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Native Hawaiians Vote in Ethnic Referendum


July 23, 1996


HONOLULU -- Elaine Kaopuiki, a renowned hula teacher from the island of Lanai, fondly surveyed her teen-age troupe of white-clad nymphs in halos of ferns.

These Hawaiian girls, she said, were the reason that she chose "yes" in a plebiscite on whether to create a native-Hawaiian government, a state-sponsored vote that is roiling these islands beneath their dreamy surface of swaying palms and hips.

"I hope before I'm going out of this world that I can exercise my rights a little while," Mrs. Kaopuiki, 67, said. "And for these girls, it will be the same thing: no one can tell them what to do. Anyway, it's a start."

The mail-in plebiscite, the Native Hawaiian Vote, which started on July 15 and is to continue until Aug. 15, could indeed be the start of something momentous, though its ultimate goal remains undecided. The ballots, sent out to about 85,000 descendants of the islands' original Polynesians, ask just one murky question: "Shall the Hawaiian People elect delegates to propose a Native Hawaiian government?"

What that government would be has intentionally been left undefined by backers of the vote, a fractious set of groups that support various forms of sovereignty. Even those voting are confused.

The proposed Hawaiian government could ultimately mean something like secession, something more like an American Indian reservation or simply more native Hawaiian control. The specifics would have to be decided by the delegates, ratified by the population at large and negotiated with the Federal Government.

The fate of the vote itself is also in question, with some of the biggest native Hawaiian rights groups denouncing it as an effort by the state to usurp the sovereignty movement. The vote, whose results are to be announced on Sept. 2, has been challenged by lawsuits that could torpedo it, including one asserting that such a race-based vote is unconstitutional.

Whatever the outcome, people here agree, the vote itself represents the crest of a powerful swell of native Hawaiian revival that began in the 1970s and could, decades down the road, bring about the restoration of independence the island kingdom lost when American businessmen, backed by marines, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani in 1893.

"If the answer to the vote is 'ae,' or 'yes,' " said Bruss Keppeler, one of 20 Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council members apppointed to oversee the plebiscite, "then the Hawaiian people at large, for the first time in history, will have said we should get together and work further for the establishment of a Hawaiian nation in some form."

"I'm now hoping to see that whole process in my lifetime," Keppeler, a lawyer, said. "And I'm 59."

Given the plebiscite's potential to help reduce the 50 states to 49, it may seem strange that it is paid for by $1.8 million in state money, approved by the Hawaii Legislature. But state officials say they see no threat in the vote.

"I think the idea behind it is to have the native Hawaiian community start talking about what the native Hawaiian community wants," said Margery Bronster, Hawaii's Attorney General.

There is a lot to talk about. Like American Indians, the native Hawaiians have disproportionate social problems, with higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy and more poverty than the rest of the Caucasians, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, blacks and Pacific Islanders who make up the state's population of about 1.2 million. Native and part-native Hawaiians account for about 13 percent of the population.

But the root of the matter is land, the center of identity in traditional Hawaiian life and ever more precious on these specks of cooled lava in the North Pacific.

At the very least, said Tara Lulani McKenzie, the elections council's executive director, the vote's result will be that "the islands are exactly as they are today, but you could have lands designated for traditional lifestyles," and special native Hawaiian aegis over aspects of health and education. At most, Ms. Lulani said, Hawaii will end up fully independent.

Native Hawaiian groups remain divided on what sovereignty should mean, and no unifying native Hawaiian leaders have emerged. While some groups back the American Indian model and others simply want more native Hawaiian say over how their islands' resources are used, Ms. McKenzie and some others on the council hope and believe Hawaii will be independent some day.

When native Hawaiian activism began in the 1970's, it was fueled by disputes over land, from conflicts with developers to Hawaiians' demand that the Navy relinquish Kahoolawe, one of the eight major Hawaiian islands, which it used as a target range.

Native Hawaiian groups formed and multiplied until there are now scores of them, from the well-organized Ka Lahui Hawaii, which claims 21,000 members and considers itself a proto-nation, complete with a prime minister, to family groups that claim historical rights to specific chunks of land. Some promoted the revival of the moribund Hawaiian language and the graceful hula, which had become a commercialized shadow of its former glory. Others lobbied for political change.

In 1978, a state constitutional convention created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to administer to the needs of native Hawaiians and get them a share of the proceeds from the use of 1.7 million acres of public land that once belonged to the kingdom of Hawaii. The office became a central force in native Hawaiian activism and has won hundreds of millions of dollars from the state in settlements of native Hawaiians' claims.

There is consensus, even among the haole, as whites are called here, that the native Hawaiians are owed something from the United States for what American rule has cost them, from their threatened culture to their lost lands. But there is no consensus on what, and there is growing concern that things may take a dangerous turn if native Hawaiians' ambitions are frustrated.

"The native Hawaiians have no legitimate claim to ownership of any public lands in Hawaii and the Federal government is not going to turn land over to them or allow them to secede," said John Goemans, a Honolulu lawyer now bringing a suit against Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano that challenges the constitutionality of running a statewide vote in which eligibility is based on racial criteria. Voters in the plebiscite must sign an affidavit to verify their Hawaiian ancestry.

"Ultimately, these people are going to be very disappointed, and that's a little scary."

The plebiscite seemed to be confusing to the two dozen native Hawaiians who were interviewed Monday against the backdrop of pendulum skirts and wavering falsettos at the Prince Lot Hula Festival, a nearly tourist-free affair at the Moanalua Gardens in western Honolulu.

Ilima De La Cruz, a secretary resplendent in ankle-length dress and fresh lei, said she had registered to vote for the first time in 15 years because of the plebiscite's potential effect on her grandchildren's future, but she was still struggling to decide how to cast her ballot.

"It seems like a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't kind of thing," Mrs. De La Cruz said.

Paulette Kahalepuna, who makes creations of feathers using traditional Hawaiian methods, said she had voted "no" because she did not trust the native Hawaiian leaders.

A poll for The Honolulu Advertiser last November found that 53 percent of native Hawaiians favored some form of sovereignty, but that they were in no hurry about it: 81 percent of those who had heard of the sovereignty vote said more time was needed to work out the details. But 83 percent said they did think Hawaiians deserved some kind of reparations or redress. The poll of 400 households had a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

See the Nation of Hawaii's position on the Native Hawaiian Vote

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