50 Years

So as a basically uninformed observer, Happy 50 years of Statehood, Hawaii!

You were a chain of connected sisters in the family of Polynesia, and then you were discovered by the West, and everything changed almost instantly. Chiefs got gun-powder weapons, fought brutal battles. You became your own Kingdom-- you were a hub of the Pacific, with sudden wealth from whalers and traders and sudden death and misery from disease and consumer culture. Your people struggled and changed-- newcomers poured in to work, to live, to make gobs of money, to punish you for your sins, to learn your ways. Whalers got Hawaiian tattoos, Hawaiians wore missionary clothes and toppled their gods. Old taboos were discarded, new ones were stamped on your faces.

Hawaiians poured away from the islands and scattered across the world-- marrying Indians in the Northwest, educating freed slaves in the East, and criss-crossing the continents on whalers. Most changed, learned new languages, never came home, and left traces of the islands in their overlooked "colored" children's blood.

The citizens of the Kingdom changed, too. New races poured in to work, others poured into powerful positions in the government-- the monarchy were astute observers of Western monarchies and welcomed the foreign advice and money-- perhaps at the expense of the long-term well being of the Hawaiian citizens. The Mahele happened-- banks, monarchs, big investors carved up the islands in the name of free enterprise, and effectively removed all of the land from the working native Hawaiians. This great tragic loss still reverberates in the islands-- disenfranchised families are still fighting for their lost lands-- some with yellowing official writs from the Kingdom, some only with outrage and oral history.

King David Kalakaua struggled to live the high life while celebrating and revitalizing the slipping Hawaiian culture-- he is remembered as both a cultural hero, responsible for keeping Hula alive, and as an irresponsible drunk-- depending on which story is being told. The monarchs were leaders and artists-- I hear Queen Liliuokalani's songs on the radio everyday.

And here history narrows to a razor's edge: a drastic sudden change with unforseeable and inalterable effects. In 1893 a group of American marines stormed the Palace and imprisoned the queen-- the US government ignored this coup. And the Kingdom was lost to rich, politically influential Americans. The US annexed the island in 1898-- it's plumb spot in the middle of the Pacific made it a strategic gem-- and those vast stretching plantations, powered by cheap immigrant labor, were too tempting to not pluck. American and European business interests were more than happy to be a territory-- native Hawaiians mourned for their Kingdom, which showed less likelihood of being restored as America took more interest in Hawaii's resources, and less interest in her illegal overthrow.

The plantations bred their own cultures: company stores, company schools, company sports, company housing, company doctors-- no votes, no unions, and institutionalized racism. The children of the plantations worked hard for expansion of their rights as a new group of Hawaii-born people-- no longer defining themselves strictly as Japanese or Portuguese or Filipino. They created a new identity that incorporated elements of Hawaiian culture and language with their parents' cultures: they played in marching bands and changed religions, they intermarried and swapped recipes.

In 1941, Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese. Suddenly distant-seeming Hawaii became the American homefront. And those plantation children fought for the right to unionize and died in America's wars. In 1959 the territory voted to become a state-- the dream of restoring the kingdom slipped further away for the Hawaiian minority, even while investment and infrastructure and democracy poured in. The iron grip of the republican plantation oligarchy changed and morphed-- power shifted, things changed.

So here we are, a state-- a mixed blessing. A lost kingdom, a romanticized past of Hawaiian independence that probably looked pretty different up close. A diverse state with a Janus identity-- dependent on tourism and on the US, but with its own language and culture and history.

We are heavy with cliches-- swaying palms, mysterious green gorges and low-key picnics with mountains of ono grinds, baby luaus and racial harmony-- and ribboned with anger. Lost kingdom, blame, dismal education, racial prejudice and misinformed resentment, shoddy infrastructure, hemmoraging costs and crippling dependence on subsidized imports.

So, Hawaii suffers from the same problem of history as anywhere else-- What If? The changes that slammed the islands happened by a hair's breadth-- things could have been different. Unimaginably different. But we are where we are-- the question --and adventure-- is where to go from here.


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