Democrat Rep. Kai Kahele (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In the midst of a pandemic-fueled economic and health crisis, Native Hawaiians continue to confront the limitations of representation in the U.S. government. While freshman Rep. Kai Kahele is now the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress, severe social and economic disparities still affect Native Hawaiians in their own land. After a century of U.S. imperialism and broken promises, some wonder whether Kahele’s presence in Congress is enough, especially when many in the community are calling for Hawaiian sovereignty.

Native Hawaiians have good reason to be skeptical. Since the U.S. annexed Hawai’i in 1898, the island has become both a hub for the U.S. military and a major tourist destination. Every other year Hawai’i hosts RIMPAC, the international Rim of the Pacific maritime war games, which includes “live-fire training events.” Tourism has become Hawai’i’s single biggest source of private capital. In 2019 the state recorded $17.75 billion in tourist spending. Native Hawaiians see little benefit from these economic and material resources, however. Native Hawaiians experience rates of poverty close to double that of the average Hawaiian population. Last spring the state was preparing marketing campaigns billing Hawai’i as “the safest place in the world,” despite staggering COVID-19 rates among the Native Hawaiian population. And while the U.S. military occupies more than 200,000 acres—over 5% of all Hawaiian land—Native Hawaiians have yet to see any meaningful progress on promises to return land to Native Hawaiians. 

Against this backdrop, Mililani Trask, the founder of the nonprofit Na Koa Ikaika o Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi, remains skeptical about what Kahele will be able to accomplish as a single congressmember.  

“Everyone is saying, ‘Kai is going to do this, Kai is going to do that,’ and I’m just shaking my head and saying, ‘No, he isn’t,'” Trask said. “He’s a junior congressman coming in a time of severe economic and health crisis. I don’t expect him to work miracles. He hasn’t got seniority yet. We need to be realistic about politics.”

Trask is quick to point out that her pessimism is more about the system and circumstances Kahele has to work within than it is about his qualifications. She readily voted for Kahele, not as the “lesser of two evils,” but because she remembers him from his years as a state senator and how he’s earned the reputation as someone who can be relied on. 

“He had a sign on his door that said, ‘E komo mai,’ which means, ‘Come in, you are welcome,’” Trask said. “And whenever anyone had a problem—Hawaiian, Japanese, Haole—his door was always open.”

Besides Kahele’s lack of seniority in the chamber, there’s a deeper issue: Kahele is a representative in the U.S. government. In Trask’s opinion, the U.S. has never had a legitimate right to govern the Hawaiian islands to begin with—and she’s not alone in that sentiment.

Unlike most other states, Hawai’i once had international status as an independent country. Almost exactly 128 years before Kahele took his oath of office, the U.S. recognized Hawai’i as a sovereign nation, with the same status as countries like France or Mexico. Then, calamity struck in 1893: A collection of predominantly American immigrants to Hawai’i—powerful business magnates and Christian missionaries—enacted a coup d’état against Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani, seizing power and forming a “provisional government.” President Grover Cleveland initially rejected the overthrow as an illegal “act of war,” but his resistance crumbled under support for the insurrectionists from influential U.S. senators and members of his own cabinet. Five years later, Hawai’i had been annexed by the U.S. Despite being initially included in the UN’s official designation of “non-self-governing territories” alongside nations like Namibia and Djibouti that later gained independence, the U.S. government made Hawai’i a state in 1959.  

Becoming a U.S. state did not grant Native Hawaiians equitable access to resources and opportunities enjoyed by other Hawaiian citizens. In the eyes of many Native Hawaiians, statehood—and the corresponding representation in the U.S. government—has never adequately defended their inalienable right to their own land. Many Native Hawaiians feel the U.S. owes them the right to determine for themselves whether Hawai’i would be best served by statehood, full independence, or sovereignty within the U.S.

“Native Hawaiians have never been allowed to have their land,” said Trask. “Hawaiians were on the list of UN non-self-governing territories. Our people are entitled to have a vote to either be part of the U.S. or not.” 

The movement for Hawaiian sovereignty began in the 1960s and 1970s. Invoking the coup that overthrew Queen Liliʻuokalani, different groups of Native Hawaiians declared that their people had never consented to rule by the U.S. One of the many leaders of this sovereignty movement was Trask, who founded Ka Lāhui in 1983. By the mid-1990s, Ka Lāhui claimed over 20,000 members and today remains the largest Hawiian sovereignty organization. In 1993, on the 100-year anniversary of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s overthrow, Ka Lāhui helped lead a march of over 12,000 people in Honolulu. In a symbolic act, the demonstrators from dozens of sovereignty groups spent days gathering at the Iolani Palace, the royal residence which still stands in the city. 

In response to the demonstrations, Congress passed the Apology Resolution in which the U.S. “acknowledges that the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through a Treaty of Annexation or through a plebiscite or referendum.” But according to Trask, in the last three decades since Congress passed the resolution the legal status of Native Hawaiians as a people has remained essentially unchanged. 

While some in the sovereignty movement want Hawai’i to be a completely independent country, others want to establish a sovereign nation that has government-to-government relations with the U.S., similar to how many Native American tribes are federally recognized as independent nations within the country. But federal recognition of a Hawaiian nation still has not happened, with considerable material consequences. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land the federal government recognizes as belonging to Native Hawaiians remain in what Trask calls a “perpetual stewardship.” This puts the land in a sort of legal limbo—on paper the land belongs to Native Hawaiians, but it remains out of their control. 

That’s why Trask believes that the most important way to fight for the dignity and basic rights of the Hawaiian people is not through political representation in Congress. Instead, Trask sees the greatest potential for Native Hawaiian rights through organizing the nation itself. But it will take work for the world’s 560,000 Native Hawaiians (many of whom live in the continental U.S. as well as Hawai’i) to consolidate as a nation and democratically determine what its future should look like. 

An ongoing legal battle within the UN to recognize Hawaiian sovereignty on the international level may also benefit activists. Trask said that if Native Hawaiians can gain recognition internationally, it will become impossible for the U.S. to continue delaying a political solution to the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. In the meantime she’s placing her energy in the what she calls “the four arenas of sovereignty”: Native-to-Native organizing to form a strong democrative mechanism; dealing with the bureaucracy and systems of the state of Hawai’i; continuing to press the federal government on the return of Native Hawaiian land; and a proactive, independent Hawaiian presence at the UN.

The struggle for Native Hawaiians’ autonomy and ability to determine their own destiny after over a hundred years of U.S. occupation didn’t stop when Kahele was sworn into office in February. As a Native Hawaiian who believes in serving his people and is a member of the U.S. government, Kahele represents a nexus point between the history of Hawai’i as an independent nation, and as US-occupied land. At his swearing-in ceremony, Kahele wore a Maile lei, once prized by royalty and symbolizing honor and respect. Kahele also swore his oath on a bible that once belonged to Sen. Daniel Akaka, the first Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress. For Hawaiian sovereignty activists, Kahele’s decisions and actions as representative of an occupying government may not be as effective or wide-reaching. But both are guided by the same ideal: fighting for the rights of Native Hawaiians to have a stake in their own future.

Jack Herrera is an independent reporter covering immigration, human rights, and Latinx issues. His work has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Politico Magazine, and elsewhere. He’s a current...