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Studying abroad in the 50th state

May 1, 2020

From early January to mid-March of this year, I spent much of my free time swimming, surfing, sunbathing and hiking around the beautiful island of Oahu. Studying at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, I spent most of my time in the classroom learning about Hawaiian history and culture, the U.S.-militarized Pacific and American imperialism. Unfortunately, like most of my classmates studying abroad this semester, my plans were cut short, and on March 18 I flew from Honolulu to Boston, two months before my semester was set to end. While I was sad to leave the community I had been welcomed into, the cute job I found at a local ice cream shop, the warm weather and the lands and waters I was so fortunate to be a visitor in, I left mostly feeling grateful for the time I was able to spend there, with the knowledge that my rightful place during these times is with my family at home.

Since being home, I’ve continued my classes via Zoom like many of us, cried a lot, cooked a lot, slept more than Bowdoin ever allowed me to, questioned the meaning of life, decided it didn’t matter, questioned it again, cursed the actions of this settler-state, counted my blessings, mourned all that is being lost and tried to make sense of all the uncertainty, among other things. I’ve also had an abundance of time to reflect on my brief experience abroad, the mixture of upsetting, life-changing and beautiful lessons it taught me and what to do with my new knowledge. I’m still figuring out how to talk about it, but I think I can start by calling it what it was: studying abroad.

Hawai’i is an independent nation-state that has been unlawfully occupied by the United States since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893. While Americans were continuing to dispossess land and life from the indigenous peoples of North America to expand the territory of the continental United States, they were similarly interested in expanding the domain of the American empire in the Pacific. The Kingdom of Hawai’i, however, was a sovereign and independent nation. It had a constitution, proclaimed in 1840, that designated executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. It was formally recognized by the kingdoms of France and Britain since 1843, as well as by the government of the United States. It had universal healthcare, the highest literacy rate of any nation at the time and treaties, trade agreements, and diplomatic relations with many global powers, and it was a member of the Universal Postal Union. In international law, the only legitimate method of ceding territory from one sovereign nation to another is via a treaty. There has never been a treaty between the Kingdom of Hawai’i and the United States ceding Hawaiian lands.

In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani of Hawai’i was forcefully overthrown by a small group of businessmen backed by the threat of American military intervention, who declared themselves the provisional government of the new “Republic of Hawai’i.” In the interest of sparing Hawaiian lives, the Queen yielded her authority in protest, “until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives,” and reinstate her as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands. Unfortunately, the administration at the time had an expansionist mindset and the resources of the islands proved too tempting, so the U.S. government’s greedy economic and military interests prevailed. After two failed attempts to annex Hawai’i via a treaty of cession in 1893 and 1897, Hawai’i was annexed by a joint resolution of Congress in 1898.

This annexation was both unconstitutional and a violation of international law, and it ignored the 1897 formal petition against annexation signed by the majority of Hawaiian citizens as well as protests from the Queen. President William McKinley signed the joint resolution anyway, because his administration wanted Pearl Harbor as a strategic naval base to protect the West Coast during the Spanish-American War. In 1900, the Organic Act claimed Hawai’i as a U.S. territory, and in 1959 the Admission Act declared Hawai’i the 50th U.S. state. Again, the United States government had no legal authority to do any of this. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a congressional joint resolution that acknowledged the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i and apologized to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States. Nevertheless, our government continues to illegally occupy Hawai’i and does not recognize it as the sovereign and independent state it rightfully is. If you want to learn more about the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom and American occupation, I recommend watching the animated film Pa’a Ke Aupuni, and this 2016 lecture by political scientist Dr. Keanu Sai to start.

Obviously, this is a vast oversimplification of hundreds of years of colonial interference, militarization, exploitation, genocide (over 90 percent population decline in about 100 years) and racist grabs for power. It does not even touch on the continuing negative effects of Americanization and militarization on Hawai’i and other oft-forgotten territories in the Pacific such as Guam and American Samoa, the systematic suppression of Hawaiian history, language, arts and culture or the complexities that have arisen from an economy so dependent on tourism and the military since becoming a U.S. state. Unfortunately, it’s still probably much more than you learned in high school.

History is seldom taught from indigenous perspectives, and even in Hawai’i this history is often glossed over in the classroom. In 2020, misinformation and propaganda continue to come straight from our government. Indigenous communities, already having a painful history of decimation from infectious diseases, continue to be most affected and least protected in this pandemic due to the legacy of inequity brought about by ongoing colonialism. It seems, the more we learn about the way our world is run, the more hopeless we may feel. But until we reconcile with our shameful history and educate ourselves in the truth, we will be hard-pressed to carve out a just and prosperous future. Fortunately, the Hawaiian cultural Renaissance of the ’70s, ongoing historical research and powerful sovereignty movements led by Hawaiian nationals have brought these issues to the forefront, opening up the conversation of de-occupation and showcasing the resilience and vibrancy of Hawaiian people and culture.

In no way do I purport to be any sort of authority on Hawaiian history, culture or what would be its best path forward. I did, however, have the invaluable privilege of living and learning there for two and a half months. The least I can do is call it what it was, with no room for doubt, and ensure that others do the same.

Shona Ortiz is a member of the Class of 2021.


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