.
Then, of course, there is issue of the land that was taken over for whaling, plantations, and other colonizer industry interests. Native Hawaiians were kicked off their land, ejected from the ahupua’as that were theirs by legacy and local (should-have-been-dominant) right. Their own business, culture, and religion were denigrated, rejected, destroyed, and made into fodder for an eventual tourist industry.
Then, of course, there is the ownership and independence of the whole Kingdom of Hawai’i. In 1893, a group of businessmen overthrew the monarchy, deposing Queen Liliuokalani and leading to the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1895. In 1898, the US annexed Hawai’i, saying it was a necessary naval base for its Pacific operations. (Necessary for whom, one must ask.) Hawai’i’s bloody history in World War II is well-known.
Hawai’i’s statehood was an inevitability as soon as American businessmen stepped foot onto the islands. Perhaps as soon as the first American missionaries stepped foot on the islands. And Hawai’i fares much better than the territories that the U.S. claims. A resident of Hawai’i (like me) only need to look to Puerto Rico to be grateful for statehood. It is the lesser of the two evils, once the colonizers had already broken down the native populations and overwhelmed any resistance with resources born out of fortunate geographical circumstances. (Seriously, read Guns, Germs and Steel.)
There are signs that the Native Hawaiian population is growing again, and this is heartening. Native peoples are reclaiming the culture and the language, and scientists concerned with conservation and sustainability are looking to native practices to inform their own recommendations and practices. People are, in general, more sensitive to the need to respect the native culture and give it space to speak with and be the authority rather than an anachronism to be shucked off in favor of “progress” and or exploited for profit.
Statehood Day is always going to be a problematic holiday, loaded with emotional and ethical complexity. On one hand, it is a reminder of the exploitation and destruction that paved the way for Hawai’i’s inclusion into the United States. On the other, it’s a moment that bore good fruit for the Hawaiian Islands and has marked distinct advantages for the islands and peoples living here in the 59 years since.
I wouldn’t say it’s a happy day, but I do think it’s a significant day. One I will look at with appreciation for the resources it has enabled for Hawai’i (thank you, late Senator Inouye) and with sorrow for the horrible ways the United States led up to its granting of statehood. I can only imagine how the native population feels. That, in itself, is a complicated mix of perspectives and judgments that I only hope will be given its right to help shape the future of Hawai’i.