This November marks the fifth month of protests on Mauna Kea by native Hawaiians who oppose a poorly managed thirty-meter telescope being built on sacred land. This may come as a shock to people living on the U.S. mainland who view Hawaiʻi as a tropical island paradise full of smiling, easygoing natives. But the truth of the matter is that native Hawaiians have been actively resistant against U.S. occupation since the very beginning. November is Native American Heritage Month—and it is past time to recognize the complicated political history behind our 50th state.
For many native Hawaiian protestors, the issue of Mauna Kea is symbolic, as the American government has been disregarding the native Hawaiian perspective for centuries. The annexation of Hawaiʻi was widely opposed by the Hawaiian people and is considered illegal by many experts and historians.
It is hard to come by this information because it is not widely known and is not taught in schools. Even as a part-native Hawaiian, I only learned the truth about the unjust annexation a few years ago. When I was in high school, the extent of my education on Hawaiian history was a 30-minute lesson where the teacher butchered the pronunciation of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s name and told the class that the Queen willingly gave the islands away. End of story.
But there is, in fact, far more to that story. Last year, I made a documentary at Sarah Lawrence College in Damani Baker’s class “Truth Freedom and Bearing Witness.” My film, “Longing for Hawaiʻi,” talks about the Hawaiian diaspora and celebrates family, native Hawaiian traditions, and my ʻohana’s unique role in Hawaiian history in the face of colonial erasure.
About two years ago, my family and I discovered that my great-great-great-grandfather, William Pūnohuʻāweoweoʻulaokalani White, was a right-hand man to the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Queen Liliʻuokalani, thanks to research conducted by Dr. Ron Williams, a historian at the University of Hawaiʻi. Williams called White the “Thomas Jefferson of Hawaiʻi” because he cowrote a constitution with Joseph Nāwahī that would have restored rights to the native Hawaiians. Unfortunately, the U.S. government staged a coup and overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom before this constitution could be enacted. Queen Liliʻuokalani praised my great-great-great-grandfather for his patriotism in her autobiography. But for years, my ancestor’s legacy had been erased—his grave didn’t even have a headstone.
Williams also taught my family and me that the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was extremely progressive. In 1852, some thirteen years before the U.S. outlawed slavery, universal male suffrage was granted to all races in Hawaiʻi. In 1881, King Kalākaua was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe. The Kingdom of Hawaiʻi had embassies all over the world. ’Iolani Palace had electricity before the White House. The list goes on.
This summer, when I went to visit my family on the Big Island, I made a point to stop by the Mauna Kea protest and educate myself about the issue of the telescope. The media is attempting to portray the native people who oppose the telescope as anti-science. But in reality, there is a long history of mismanagement of telescopes on Mauna Kea by the University of Hawaiʻi. There are already thirteen telescopes on the mountain that have left waste all over the mountain and the native community is complaining about the environmental damage to the land. It is not a question of opposing science—it’s a question of protecting sacred land from pollution and unnecessary waste.
The story of the lost Kingdom of Hawaiʻi is just one of the many injustices that the U.S. has committed against native people. There are native tribes all over this country who have been mistreated, overlooked, and harmed by America’s colonial legacy. It is important to remember that this land we are living on was not gifted to the U.S. government—in many cases, it was forcefully stolen. This Native American Heritage Month, listen to native people’s stories with an open mind. There is often more to history than what is taught in a textbook.