Rob Parsons

50 Years of Hawaii Statehood

by Rob Parsons

August 27 , 2009

A half century ago, I was just old enough to be aware of Hawaii's induction as a state. A 50th star was added to the flag for our daily pledge of allegiance at my elementary school in Madison, Wisconsin. The configuration of Old Glory that had flown since 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico were added, was now revised to add stars for Alaska and Hawaii.

I also recall the statehood stamp, which my grandfather sent to my older brother and me. Unfortunately, Grandpa Parsons committed a philatelic faux pas: the torn corner of the envelope revealed the words, "of Issue," part of the postmark. Had he saved the entire envelope, with its full postmark, "First Day of Issue," it would have been of much greater value to collectors.

Five decades of statehood have brought a mixed bag of changes to Hawaii. The islands' leaders have embraced the tourist economy and Mainland corporations have had a homogenizing effect, supplanting plantation-based rural lifestyles with fast-paced consumer culture.

Waves of investment capital have washed in from both sides of the Pacific, though recently the tide has ebbed, leading to an increased emphasis on energy and food independence. There is also talk of another kind of independence: establishment of a Hawaiian sovereign nation and a recognition of the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by sugar-planting business interests, backed by U.S. Marines.

With Hawaii-born Barack Obama the White House, there is renewed hope that the long-stalled Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Bill, better known as the Akaka Bill, will pass. But while it seeks to establish a self-governing entity within the United States—similar to the Navajo or Lakota nations—many Native Hawaiians don't want to be governed under the auspices of the same government that forcibly imprisoned their queen, took their land and turned them into second-class citizens.

Hawaii's star on the American flag holds much significance, and has been a catalyst for many changes, but another star may be equally vital. Hoku le'a ("glad star") is the Hawaiian name given to the star Arcturus, a guiding navigational beacon in the heavens above the Pacific. The star inspired the name of the twin-hulled sailing canoe that first launched in 1975 to rediscover the ancestral skills that brought Polynesians to Hawaii. The Hokule'a's ongoing voyages serve as metaphors for the cultural revitalization of the Hawaiian people. 

The resurgence of Hawaiian language, customs and values has helped bring awareness to unresolved disputes and injustices over "ceded" lands. At an Admission Day sign-waving protest near the Kahului Airport, Hawaiians and supporters of all ages donned black T-shirts emblazoned with "Nationhood" on the back, above a warrior's profile, and "1893 Ku'e" (to oppose or resist) on the front. Hand-painted signs read, "'Ceded' lands are stolen lands," "Kanaka want justice" and "Americans stole our identity." A row of keiki stood together, each with a single letter on their chest, spelling, "Fake state."

I recognized many of the participants from community meetings, where for years they have brought forward cultural concerns, often with patience wearing thin, as the roads to justice appear to be as sticky as two-finger poi. 

Yet monumental changes have occurred, such as the return of the Island of Kaho'olawe—used for decades as a Naval firing range—to the people of Hawaii. The former "Target Isle" is now undergoing a massive restoration project, striving to heal more than a century of abuse.

Returning home from the rally, I searched the Internet for a song I'd heard on the drive home—Israel Kamikawiwo'ole's, "Hawaii '78." On YouTube I found a video of Bruddah Iz passionately singing his astonishing anthem to modern-day Hawaii. 

"If just for a day our king and queen/Would visit all these islands and saw everything/How would they feel 'bout the changing of our land?/Could you imagine if they were around/And saw highways on their sacred grounds/How would they feel if they knew 'bout this modern city life?"

The following day, a family outing took us from Haiku through Makawao and on to Grandma's Coffee Shop in Keokea. Soothed by the geographic isolation, the serene mana, I realized this area of Maui is as inspiring and rejuvenating as when I first visited 30 years ago.

Adding to the dreamlike quality, we heard Hawaiian music from the deck of Grandma's as we approached. A couple, Fred and Pema, played ukulele while Fred sang. With a voice remarkably like Bruddah Iz, he transported me once again into the reverie of "Hawaii '78."

"How would they feel?/Would their smiles be content/Rather than cry?/Cry for the gods, cry for the people/Cry for the lands that were taken away/And in it you'll find Hawaii."

In between songs, Fred spoke of the long wait for Hawaiians to move onto lands set aside for them more than 80 years ago. Though often the lands given back were the least desirable places, he said the Keokea Homelands were among the most lush and beautiful. Fred Lacar was the last baby born in Kula hospital before statehood, Pema told me. He was also born a few months before Iz. "People say I sound like him," said Fred, "but I say he sounds like me."

As Fred launched into another ballad I sat back. My heart was full. Overcome with emotion, I could think only one thing: "Lucky we live Hawaii."