Tuesday, June 06, 2017


They also overlooked one crucial thing: he had a point.

His misunderstanding of the basic structure of our government, real or fabricated for media consumption, was ridiculous at best. His comments, however, reflected an instinct shared by many advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty: that the United States’ continued claim to “an island in the Pacific,” obtained through the illegal overthrow of a peaceful monarchy, smacks of empire and deserves rethinking.

The United States’ occupation of Hawai`i has been disastrous from the start. Engineered by White American sugar plantation owners seeking to remove import taxes on their product, the 1893 overthrow wrested power from Queen Lili`uokalani, who surrendered in order to avoid violence against her people.

Instead of admonishing the sugar barons for their scare tactics, Congress followed up with a joint resolution proclaiming the annexation of Hawai`i, an act ordinarily requiring a treaty with a sovereign nation such as the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Over Native Hawaiians’ unwavering objections to the United States’ takeover, in 1959, Congress recognized the island nation as the 50th state, a move that many Hawaiians hoped would grant them more autonomy. In 1993, Congress issued another joint resolution concerning the islands, this time apologizing for the illegal overthrow of the kingdom.

Despite this formal recognition of the illegal foundation for Hawaiian statehood, the U.S. government has not made any move to restore the island to its rightful owners, the Native Hawaiians. Instead, it has reneged on many of its promises, including one that Native Hawaiians would have access to the university built on their land.

Contrary to this guarantee, Native Hawaiians make up a fraction (13.8 percent) of the university’s students and even fewer of its faculty (6.3 percent), with Native Hawaiian studies relegated primarily to specialized centers instead of imbuing the education of all the students occupying the land.

Last year, the Department of the Interior offered Native Hawaiians an opportunity to craft a vision of their relationship with the US government, presumably modeled after existing arrangements with indigenous tribes, who have also suffered from the occupation of their land and erasure of their culture through racist stereotyping, commodification, and laws that erode their basic rights. The endeavor to respond to the department’s request led to deep divides within the community, with many members objecting to collusion or compromise with the occupying power.

In light of this troubled history, instead of correcting Sessions’ misguided criticism of separation of powers, we should take this opportunity to reevaluate the United States’ claim over Hawai`i. Instead of asking why a judge in the Pacific can tell the President what he can or cannot do, we should be asking why a country in North America can tell the indigenous people of an island in the Pacific how to run their schools and courts.

Federal policies are responsible for the fact that an elementary school with a thriving organic garden must serve their students tater tots and corn dogs in the cafeteria while donating their fresh vegetables to restaurants. American occupiers criminalized the Hawaiian language in 1896, leaving most Hawaiians unable to speak it today, despite the law’s repeal in 1965.

The dispossession of Native Hawaiian land and the imposed western ideal of private ownership make Native Hawaiians overrepresented in the islands’ substantial homeless population. United States tourism trivializes Hawaiian cultural traditions, and the United States military presence makes Hawaii a vulnerable target, endangering the lives of all of its residents.

The United States’ strong military interests in this “island in the Pacific” make it unlikely that it will relinquish the islands any time soon, if ever. Its continued investment in and exploitation of the islands, however, comes with some costs. One of those costs is the inclusion of diverse perspectives in the federal bench, informed by a history of witnessing the federal government engage, at times, in unlawful and unconstitutional acts.

If Jeff Sessions truly believes that judges in the federal District of Hawai`i have no proper role in the federal judiciary, perhaps he should consider offering to give Hawai`i back to the Native Hawaiians in return for their exit from the federal system. At this particular point in history, they are more likely than ever to agree to the exchange.