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Poverty and discontent flourish in paradise

Native Hawaiians mark a century of hardship, domination

August 8, 1998

By Erin Texeira
Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- The travel brochures show sunny beaches and hula dancing, but some say there is much the fliers don't show: poverty, unemployment and high incarceration rates among native Hawaiians.

In Hawaii, the image of paradise is more complicated than it may at first appear, according to hundreds of native Hawaiians gathered in Washington this weekend to mark 100 years since the islands were declared a U.S. territory.

Some want to secede from America. ("Last Star On, First Star Off" reads a popular T-shirt.) Some want monetary and land compensation to native Hawaiians. And some want the same rights and privileges as Native Americans.

"There is not one voice," said Mililani Trask, a lawyer who heads Ka Lahui Hawaii, the state's largest sovereignty organization. "It's what you would expect in a democracy. There are many different opinions."

Yesterday, under a warm midday sun, about 150 native Hawaiians and onlookers gathered on the steps of the Capitol to dance and pray. Unlike past years, when ceremonies were often marked by anger, organizers of the Aloha March yesterday focused on fostering unity and spreading the word about the plight ofnative Hawaiians.

The Aloha March will reconvene this morning, after an overnight prayer vigil, for speeches and dancing at the northwest corner of the Peace Museum in Washington.

"More than anything, this is a spiritual surge for us," said Puanani Rogers, who traveled from Kapaa, Hawaii, to dance in the ceremony.

"It's time for us to heal from what the U.S. has done to us. They've taken our lands and killed us. It's genocide."

Twenty percent of Hawaiians consider themselves native; most are ethnically mixed, with Japanese, Chinese and Filipino ancestry.

Native Hawaiians are more likely than whites -- or any other group -- to be unemployed, in prison and poor.

Rates of suicide and infant mortality are significantly higher.

Life expectancy for native Hawaiians is the lowest of all state residents.

Flight to the mainland

Many feel that social and economic hardship -- housing is expensive and lucrative jobs scarce -- forces them to leave the islands, and nearly as many Hawaiians live on the mainland as on the islands.

Nearly 25,000 live in the Baltimore-Washington-Virginia area, a high concentration, likely because many are enlisted in the military or seek jobs with the federal government.

"I'm living here because I can't afford to live there," said Bob Lubguban, 49, who makes Hawaiian art and drums and lives in Easton.

"So many of my family members are having a hard time. So many have moved away because they can't make it over there. Here, you have choices."

Ku'uipo Domingo, a 58-year-old homemaker from Hyattsville, said she left Hawaii three years ago to be with her husband. "We would like to see our land given back to the Hawaiian people," she said yesterday. "At least we would have something to give to our children."

Activists often liken the plight of native Hawaiians to that of Native Americans -- but complain that, because of distance and lack of interest, few have bothered to see Hawaii for what it really is.

"When we go to Hawaii, we see the happy hula girls in grass skirts. We see the palm trees," said Riley Cardwell, one of the organizers of the march. "That's not the real Hawaii."

Trask said, "The image has been pushed because there are multimillion-dollar industries that rely on that image of Hawaii as paradise."

A bitter history

Hawaii had been a sovereign nation, with treaties recognizing that sovereignty with a score of European nations, until the United States set its sights on it in the late 1890s.

In 1893, the United States established a sugar colony there and five years later declared it a territory.

What is commonly not acknowledged, Trask said, is that most Hawaiians opposed the move -- some 30,000 signed petitions -- and the annexation likely happened counter to international law.

By the time Hawaii was voted the 50th state in August, 1959, many residents supported the move for better economic and political opportunity.

For many in the sovereignty movement, the 1898 annexation remains the source of bitterness.

In mid-1993, activists picketed President Clinton as he attended a fund-raiser on Waikiki Beach.

Four months later, nearly 101 years after what many Hawaiians deem an invasion, Clinton officially apologized for the overthrow of Hawaii and for "the deprivation of the rights of native Hawaiians to self-determination."

Sovereignty movement

That apology sparked activism in the state's sovereignty movement, and the resurgence has been building for several years, Cardwell said.

Although Trask's organization boasts the largest number of members -- estimates range from 20,000 to 25,000 -- there are more than 100 sovereignty organizations in the state, with dozens more splinter groups.

Alongside the movement for self-rule is a resurgence of interest in Hawaiian culture. Schools increasingly teach children the Hawaiian language, and dances, songs, and history are now a more integral part of the tourist stops.

"We want everyone to know -- we are who we were," Rogers says. "Please tell everyone to ask questions, do some reading, learn about us. We have so much education to share."

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