As we noted last week, it’s been a quiet summer on the statehood front. Maybe people aren’t quite as excited about the semi-centennial as many news and media organizations predicted: It seems like broadcast and print outlets have been hyping 50th anniversary stuff since the second half of 2008, no doubt expecting a lot of energy from all sides of the statehood-sovereignty spectrum.
It was a fair expectation. There are other parts of “American territory” (as Defense secretary Robert Gates described us earlier this summer) where citizens routinely discuss fundamental questions of political sovereignty–Guam and Puerto Rico come to mind–but none of them are among the 50 states. That our international image is one of tranquility and warmth is no small irony–and of course, no small accident. The 50th state is in some ways the most restive of them all.
This week, as Hawaii marks 50 years as a full-fledged member of the American union, Congress is slowing moving toward legislative action that would constitute the most significant transfer of political autonomy since 1959. The Akaka bill, if enacted, would allow Hawaiians a chance at self-determination–though not sovereignty–for the first time since at least the late 19th century, and maybe much longer, depending on how you count.
And yet in conversations, I’ve always been struck by how few of us understand the Akaka bill. Maybe it’s all the rancor over the bill from passionate advocates on all sides, maybe it’s just a lack of paying close attention. It might even be the informal title we’ve been using to discuss the legislation: this is once case in which the bill’s official name–The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act–puts things more plainly. In any event, the confusion extends beyond the potential long-range issues raised by the bill–too many of us simply don’t know what the bill would actually do.
In trying to address that gap for this week’s cover story (see page 5), I wanted to leave out my own biases by keeping the piece simple, factual and point-by-point. At the same time, Congress is considering paving the way for a new Hawaiian nation, federally recognized and semi-autonomous. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who cares about this place could remain neutral.
For what it’s worth, I support the Akaka bill. I’m also sympathetic to those who oppose it, both on assimilationist grounds and on revolutionary ones, though I don’t think either the cohesiveness of our society or the ongoing effort by some Hawaiians to achieve full independence from the United States will be negatively affected by passage of the Akaka bill.
Ultimately, I’m convinced that the creation of a Native Hawaiian nation will be a step forward for Hawaii as a whole. As concerns native Hawaiians, this is first and foremost a question of justice. But the experiences of similar communties in the Pacific and in North America suggest that some form of Hawaiian autonomy will be positive for Hawaiians and non-natives alike. The flowering and development of traditional resource management and agricultural practices, just to name one example, has already paid off in New Zealand.
In North America, native communities have begun to move beyond casinos: through economic innovation, the once-shattered Choctaw Nation in Mississippi has become the largest employer in what was previously one of America’s most impoverished counties. That’s not to say it will be easy to get there. The process will almost certainly be painful at times. But if we give it a chance, there is precedent to suggest that a Hawaiian nation can make Hawaii a stronger, richer, most prosperous community for everyone.
I can’t speak for the two beautiful young people on the cover this week, but I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few days looking at their expressions in Christen Vidanovic’s extraordinary photograph. What’s interesting is that they knew what we were up to–those two don’t look sad because someone told them to imagine their hamsters dying. Christen and production manager Manny Pangilinan coaxed various poses and looks out of them, but the kids knew we were doing a story about Hawaii and the United States and the future.
Hard to shake the feeling that they’re calling you out a little bit, isn’t it?