What Is the Hawai‘i Sovereignty Movement?

A Hawaiian scholar explains the multifaceted movement, which is pushing for the United States to return land taken during an 1893 coup d’état that overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy.

What Is the Hawai‘i Sovereignty Movement?

Protesters have used the upside-down Hawaiian flag as a symbol of their distress—the upside-down flag is also associated with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.

Photo by Brendan George Ko

Dr. Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio is the Honolulu-based dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, an institute committed to researching and revitalizing Hawaiian language, history, and other wisdom.

“The Sovereignty Movement comes out of antimilitary activism in the 1970s. It started to encompass a resentment of the U.S. military in the fight to reclaim Kaho‘olawe Island in the mid-1970s. The movement continued to build and is marked by the commemoration in 1993. [Many] different organizations came together to commemorate 100 years since the illegal overthrow of the Queen and the taking of our Kingdom government in January 1893.

What’s at stake here is 1.75 million acres of land—close to half of the lands of the archipelago—and the right of the Hawai‘ian people to their own government. But the sovereignty movement is not one monolithic thing. We do not agree among ourselves about what form that sovereignty should take.

There are some people who claim that the Kingdom government was a part of this family of nations in the 19th century. They believe that [the Hawai‘ian] government was entitled to international protection—and still is—and that America’s presence here is as an illegal occupier in the same way that Germany illegally occupied countries during WWII. [Those who believe this think the] U.S. must be compelled to give us our country back, restore our lands, and probably pay a huge lease fee for all of the lands it has used.

There are other people in the sovereignty movement who believe that that is never going to happen and so we should we should pursue a relationship with the United States that allows us control over some of our lands, if not all of the remaining lands that haven’t been used for other things. They call for the U.S. to federally recognize us as a Native people, and to restore lands for our people to farm, build on, and basically prosper from.

There is another group of people who say that neither restoration of the kingdom nor federal recognition are good ideas, and that Hawai‘i is entitled to decolonization under the terms that were laid out by the U.N. in the late 1940s for territories that are under the control of foreign countries. Under U.N. and international guidelines, we’re entitled to a vote about whether we want to remain part of the United States or have the full restoration of our independence.

Many of the people who support that—I’m someone who supports that—say that this would give us a period of time [to decide what we want to do]. During this time, we would require the United States to give us the money to conduct the education, to do the community work and the kinds of things that would strengthen our cultural claims as well as our political ones.

The belief and the cultural value [tying] all of the sovereignty movements together is this belief that we are bound to these islands, to this land. Aloha ʻāina is this deep belief that our people are genealogically linked to the ʻāina, to the land. That our ancestors gave birth to the land and gave birth to us, and that we have responsibilities to the ʻāina to protect it. That under our people’s governance, for 1,000 years or more, we cared for the land, we nurtured it, we made it productive, it fed us.

We think of the land as sentient, and this is why people were willing to risk their lives to save Kaho‘olawe from harm in the 1970s.” —as told to Aislyn Greene

>>Next: A Better Way to Visit Hawaiʻi

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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