Ever since white Christian missionaries first arrived in Hawaii (Native spelling: Hawai‘i) in the 1820s, the islands’ Native people have found their sovereignty, culture and way of life under increasing threat. For two centuries, many have resisted.
The threats began early. By 1840, some scholars estimate, the Native Hawaiian population had plummeted by as much as 84 percent, largely due to diseases introduced by Western colonizers. In 1893, an illegal coup, orchestrated by a handful of white planters and businessmen, ousted the sovereign Hawaiian monarchy. Five years later, the United States annexed Hawaii, viewing the islands as both a rich agricultural resource and a strategic perch in the Pacific. And in 1959, the U.S. legislature voted to make Hawaii America’s 50th state. During that time, colonizers confiscated lands and militarized parts of the island. They suppressed traditional cultural and spiritual practices. And they banned the Hawaiian language in schools and government.
Native Hawaiians have responded with protest, activism and expressions of Indigenous cultural pride. In the 1880s, King David Kalākaua kindled nationalism and promoted Hawaii internationally as an independent sovereign kingdom. He also fostered what came to be known as the First Hawaiian Renaissance, reviving traditional cultural practices like hula dancing, an integral part of Native Hawaiian storytelling—and outlawed since 1830, largely because missionaries did not understand its cultural importance and viewed it as a pagan ritual. The Second Hawaiian Renaissance flourished in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, Native Hawaiian sovereignty remains a critical issue, informing contemporary protests against militarism, imperialism and occupation.
“Resistance and nationalism have been intertwined throughout the last two hundred years of the history of Hawaii,” writes Noenoe Silva, a scholar of Indigenous politics at the University of Hawaii and author of Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism.
Early Resistance Efforts
Even prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Native Hawaiians had engaged in organized opposition to the annexation of their nation by the United States.
Six years earlier, in 1887, a group of sugar barons and other businessmen forced King Kalākaua at gunpoint to sign the so-called Bayonet Constitution, usurping his power and disenfranchising Native Hawaiians. In response, Hawaiians formed different hui (organizations) to mobilize protests. One resistance leader, Robert Kalanihiapo Wilcox of Maui, launched a failed armed insurrection to overthrow the Bayonet Constitution and the members of the all-white Reform Government who had imposed it. But these actions ultimately came to naught: On January 16, 1893, United States troops invaded the Hawaiian Kingdom and forced Kalākaua’s successor, Queen Lili‘uokalani, to sign a conditional surrender.
Following the overthrow, members of the provisional white government of Hawaii looked to the United States to begin annexation of the islands. Although President Grover Cleveland believed the provisional government had acted illegally, he left the decision to Congress. Many in Congress supported annexation because Hawaii’s strategic location offered crucial access to Asian trade markets.
After William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as president, he signed a treaty of annexation—despite widespread objection from Native coalitions. They wrote articles in both Hawaiian and English newspapers. They stopped hoʻokupu (offerings) to white churches and sang mele (traditional songs or chants) of protest. In a rousing 1897 protest speech to thousands of Hawaiians, resistance leader James Keauiluna Kaulia declared that “consenting for our nation to be subsumed within America is like agreeing that we…be buried alive.”
Bringing Protests to Washington
In an overwhelming expression of dissent, nearly 38,000 Native individuals out of 40,000 across the Hawaiian Islands—or 95 percent—collectively signed two Kū’e petitions that rejected annexation and called to restore the monarchy, according to Silva.
In December 1897, Kaulia, along with three other Native Hawaiian delegates, brought the petitions to Washington, D.C. and joined Queen Liliʻuokalani to formally protest the annexation, documenting how her government had been illegally overthrown in a violation of international law. Together, over three months of intense lobbying, they made their case to senators, and successfully squashed the annexation bill.
But their victory was short-lived. When the Spanish-American War broke out the following year, highlighting Hawaii’s strategic location within the Pacific as a coaling station for the American Navy, Congress voted to officially make Hawaii a U.S. territory. Many on the islands expressed deep grief after the American flag was raised. Among the most profoundly affected was Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last ruling monarch of Hawaii, who expressed her remorse that she had failed her lāhui: her nation and her people.
The Second Hawaiian Renaissance
For many years after, traditional Hawaiian culture remained peripheral to the events that would transform the islands: the corporate expansion of plantations, the growing U.S. military presence during World War II and the Cold War and the emergence of the tourism industry. However, the rise of the civil rights movement and the growing support for Indigenous peoples and identities sparked renewed interest in Hawaiian culture.
In the 1960s and ’70s, activists began to revive calls for sovereignty. A second Hawaiian Renaissance began to flourish, which witnessed the embrace of traditional language and cultural practices such as hula and slack-key music, which helped give voice to Native resistance. A renewed interest emerged in Polynesian maritime wayfinding using traditional canoes and ancient celestial navigation.
During this time, Native Hawaiian activism targeted militarism and land development. New construction in Kalama Valley, Waiāhole and Waikāne sparked protests about local farmers being evicted and displaced. And in 1976, a group of young resisters occupied the island of Kahoʻolawe, a site of cultural and spiritual significance decimated by military bombing practice since 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower had transferred its title to the U.S. Navy. After more than a decade of protest, the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana movement succeeded in ending the bombing, transferring control of the island back to the state and beginning environmental cleanup.
More significant progress for Native Hawaiians came in 1978, when the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to address the historical injustices faced by Native Hawaiians and encouraged the return of Kahoʻolawe. As part of the Constitutional Convention, the Hawaiian language also became the official state language of the islands for the first time since the overthrow.
Hawaiian Statehood: An Ongoing Sovereignty Issue
Although Hawaiian voters approved Hawaii statehood bill by an overwhelmingly wide margin and Hawaii became America’s 50th state on August 21, 1959, many Native Hawaiian activists protested—and continue to do so. They consider statehood another example of Hawaii’s history of militarism, imperialism and colonization.
The contemporary sovereignty movement remains splintered regarding statehood. Some, who argue that the U.S. has illegally occupied the islands, have advocated for a restoration of land, along with compensation. Others, who believe a complete restoration is impossible, have sought federal recognition of Hawaiians as Native people—with some lands returned. Some have argued against the kingdom’s restoration and national recognition; instead, they’ve sought the decolonization of Hawaii under the International Trusteeship System created by the United Nations for territories under the control of foreign powers.
In 1993, the federal government issued a formal apology for the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy—and acknowledged that the Hawaiian people never formally relinquished their lands. In 2009, a bill seeking federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an Indigenous tribal group passed the U.S. House but has since stalled. Known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, a.k.a. the Akaka bill, it would allow Native Hawaiians to form their own government on par with that of the federal government. If passed, it would provide their first self-determination since America overthrew the monarchy in 1893.