Cultural Appropriation

At the time of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, Hawai’i’s constitutional monarch Queen Lili’uokalani was portrayed as an uncivilized tyrant. In political cartoons, she was drawn up in true colonial form – with feathers or bones in her hair, exaggerated features, nappy hair, darkened skin, disheveled clothes; propaganda intended entirely to misconstrue the political reality and context for what was being done to the people of Hawai’i Nei. That is, to begin constructing a simplistic, racist historical narrative to justify the militarization, economic domination, and political subjugation of a sovereign people.

Retired Army Captain Dr. Keanu Sai completed his PhD at the University of Hawai’i in political science and specialized in international law and state sovereignty, and United States and Hawaiian constitutional law. His dissertation was the first comprehensive study of the political and legal history of Hawaii and it’s relationship to the United States that brought to full light the fact that Hawaii was never actually annexed, but is rather an independent nation under prolonged U.S. occupation. His research and political work has debunked many assumptions made in popular discourse on the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, Hawaiians’ role in the UNPFII, and initiatives like the Akaka Bill that push for State and Federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous group in U.S. territory.

For a more detailed account of Hawai’i’s history as an internationally recognized state (n.b. since de-colonization post-WWII, 172 of the 193 countries in the United Nations, still including the U.S., are now legal treaty partners with the Hawaiian Kingdom), I encourage everyone to visit Dr. Sai’s website ( and do your own web searches to learn more. The story in short: A small group of mostly sugar merchants (Hawaiian subjects as well as British and German citizens) looking to protect their interests in the American market, conspired with U.S. diplomatic and military personnel to overthrow the Hawaiian government and attempted to sign a treaty of annexation with the U.S. Upon investigation of this crime by President Grover Cleveland’s special commissioner James H. Blunt, and later an executive agreement with Queen Lili’uokalani, the Hawaiian constitutional government was to be reinstated. Instead, the U.S. Congress held up the process of de-occupation for five years, and when William McKinley took office he entered into a second treaty of annexation with the insurgents on June 16, 1897. This second attempt failed ratification in the U.S. Senate due to the protest submitted by Queen Lili’uokalani and the anti-annexation petition signatures of 21,169 Hawaiian Kingdom nationals. However when the Spanish-American War broke out, the U.S. unilaterally annexed the Hawai’i by enacting a congressional joint resolution (a U.S. domestic law which does not have to force of a treaty to annex foreign territory) on July 7, 1898 in order to utilize the Hawaiian Islands as a military base to fight the Spanish in the Pacific. The U.S. continues to occupy these lands, but the continuity of the Hawaiian Kingdom as an independent state remains intact under international law.

From October 12-17, a week before the annual Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Convention began in Washington D.C., Ka Lei Maile Ali’i (KLMA) Hawaiian Civic Club brought Dr. Keanu Sai with us to Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Boston to present this history of Hawai’i. After ceremony with the Piscataway, on October 15 and 16 we also displayed 2,228 signs on the Washington D.C. National Mall, each written with individual names of Hawaiian Kingdom subjects who signed the petition that defeated the treaty of annexation in the U.S. Senate. In addition to this, KLMA also did two re-enactments at the National Museum of the America Indian and at the J. W. Marriott. These were one-act dramas recounting one of the many island-wide meetings of the Hui Hawai’i Aloha ‘Aina o Nawahine (Hawaiian Patriotic League, Women’s Branch) and the maka’ainana (people) in September 1897 at the Salvation Army Hall in Hilo, Hawai`i, collecting signatures to protest annexation through what came to be known as the “Ku’e Petition.” (I also strongly encourage anyone interested to visit for a full script of the re-enactment and a full description of the Ku’e Petition Sign Project.)

The combination of solid historical and legal documentation, with the visually striking display of thousands of names and a provocative re-enactment of those very people defending their land and their nationality leaves an enduring impact on audiences. Many people of all ethnicities and backgrounds find their parents, grandparents and great grandparents among those who risked the safety of their families under the provisional government to sign. It also forces us to re-assess and re-contextualize questions of “indigeneity” in Hawai’i, the appropriateness of applying indigenous political theory in Hawai’i, comparisons between Hawaiians and Native Americans, independence versus dependence, and the politics of race and power.

For nearly 120 years, Hawaiians — either by nationality, by culture, or by blood — have internalized a history that frames them as backward savages and innately inept by the rules of Social Darwinism. Without a doubt, colonization of the mind continues, albeit now in often more subtle ways. Even as historic awareness grows in Hawai’i today, many can only concede to “sort-of” telling the truth, still managing to misrepresent history and culture in ways that continue to diminish traditional cultural practices and values and detract from the fundamental truth of this history and its implications. “Sure, there was never a treaty of annexation, but that was in the past and we need to move forward. Independence is unrealistic. Get over it.” Some even go so far as to suggest Hawai’i ought to be grateful to have Uncle Sam to protect them from some other less benevolent occupier like the Japanese or the Russians. To this idea, often put by haole’s (I choose to define “haole” here as not just “white people” but those of any ethnicity who choose to align themselves with a Western-centric world view and ethic) to virtually every grievance of oppressed and/or colonized peoples, my response is: YOU get over it. You need to get over your own arrogance and conceit over a history that gave you an illegitimate sense of superiority (at the expense of your own spirit and territories as well as those of the oppressed), which you still assume as a (baseless) premise today to support your position. Continuing to maintain the injustice and imbalance of the self-defeating, destructive path we are on, is “unrealistic.”

There may be some still wondering whether or not any of this is really related to cultural appropriation. My thoughts here are meant to encourage us as Native people, wherever we come from, to really examine the full complexities and inter-relatedness of issues like cultural appropriation. In Hawai’i, the tourism industry has historically been responsible for an obscene level of commercialization and cheapening of Hawaiian culture. Business interests have co-opted and distorted values and concepts like “aloha,” which is a word rooted in understandings of compassion and reciprocity. (We have “Aloha” everything. How convoluted is the concept of “Aloha Petroleum”??) What it means to be Hawaiian culturally and nationally has been replaced with racist, divisive notions of blood quantum that shape how Hawaiians relate to each other today. There are many, many other aspects to this history, but I hope this information resonates with my relatives in Indian Country. We have our own treaties. We have our own traditional ways of defining and shaping our identities and our relationships with (and responsibility to) others, which are more nuanced and experiential than simply “blood quantum.” Our knowledge systems are complex and emerge from intimate relationships with our territories.

When we examine aspects of Hawaiian history we see many differences but also similar patterns, and the mis-representation of our cultures are tied to greater questions of exercising sovereignty and what it means to tell our own stories and define who we are — and ultimately, the importance of honoring and building on the path of our ancestors, to revive and perpetuate our cultures, to heal our communities mentally and physically.

My hope is to encourage you (as well as myself) to educate yourselves and others to live courageously and honestly, and to not simply settle — however romantic and silly that may sound. Dr. Sai often opens his talks recounting his experience with his grandmother before she passed away. She told him to promise that he will know his genealogy, because, “When you know your genealogy, you will know who you are, and what you have to do.” The word for “future” in Hawaiian is ka wā mahope, “the time of the past.” You must first look the past to orient you, to give you ‘ike — knowledge, understanding, vision — and from that you get your kuleana, your responsibility. Speak truth to power. Whether the issue is cultural appropriation, water and land rights, domestic violence, or the economy: “Be brave, be strong, be fearless and steadfast. Our time will come.” (Mrs. Kuaihelani Campbell, gathering signatures for the Ku’e Petition, Hilo, Big Island, 1897.)

~ Please visit Ka Lei Maile Ali’i Hawaiian Civic Club’s website ( for a fill listing of our sponsors and all those who gave of their time, energy, talents, and finances to make our educational efforts successful in Boston and Washington D.C. ~


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