How Sanders Is Courting the Native Hawaiian Vote

On March 26, Hawaii Democrats go to caucus.  Separated from the U.S. mainland by 2,000 miles of Pacific Ocean, Hawaii has always stuck to its unique brand of local politics.  This round, Bernie Sanders has crafted a message tailored to Native Hawaiians, returning the issues of self-determination and sovereignty to the front burner.

Hawaii’s 25 Democratic delegates amount to around 0.5 percent of the total delegate count.  Even if math makes the caucus virtually meaningless, it still offers a look into the trails faced by indigenous peoples largely silenced in the American political system.

But First, Some History

On January 16, 1893, more than a hundred Marines disembarked from the U.S.S. Boston and marched through the streets of Honolulu.  On paper, they were deployed to “protect American lives and property,”  In other words, they were military muscle servicing rich landowners.

Hawaii’s sugar barons, usually the sons of Protestant missionaries with business interests in the islands, were feeling threatened by Queen Lili’uokalani’s calls for a new constitution.  The Bayonet Constitution, forced upon Lili’uokalani’s predecessor at gunpoint in 1887, limited the monarch’s power, disenfranchised the Hawaiian electorate by implementing property requirements for voting, and ballooned the political influence of the landed elite – who usually happened to be white, Anglo-Saxon, and American.  Lili’uokalani’s new constitution promised increased monarchical power, but also wider franchise for Hawaiian citizens.

In response, the anti-monarchists formed the Committee of Safety.  As the situation spun out of control in early 1893, the Committee used the political chaos to declare a provisional government and oust the monarchy.  U.S. Minister John L. Stevens, an avid annexationist, authorized the deployment of U.S. Marines in Honolulu.  This was America’s first true military intervention, and it set the precedent for conflicts ranging from the Philippines to Iraq.

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed Hawaii via Joint Resolution.  Technically, if we’re going by something called the Constitution, a treaty of annexation demands a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate.  The Newlands Resolution didn’t come close.  Out of 90 Senators, the resolution passed with 46 votes, the bare minimum required.  Congress willingly overlooked its founding document to gain the greater prize: a coaling station between the United States and its new territory in the Philippines.

Six decades on, in 1959, Hawaii held its statehood referendum.  One option was noticeably missing from the ballot: independence.  Voters could choose between becoming a state or remaining a territory.  Such a binary isn’t really in the spirit of “[transferring] all powers to the peoples of those territories, without any conditions or reservations,” as mandated by the United Nations guidelines on Non-Self-Governing Territories.

The end result is a small but vocal sovereignty movement, mainly Native Hawaiians, who see Hawaii as an independent nation under U.S. occupation.  It’s towards this group that Bernie Sanders especially has made a strong pivot.

Let the Games Begin

In a position piece, the Sanders campaign has outlined his stance on a wide-range of Hawaii-related topics, from GMOs to energy security. The piece also touches on Sanders’ views on the self-determination movement.

“Under a Sanders Administration, the right to self-determination and self-governance would rest in the hands of Native Hawaiians where it belongs. Native Hawaiians are currently deliberating the nature of their government and its relationship with the United States, a decision that must be made by Native Hawaiians without interference from the federal government.”

Like many minority communities, Native Hawaiians face disproportionate incarceration.  Though less that 20 percent of the population identifies as Native Hawaiian or part Native Hawaiian, the same demographic makes up 24 percent of the general prison population.  In addition, Native Hawaiians account for 32 percent of prisoners admitted on drug-related offenses.

Sanders’ solutions are vague.  He aims to end the War on Drugs, stop mandatory minimums, and “reform a broken criminal justice system.” But recognizing a problem is at least the first step towards solving it.

Hillary Clinton has also waded into the mix:

“I commend President Obama’s leadership in working with Native Hawaiians on the opportunity to establish a government-to-government relationship with the United States,” Clinton said earlier this month.

Such a “government-to-government” relation has been pursued in the past through legislation like the Akaka Bill.  The legislation has stalled, largely due to opponents that see that bill as a concession to the United States.  The logic goes that if Hawaii is already an independent nation, then it needs no federal recognition.

Within the Hawaiian community, debates over self-determination are divisive and impassioned.  This election cycle won’t see a solution rise out of the blue.  Today, Native Hawaiians continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment well above national averages.  Like American Indians and Canada’s First Nations, Native Hawaiians are often pushed to the fringes of the political dialogue.  Hopefully, the heat of the campaign season, if nothing else, has shed some light on the complex conversations that grip Hawaii’s indigenous population.


Featured image via Flikr by Phil Roederer and available under a Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license

Lopaka O'Connor is a writer working from some desk, somewhere. When he's not freelancing, you can find him procrastinating, napping, and writing bios in the third-person.


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