Members of Ahahui Ka‘ahumanu in audience, Washington Pl.
Image: Joana Gonzalez

For an official ceremony of state, the opening of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission’s call for registrants (see cover story, p. 6) proved to be a disarmingly emotional event, filled with genuine smiles, laughter and tears. On the bright, hot morning of July 20, a predominantly native Hawaiian audience filled the white-pillared, covered lanai of Washington Place, home to Liliuokalani before she became Hawaii’s last queen. Emblematic of her people’s quest to restore their stolen sovereignty through a process of self-determination, the deposed monarch was lovingly remembered in speeches and songs.

Former Gov. John Waihee, who served from 1986-1994 as the state’s first native Hawaiian in that office, also reminisced about his own grandmother, whom he used to follow about and ask how he could help. “’Watch. Learn,’ she said. And I did. When she stopped, there was a little plot of garden left. ‘Here it is, your job,’ she said. [When it comes to] sovereignty, our Queen left a little part of that garden for us,” Waihee said.

“This is who we are,” he continued. “When Hawaiians learned to write we became the most literate people on earth…[we had] a law that anyone who landed on these shores was a freeman, three generations before the Emancipation Proclamation was passed.”

Following upon Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signing of Act 195, which created the NHRC, this gathering officially launched the NHRC’s Kanaiolowalu campaign “to reunify Native Hawaiians in the self-recognition of our unrelinquished sovereignty,” according to its fact sheet, and to register participants, who must be of native Hawaiian ancestry, “in the organization of a governing entity.” The registry will be a “base roll,” or official public list.

Non-native Hawaiians are invited to play a supporting roll, including signing a petition.

“It is an opportunity for Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike to come together,” Waihee exhorted, adding, perhaps a tad ominously in the view of some, “We can no longer afford the luxury of debating about this nuance or that. Now is the time to stand and be counted.” At this, nearly everyone in the audience applauded and got to their feet.

Introduced by Waihee as “the governor who had the guts to sign Act 195,” Abercrombie, visibly moved and audibly choked up, took the podium and saluted singer Nalani Olds, whose performance opened the ceremony. “Nalani, you bring tears to my eyes. Your voice carried with it the voice of the Queen, music that exemplified her soul that is in this home, carried her spirit and her message.” The Governor then held up a copy of the Kumulipo, which, he said, “instructs me as to my duties and obligations–those values are as real today as they will be tomorrow.”

For some listeners, an ominous tone once again sounded as Abercrombie said that the official registry was “to restore self-governance [for native Hawaiians] and a better future for all of us…furthering efforts to be recognized as one of the indigenous peoples of the U.S.”

As if on cue, Sen. Daniel Akaka, sponsor of the eponymous bill seeking federal recognition of native Hawaiians on the Native American state-within-a-state model, and who had already registered online, appeared via videostream to greet the gathering from Washington, D.C. So did his senior colleague, Sen. Daniel Inouye, who put his signature to the petition by which non-natives can show their support.

Exactly what everyone will be supporting remains an open question for now. To sign up, go to [kanaiolowalu.org].