Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians – What You May Not Know

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Hawai’i and Native Hawaiians – What You May Not Know

Hawaiian hula dancers c. 1885, photographed in J.J. Williams photo studio.

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Anyone familiar with Hawai’i knows that it is the 50th state of the United States, the weather is sunny all year long, we have hula dancers andsurfers, and a TV show called Hawaii 5-0. Besides that though, the relationship between the U.S., Hawai’i and its native people is a complicated one that many people may not know about.

Native Hawaiian family c. 1878

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Native Hawaiians are a race of people

Hawaiians are not named for the state (Californians, New Yorkers, Texans, etc.) The state is named for the people.

Native Hawaiians, known also as kanaka maoli, are the indigenous people (and their descendants) of the Hawaiian islands. Their ancestors were the original Polynesians who sailed to Hawai’i and settled the islands around the 5th Century A.D.

“Native Hawaiian” is a racial classification recognized by the United States. In the 2010 Census: 527,077 people reported that they are Native Hawaiian alone or mixed race including Native Hawaiian. There may be as few as 8,000 pure-blood Native Hawaiians remaining in the world.

Hawaiian schoolchildren c. 1900

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives

They almost became extinct.

The first recorded western contact came in 1778 when Captain James Cook, an English explorer, sailed on the HMS Resolution into Kealakekua Bay in Kona on the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is estimated that between 400,000 and as many as one million Native Hawaiians were living on the major Hawaiian islands at the time. Because of the isolation from other land masses and people, diseases known in the rest of the world were not known in Hawai’i. Within a century, the Native Hawaiian population had dropped to about 40,000 after deaths from smallpox, measles, influenza, sexually-transmitted diseases, whooping cough and the common cold.

They formed an independent and sovereign nation.

The Kingdom of Hawai’i was an internationally-recognized monarchy that entered into bilateral treaties of trade and friendship with other countries including the United States (1826), Great Britain (1836), France (1839), Denmark (1846), Hamburg (1848), Sweden and Norway (1852), Tahiti (1853), Bremen (1854), Belgium and Netherlands (1862), Italy and Spain (1863), Swiss Confederation (1864), Russia (1869), Japan (1871), New South Wales (1874), Portugal (1882), Hong Kong (1884), Samoa (1887).

Baibala Hemolele – Holy Bible in Hawaiian

They were highly literate soon after western contact.

The first Christian missionaries came to Hawai’i in 1820. Hawaiian children began attending school and learned to read and write in the Hawaiian language. In 1869, a newspaper article reported that Hawai’i was the only government from the Pacific area to attend a Paris exposition. At the event, Hawai’i displayednewspapers, Bibles, textbooks, books of law, agricultural products and other examples of ‘civilization’. European visitors were reportedly astounded that in Hawai’i the common man was taught the same sorts of things that only European elite of the time were entitled to learn.

A small group of American businessmen with backup from the U.S. military illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government.

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Their government was illegally taken over.

On January 17, 1893 an illegal overthrow of Hawai’i’s government took place. U.S. Marines from the USS Boston, two companies of U.S. sailors, and U.S. Government Minister John L. Stevens landed atHonolulu Harbor and, along with U.S. and European businessmen, effectuated an illegal coup against Queen Lili’uokalani. Motive: Greed, control over cheap land, control over the sugar industry. The businessmen were led by Sanford Dole (as in Dole pineapple, get it?)

Lili’uokalani, last Queen of Hawai’i

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives
Drawing: “Meeting of Natives at Hilo, Island of Hawaii, Thursday, September 16, 1897 to Protest Against Annexation.”

Source: Hawaiʻi State Archives

Native Hawaiians tried to fight back.

Native Hawaiians tried to fight back through the U.S. “legal process”.

Hawai’i became a U.S. protectorate while an investigation was done by U.S. President Grover Cleveland at the written request of Lili’uokalani. Cleveland and his administration concluded that the overthrow had been illegal (“a grievous wrong has been done…”). He turned the issue over to Congress where it languished while the “straw government” in Hawai’i, who now had Sanford Dole as its President, continued to gain a stronger hold over the islands.

Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians launched a massive petition drive to stop the formal annexation of Hawai’i to the U.S. They thought that if Congress realized that Native Hawaiians did not want to be part of the U.S., they would restore independence to Hawai’i. Public meetings were held on the five major islands. Of the known population of 39,000 Native Hawaiians: 21,269 signed the petition. An incredible majority since many of the remaining were children.

Lili’uokalani traveled to Washington D.C. to present her protest and the petition to Congress. At the time, a trip of this distance took months by sea and land. All to no avail. Congress had not acted on President Cleveland’s request and a new Congress came in with the administration of President William McKinley. By that time, the Spanish American War was brewing and the U.S. didn’t want to give up Hawai’i’s prime location in the Pacific.

Hawai’i was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, along with 1.2 million acres of Hawaiian crown lands that had belonged to the monarchy and to the nation of Hawai’i. No compensation was paid to anyone.


The Hawaiian language was banned.

Soon after the overthrow, a law was passed to make it illegal to teach in the schools in anything but the English language. English replaced Hawaiian as the language of government, business and education.

So began the colonization of the Native Hawaiian people. Children were punished in school for speaking Hawaiian. Those who spoke Hawaiian in the home were looked down on. Systematic oppression of the culture and language took place for decades, and the language was almost lost due to parents and grandparents who were uncomfortable passing the language on to younger generations.

It was not until a constitutional amendment passed in Hawaiʻi in 1978 (!) that it was once again legal to teach Hawaiian in the school system.


Queen Lili’uokalani wrote the famous song “Aloha Oe”. (Translation: Farewell)

Ironically, the only person who saw any jail time from the overthrow was…Lili’uokalani.

In 1895 a clandestine group of supporters of the monarchy attempted an unsuccessful counter-rebellion against the government led by Sanford Dole. There was no bloodshed, but weapons were discovered on the grounds of the royal palace. Lili’uokalani was found guilty of treason…against the government that had illegally overthrown her. Although she was sentenced to five years of hard labor, she served nine months of house arrest.

It was during this time that she wrote several songs, although she is best known for the song “Aloha ʻOe” which she composed in 1878. Lili’uokalani wrote “Aloha ʻOe” as a love song, and it is now commonly sung as a farewell song.

The territorial government eventually voted her an annual pension of $4,000. The United States never compensated her for personal lands that were taken. Lili’uokalani died in 1917 at the age of 79. In her will, she ordered that all of her belongings be sold with the proceeds going to the Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Trust for orphaned and indigent children. Her trust still operates today. A statue of Lili’uokalani was erected on the grounds of the Hawai’i state capitol.

The statue of Liliʻuokalani stands at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol, but she faces ʻIolani Palace, her former home.

President Bill Clinton signed the official apology to Native Hawaiians.

Source: Native Voices

The U.S. officially apologized.

President Bill Clinton signed an official apology to Native Hawaiians for the illegal overthrow of their nation. Public Law 103-150 was passed by a joint resolution of Congress in 1993 to acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the overthrow. Stipulations in the law included:

  1. The overthrow was illegal.Section 1 states: “The Congress…on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893, acknowledges the historical significance of this event which resulted in thesuppression of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people; (italics added)
  2. The U.S. apologizes. “…apologizes to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii on January 17, 1893.”
  3. Native Hawaiians may have legal claims against the U.S. “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”



Native Hawaiians are rebuilding their culture.

In the 19th century they were decimated by disease until less than 40,000 survived. In the 20th century they were colonized and had to learn to live with their homeland being lost to the largest Super Power in the world, along with an unlimited influx of tourists and immigrants from other states and foreign countries. Not to mention having Pearl Harbor bombed during World War II because America used Hawai’i (and continues to) for its Pacific fleet. Although they are now only 12% of Hawai’i’s population, Native Hawaiians continue to work towards finding their rightful place in modern-day Hawai’i.

  • Gov. John Waihe’e was the first elected governor of Hawai’i of Native Hawaiian ancestry. He served from 1986-1994.
  • In 1987, instruction in the Native Hawaiian language began again in public schools. Today there are 21 public Hawaiian immersion schools in the state of Hawai’i. Students are of diverse races who choose to be educated in all subjects in the Hawaiian language.
  • A renaissance of the Hawaiian culture – language, dance, arts, customs – began in the 1970’s and continues today.
  • Native Hawaiians continue their quest to regain self-governance in some form, and rightful compensation for the illegal overthrow and a nation lost.



Here are some resources if you would like to learn more about the Native Hawaiian people. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

Hawaiian Studies Program, University of Hawai’i at Manoa:http://manoa.hawaii.edu/hshk/

Office of Hawaiian Affairs: http://www.oha.org/

Papa Ola Lokahi – Native Hawaiian HealthCare System:http://www.papaolalokahi.org/?page_id=23

Punana Leo Hawaiian Immersion Schools:http://www.ahapunanaleo.org/index.php?/programs/ohana_info/list_of_immersion_schools/

Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center: http://www.qlcc.org/