Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

John Reinecke

The National Question in Hawaii

Hawaiian Nationalism: A Non-Question

First Published: Modern Times, Vol. V, Nos. 5-6, June-September 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Editor’s Introduction: A group of individuals have joined efforts to try to stimulate some new thinking and research on the question of a Hawaii or Hawaiian nation and its relationship to the working class movement. Articles are being sought, for publication in Modern Times or in a special Hawaii National Question Journal. They should be written from an anti-capitalist perspective, no longer than 12 pages (double-spaced) in length, with terms and categories defined and a style which is non-rhetorical. Some of the questions posed are: What is the significance of this question? Is Hawaii a colony? Should secession be a key demand? What are the just demands of the native Hawaiians? What is the meaning of the sovereignty some Hawaiian groups are claiming? How does the national question relate to the overall revolutionary movement in Hawaii and the world, and vice versa?

CONTRIBUTIONS of money are also welcome and can be made to the People’s Fund, P.O. Box 11208, Honolulu 96828.

* * *

It is my position that time and energy devoted to “the Hawaiian national question” is mostly time and energy wasted, which could be devoted to much more important issues.

In this limited space, I shall disregard all definitions of nationality, since, no matter how many or how few criteria of nationality fit a population, the crucial question is whether or not it looks upon itself as a nation and behaves accordingly. We should also bear in mind that nationhood does not necessarily entail demand for political sovereignty: the Scots are a good example of this.

I will point out, however, that the term “Hawaiian nationalism” confuses two related but different things: a sense of nationhood including Island residents of all ancestries and a sense of nationhood among those residents who have some aboriginal ancestry. I shall refer to these as Island nationalism and Native nationalism respectively.

Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians as classified by the census amount to about one-fifth of our population. It follows that without backing from Island nationalism, Native nationalism is not likely to get very far. Yet obviously outside a small minority of Native (part-) Hawaiians, a sense of Island nationalism is almost nonexistent.

What might give rise and support to a sense of Island nationality? First, a feeling that Hawaiian Island traditions, culture, and social ties are distinctly different from and perhaps in opposition to those of the mainland U.S.A. Second, a sense of being politically deprived–relegated to an inferior grade of citizenship. Third, a sense of having been and still being economically exploited. Some left-wingers appear to rely chiefly upon the last as a plausible basis for advocating a Hawaiian Island separatism or even sovereignty.

But what are the facts? Progressively during this century and especially since the Second World War, Hawaii has become more closely tied to the mainland, culturally and demographically. With the coming of air travel, there is great two-way traffic between Hawaii and the mainland. We are acutely aware of the recent influx of mainlanders, but this is largely matched by emigration to the mainland, for both temporary and permanent residence. Consequently there are increasingly strong ties of kinship–often across racial lines–and friendship between Islanders and mainlanders. Our cultural life, in the broadest sense of the term, is getting more indistinguishable from that of the mainland. English is now our usual home language. Add to all this, eighty years of indoctrination in American values, and primary loyalty not to Hawaii but to the United States. For the Japanese in particular, American nationality is something which they have bought with their blood as well as with their sweat.

Because of racial prejudice here as well as on the mainland, Hawaii was relegated to Territorial status long after a white population would have been allowed statehood.

(Territorial status was a great advance over the unabashed racial oligarchy of the Republic, with its disfranchisement of Orientals.) Older citizens like myself remember vividly the threatened loss of even this limited self-government during the Massie case (1932) and the nearly complete loss of self-government under Army rule (1941-44). Statehood has unquestionably brought a greater sense of political security; it has brought also a sense of increased participation, and even influence in national political life.


Hawaii certainly has substantial remnants of economic colonialism. Most Islanders probably are worried over our great dependence upon so economically fragile an industry as tourism, with its low wages and outside ownership. It does not follow, however, that many Islanders see themselves as economically oppressed colonials. In the past 45 years, real income, the standard of living, and personal expectations have increased markedly. Participation in the cultural amenities has greatly expanded. From a per capita income above those of only two states, Hawaii has reached the middle ranks nationally. The “career open to talent,” regardless of race, has greatly expanded. From being practically without unions in 1935, Hawaii has become one of the most heavily unionized states.

In short, Hawaii has visibly progressed, not retrogressed, as part of the United States, and few of its residents see anything for them in Island nationalism.

Native Nationalism, on the other hand, has a real foundation in history, including organization in a nation-state, nominally sovereign and headed by a Native puppet monarch. For many Native Hawaiians there is an emotional motive for nationalism in resentment of the failure of many of their number to “make the grade” in Island society as other ethnic groups which started out with fewer surface advantages have done. However, definition of Native nationalism is complicated by (1) uncertainty as to who are Native Hawaiians, (2) uncertainty as to what sort of role Natives are seeking relative to other ethnic groups, and (3) lack of generally acceptable leadership in defining the Hawaiian role.


For some purposes only individuals who can plausibly claim 50% or more Native ancestry are Hawaiians. For statistical purposes, anyone with claimed Native ancestry however slight is a part-Hawaiian, no matter though he identifies culturally and socially with some other group or simply as a “local”. My own rough guess is that no more than 15% of the population think of themselves as “Hawaiians”–a rather small minority.

This dilution of Hawaiianness and minority status is important in considering Native relations with the rest of the Island population. Put bluntly: To what extent are other Islanders willing to accord Natives special political standing? To what extent are they willing to accept the assumption that by reason of their Nativeness, Hawaiians are specially qualified to speak for all Islanders on issues of general concern, such as the bombing of Kahoolawe and the threat to our ecology from badly controlled hotel building?

I have heard Hawaiians call for sovereignty, but I have not yet heard anyone define what he means by that term. Generally it is accepted to mean political independence. Do Native nationalists who speak of sovereignty mean that Hawaiians should govern the other 80% of the population as well as themselves under the Hawaiian flag? Or that part of the Islands should be set aside for Hawaiians, who now live intermixed with the general population, as a locally self-governing group, somewhat on the lines of an American Indian reservation? Or simply that needy Hawaiians should receive special assistance in adjusting successfully to predominant American patterns? It should be self-evident that anything approaching real Native political sovereignty is romantic nonsense, unacceptable to the bulk of the population and probably to the great majority of Native Hawaiians.

In any event, no effective political capital can be made of Native nationalism until Hawaiians themselves have reached some consensus on what they want–until they begin to put their act together.