Indigenous Struggles in Hawai’i

Katy Rose (with assistance from Raymond Catania)

Dear UTA,

Thank you for your ongoing discussions about settler solidarity work and the Six Nations struggles. As a participant in a multi-racial, majority-settler, anti-imperialist formation on the island of Kaua’i, I feel this discussion is relevant to our ongoing work here, albeit with significant variations from your specific context. In the spirit of broadening our cross-border and overseas alliances, I would like to share our experiences and thinking with our brothers and sisters in Canada.

The struggle against the neocolonial exploitation of Hawai’i and its Kanaka Maoli inhabitants is ongoing and gaining greater urgency with every passing year, as settler social norms, US militarism, and incursion into the limited land base each increase exponentially. The movement for sovereignty has produced a variety of groups, organizations, fledgling government formations, land struggles and political tendencies in the Kanaka Maoli communities on every island. This vibrant mix is often characterized by vigorous disagreements as well as an overarching camaraderie and movement toward unity.

Many non-Kanaka Maoli allies rely on individualistic decisions about how to engage in solidarity work. We jump in with good intentions but little coordination with others. As a result, some of us choose to become members of particular sovereignty or 
independence organizations, thereby lending tacit support to a specific trend in the movement and possibly undermining our abilities to support the movement in its entirety. This can also distract us from organizing in our settler communities, which might help create space for the independence movement to resolve internal disputes free of our interference.

Some of us on Kaua’i have attempted to initiate discussions with other non-Kanaka Maoli allies on how we can refine and coordinate our approach to solidarity work, but there has been some apprehension to seriously engaging this question. Oddly, it seems that “taking leadership,” which was described by Keefer in his article in UTA 4 as a “fetishized” concept, has been less of a problem than “giving advice.” This is a particular problem with settlers from the urban United States, who have an inclination towards arrogance in rural settings like Kaua’i. Sometimes allies are impatient with juggling questions concerning appropriate support tactics and feel that lending their technical skills to a struggle is enough. Yet, just as those at the center of the struggle benefit from the time it takes to ground their actions in a solid political analysis and framework, settler allies might be better positioned to lend useful support if we did the same.

Currently, some settler allies uncritically support certain regressive tendencies within the sovereignty movement out of a generalized support for “self-determination.” This has been the case with respect to US militarism. This question is crucial, since Hawai’i’s particular value as a colony is its strategic military location. Starting from a cultural nationalist approach, some sovereignty groups are less critical of the imperialist role of the US and view the problem with the numerous bases and training areas in Hawai’i as arising from the fact that Kanaka Maoli have never been adequately compensated for the use of the so-called “ceded” lands. The goal for some groups is not to get the US military out, or even to criticize its role in world affairs, but to “raise the rent” on the bases in order to pay for social needs. Those of us with radical and anti-imperialist positions cannot help but be critical of this, but we understand that these debates must play out within the community. Because of these tensions, we naturally find ourselves working more easily with class-conscious and anti-imperialist strands within the independence movement, with whom we have formed alliances in our demilitarization and social and economic justice work.

A complication of our work among settlers is the distrust and resentment that exists between relatively affluent white settlers – haoles – and “locals” – descendents of Asian and Pacific Island migrant workers brought in to labour in the sugar and pineapple plantations. The sovereignty struggle in Hawai’i has often been framed in terms of a haole/Kanaka Maoli binary. But this perspective excludes the priorities of non-Native people of colour, who make up the majority of Hawai’i’s population. In the colonial racial hierarchy, Kanaka Maoli are the most severely disadvantaged, but the non-Native locals have a unique cultural bond with Native Hawaiians that grows out of a shared history of racist imperialism. This is most evident in the inter-racial families, the cuisine, and the spoken language of non-white Hawai’i. 

But despite the presence of a common culture and a shared resentment toward the US domination of Hawai’i, non-Kanaka Maoli locals are often anti-sovereignty. Working-class locals don’t always see how independence from the United States could benefit them, and the yearnings for nationhood of Native Hawai’ians can be felt as a separatist and racialized rejection to locals who consider themselves every bit as tied to Hawai’i as indigenous people. Local people’s position in relation to the colonial oppression of Kanaka Maoli is complex and radically different than that of haole settlers from the US. The term “settler” is in some ways perhaps inappropriate for non-Native locals in that it elides significant differences from haoles in class and historical relationship to Hawai’i.

To add complexity, there is what one could term a comprador class in Hawai’i comprised of local politicians and business leaders intensely loyal to US interests. While the majority of wealth and power rests in the hands of white settlers and US corporate interests, the Hawai’i political establishment is nearly entirely composed of locals.

On Kaua’i, a current land struggle has brought forth some of these settler solidarity questions. It involves defence of an ancient burial site against the imminent construction of a luxury vacation home on a stretch of fragile shoreline. The conflict illuminates the stark dispute between the hegemonic private-property-rights regime of the United States and the basic survival interests of Kanaka Maoli. In this case, as in so many others, a wealthy haole developer in California is granted more rights than the people with intimate ties to the land in question. Many settler allies have individually lent their support to the struggle, which has taken the form of a four-month vigil, public sign-holdings, various courtroom and council chamber maneuvers, and direct actions at the site. Recently, several Kanaka Maoli veteran warriors from sister islands came to Kaua’i to engage in a blockade action that significantly boosted the struggle’s level of militancy.

All along the way, we settler allies have at various times been tempted to impose our own agendas and project our own analyses onto the fight. Some of us have been impatient to use more confrontational direct action tactics, or to dispute the strategy developed by the core organizers. In any struggle, variations in the thinking of individual participants develop – this should come as no surprise. Yet it would be foolish to ignore the concrete realities of the settler/Native relationship and jump in as if our social locations were irrelevant to our roles.

The Kanaka Maoli leader who initiated the long vigil described to me what she saw as three categories of disruptive and ineffective settler allies. She identified those who came to the site to be healed, those who came to heal her, and those who needed constant reassurance and demanded micro-management – the mana-suckers. A distinct settler ally structure with a collective analysis of effective solidarity tactics could have diverted some of these less helpful approaches to the site. Recently, our group began a serious discussion of our collective role as allies. Although we had a range of experiences and views on the question, there were a few points that around which we united:

(1) Building trusting relationships is paramount and a precondition for solidarity work.

(2) It is not up to us as allies to guide the struggles of Native peoples, but if asked we are willing to give any input we might have.

(3) We have an important role to play in organizing within the non-Native communities in Hawai’i to build support for the Kanaka Maoli and counter the growing modern organized white-supremacist trend headed by people like Ken Conklin and his “Grassroot (sic) Institute.” (Ken Conklin’s message is almost identical to that of Ontario’s Gary McHale.)

In the current burial-site resistance, it has become clear that one of our crucial efforts as allies will be to build a neighbourhood-based solidarity group along the lines of Community Friends of Six Nations in Caledonia. While the explicit political analysis of this group may be less radical than our own, it will be an indispensable mechanism for disrupting the racist narrative now being perpetuated against the site’s defenders.

As the Zapatistas have said, “We ask questions as we walk.” Thanks to Upping the Anti for providing some sustenance for our long journey.

In Solidarity,
Katy Rose (with assistance from Raymond Catania)
Kaua’i Alliance for Peace and Social Justice
Kaua’i, Hawai’i