A Crash Course in Hawaiian History

(Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series discussing recent legal and political challenges to the Kamehameha Schools and other institutions designed to benefit the native Hawaiian people. Read parts 1 and 3.)

January 17th, 1893 is an unmemorable date for many, but an important one for many Hawaiians. It was on this day that the nation of Hawai’i came to an end.

At the direction of a 13-member committee formed by members of the immensely profitable sugar industry, John L. Stevens, the United States minister to Hawai’i and an unabashed annexationist, ordered 162 troops from the U.S.S. Boston ashore. Queen Lili’uokalani, desiring to prevent bloodshed, temporarily abdicated her throne to the United States:

“Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces and perhaps loss of life, I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”

Members of Congress and President Grover Cleveland both acknowledged that the overthrow was illegal and immoral at the time. However, due to the lobbying of the planters and a number of issues related to the timing of elections, the overthrow was never reversed. A few years later, a treaty of annexation was ratified by the Senate and President McKinley.

A century later, on November 23rd, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed Public Law 103-150, which became known as the Apology Bill. This law acknowledges that the U.S. was in the wrong when Lili’uokalani was removed. The law, however, seems to be merely a formality, as recent court battles have further eroded relief to the Hawaiian people.

In 1996, Harold “Freddy” Rice, a non-Hawaiian, filed a lawsuit against the State of Hawai’i, claiming that his 14th and 15th Amendment rights under the Constitution were denied when he was refused the ability to vote in an election for OHA trustees. OHA, or the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, is a state office designed to support programs benefiting native Hawaiians. OHA is supported primarily through proceeds from ceded lands managed by the state. The Hawai’i State Constitution formerly limited the election of OHA trustees to voters of Hawaiian ancestry.

Rice vs. Cayetano worked its way up to the United States Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 in favor of Rice. The dissenters, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, recognized that the voting restrictions are based on a trust relationship with the indigenous people of Hawai’i, and that the law is “‘tied rationally to the fulfillment’ of that obligation.”

Clayton Hee, the chairman of OHA at the time Rice vs. Cayetano was promulgated, was optimistic about the ruling. Because the majority opinion was narrowly constrained to the voting law, other aspects of the trust were not examined by the Court. This would soon change, however.

On October 3rd, 2000, Hawai’i U.S. Senate candidate John Carroll filed suit against the state, claiming that OHA funds should be used for all Hawai’i residents, not just native Hawaiians. A day later, disabled Hawai’i resident Patrick Barrett filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of OHA itself, after his request for a $10,000 loan was denied. Both cases were initially struck down on the grounds that Carroll and Barrett had no standing to file a suit. However, both cases were appealed, and they, as well as a case brought by Earl F. Arakaki et. al., continue to this day.

Tomorrow: Hawaiian ancestral values and the Akaka Bill.

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