updated 7/16/2008 5:14:15 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:14:15

Hawaii, geographically the most isolated archipelago in the world, geologically some of the youngest land on earth, is continuing to undergo transformations. These islands were settled by human beings only about 1,000 years ago, when Polynesians paddled across vast Pacific expanses in small outrigger canoes; when Captain Cook came here in 1776, he found his Maori interpreter from New Zealand could understand Hawaiian. On this subtropical land, teeming with food and seldom inconvenienced by bad weather, Hawaiians built a fierce civilization, with harsh taboos and cannibalism as well as alluring music and dance. The islands were united politically in 1779 by King Kamehameha I, who ate one of his rivals and maintained the old culture. In 1819, within a year of his death, his consort Kaahumanu outlawed the Hawaiian religious taboos and welcomed the American missionary Hiram Bingham. New England missionaries and their trader cousins came—while British and Russian ships occasionally put into port—and established the predominant culture. By the 1850s, laborers from China, Japan, Portugal and the Philippines streamed in to work the sugar and pineapple plantations. American planters and businessmen bridled at the caprices of the royal family and, in January 1893, with the help of U.S. Marines, ousted Queen Liliuokalani from the Iolani Palace and called on the United States to annex Hawaii. President Grover Cleveland demurred, and Hawaii for five years was a republic; President William McKinley annexed it in July 1898. This history is a source of regret for some; an Onipa’a ceremony remembering Liliuokalani’s overthrow was staged by John Waihee, the first governor of Native Hawaiian descent, in January 1993, with the American flag conspicuously absent. Later that year Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed an apology for the overthrow of Liliuokalani 100 years before.

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Yet Hawaii is an American civilization in the Pacific, which has created a better life for its citizens than almost any other island or native commonwealth. Its people have not been walled off in ethnic blocs, but have been mixing for the last century, when the native Hawaiian population was down to 45,000, sharing the islands with 3,000 Americans, 20,000 Chinese and 25,000 Japanese. To that Americana, each group has made positive contributions. The Asian migrant laborers brought traditions of hard work, family loyalty and group solidarity that found expression most vividly in the performance of the 442d “Go for Broke” Regimental Combat Team, made up mostly of sons of Japanese immigrants, which became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. The Yankee spirit has been evident in Hawaii’s commercial success and in its attachment to the rule of Anglo-American law. The Hawaiian spirit is apparent in the vitality of the aloha ambience, the welcoming of others despite their differences, and a willingness to absorb the teachings of others while maintaining a certain Polynesian attitude toward life. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, no one in Hawaii or on the mainland doubted that this was part of America. It was Hawaii’s super-American tolerance that inspired segregationist Southern Democrats to block its admission to the Union for years. Today’s Hawaiians can take pride in their ethnic heritage—or, more likely, heritages: about half of marriages are across ethnic or racial lines. In the 2000 Census, 18% of Hawaiians identified themselves as being of two races and 7% said three or more. Some 23% described themselves as at least partly Native Hawaiian—nearly 225,000 descendants of the 45,000 Native Hawaiians of the late 19th century. By census category, Hawaii in 2000 was 41% Asian, 23% white, 2% black, 9% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and 7% Hispanic. But those categories seem artificial when looking at Hawaii. Local experts identify Hawaiians by ethnicity and give estimates of the size of each group: Hawaiian 22%, Caucasian 21%, Japanese 18%, Filipino 12%, Chinese 5%. The 2004 NEP exit poll classified the electorate as 42% white, 26% Asian, 10% Latino, 1% black and 22% “other.”

Politically, the Hawaii Territory was Republican; after all, southern Democrats were blocking statehood and championing racial segregation. John Kennedy carried it in 1960 by just 115 votes. But from 1962 to 2002, its politics was dominated by a Democratic machine which had its beginning in the 1950s, when returning World War II veterans like Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga and George Ariyoshi joined forces with former mainlander John Burns, who as a policeman during the war helped prevent persecution of Japanese Americans. They allied themselves with the then-powerful International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, and cemented the allegiance of Japanese-American voters. The Burns-Inouye machine built on the grievances against the haole (the Hawaiian word for white) owners of the big companies and triumphed. Inouye was elected as a Democrat to the House in 1959 and to the Senate in 1962; Burns was elected governor in 1962, and for 40 years the office was passed down in lineal succession to George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Benjamin Cayetano—balanced tickets, of Japanese, Native Hawaiian and Filipino descent. Over the years this machine has built a large government. Despite some 1990s tax cuts, Hawaii had the third highest per capita tax burden in the nation in 2000 and by far the highest number of state and local employees per capita. This is centralized government: Hawaii has five counties (and one, Honolulu, has 71% of the population), one school district and one statewide health care plan. Landholdings are centralized too. Eight public and private entities own 69% of Hawaii’s land: The federal government 16%, the state 29%, and six private landowners 24%. The Bishop Estate (Mrs. Bishop was the last surviving descendant of Kamehameha I), now called the Kamehameha Schools Estate, owns 8%.

During the 40 years of Democratic dominance, Hawaii’s economy was transformed. By the 1960s tourism edged out agriculture—mainly pineapples and sugar—as Hawaii’s number one industry. Pineapple acreage declined from 77,000 to 10,000, and Del Monte closed its last pineapple operations in 2006. Sugar production declined 67% in the 1990s, and most of the sugar produced is now processed into biofuel. Hawaii’s agriculture is now dedicated to specialty crops whose high cost of production can be recovered in local, national or international markets: flowers, wasabi, macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, bananas, avocados, papayas, genetically engineered seeds. Hawaii even sells sea water: a Japanese company scoops it up from 2,000 feet underwater, desalinates it on the Kona cost and sells it in Japan for $5.50 a bottle. As big agriculture shriveled, the ILWU, which represented agricultural workers as well as longshoremen, dimmed in importance as its membership inevitably slumped; politically it was replaced by the strongly Democratic public employee unions. Voting long tended to run along ethnic lines. Japanese Americans, used to working in organizations in unions and government, have tended to be the heart of the Democratic Party; whites, with relatively high incomes, have tended toward Republicans; Filipinos, often in menial jobs, are heavily Democratic; Chinese, somewhat less so; Native Hawaiians are heavily Democratic but not as likely to be active in politics.

But as it changed, Hawaii found it had vulnerabilities. It imports 90% of its food, and has only one week’s supply available at any one time; this was a problem when commercial flights were cut off after September 11. Housing is expensive, bid up by luxury buyers who have made their money elsewhere. The state’s number two industry is the military, with perhaps 50,000 troops and dependents on the islands, with more than 100 military installations of varying size. But after the end of the Cold War the number of military personnel and civilian federal employees fell from 97,800 in 1988 to 67,750 in 2000. And in those same years tourism proved vulnerable to the early 1990s recession in California and the decade-long deflation in Japan. The number of visitors peaked at 7 million in 1990, dropped to 6.1 million in 1993, and did not reach 7 million again until 2000; then it was cut back by September 11 and recession to 6.4 million in 2003. The gross state product declined from 1992 to 1998, the number of jobs fell, foreign investment plummeted, bankruptcies zoomed, home sales dropped and welfare caseloads increased. Labor force participation declined as the number of young adults fell and the number of elderly rose: the combination of high housing costs and comparatively low wages led many young Hawaiians to seek work on the Mainland. The tourism industry finally bounced back, to 7 million in 2004, 7.5 million in 2005, 7.4 million in 2006. But the number of Japanese tourists, who tend to spend more per day than any others, went down, despite the revival of the Japanese economy; some worry that the state's strict smoking ban, enacted in 2006, will further dissuade them from vacationing in Hawaii. Unemployment in late 2006 was 2.1%, the lowest in the nation. But Hawaii’s economy was still not generating as many high-paying jobs as its young people were seeking. Senator Barack Obama, who has chronicled his anxiety growing up black in the seemingly tolerant Hawaii of the 1970s (and in one of its most elite private schools, Punahou Academy), has become the first presidential candidate born and raised in the state. But he chose to be educated in California, New York and Massachusetts and to make his living in Illinois.

By 2004, Hawaii’s economy otherwise had come back. Tourism revived, housing prices zoomed upward—the median sale price was over $500,000 on Maui and just under that on Oahu—and the construction industry boomed. Military cutbacks ended after September 11 and deployments overseas followed. Hawaii’s small high-tech sector grew while Silicon Valley contracted. This economic turnaround coincided with a political turnaround, the election of Republican Linda Lingle as governor in 2002 after Democrats had held the office and controlled state government for 40 years. The question now is whether Hawaii can sustain its economic boom and at the same time preserve the defining characteristics that have made Hawaii strong and tolerant in the six decades since Pearl Harbor. The sluggish economy, high taxes and insider control all worked to undermine the hold of the Democratic machine on voters. The opposition to the machine, often carried on in primaries or in the form of third party candidacies by longtime Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, coalesced in 1998 in the person of Republican Linda Lingle. She lost to incumbent Ben Cayetano by only 50%-49% and in 2000 Republicans made gains in state legislative races. In 2002 Lingle won 52%-47%. She proved highly popular as governor and was reelected 63%-35% in 2006. But union-backed Democrats increased their already large margins in the legislature, and in 2005 implemented a law putting price controls on gasoline (it was predictably counterproductive and repealed in April 2006). In 2006 Congressman Ed Case challenged three-term Senator Daniel Akaka in the Democratic primary. Akaka won 55%-45%. “The machine won,” said Case. “This was a clear and convincing victory for the Democratic machine that has been increasingly hanging on to power in Hawaii by their fingernails.”

Hawaiians like to see their state as an archipelago of tolerance and good feeling. But that reputation has been marred by controversy over the status of Native Hawaiians and by occasional violence, including attacks on military personnel by Native Hawaiians. A Native Hawaiian protest movement grew in the 1990s, with demonstrations on the anniversaries of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and the U.S. annexation of the islands. A state sovereignty commission sponsored a referendum on electing delegates to create a Native Hawaiian government; this raised the question of just who is a Native Hawaiian, since almost no one is of pure Native ancestry. Advocates of special treatment for Natives argued that they ranked below all other Hawaii ethnic groups (except perhaps Filipinos) in income and education and some called for independence from the United States. Native activist Haunani-Kay Trask disagreed: “As a nationalist, I hate the United States of America. But [independence] doesn’t live in the political-military world we live in, with 26 military bases in Hawaii and 7 million tourists a year.” She has also said that, “Our native people have been essentially confined to a servant class,” but of course they have higher living standards than Polynesians in other islands which lack Hawaii’s military installation and tourism infrastructure. In February 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the 1978 Hawaii state constitutional amendment setting up Native-Hawaiian-only elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which administers a $400 million trust fund. That decision casts doubt on other provisions of the 1978 amendment, including the Hawaiian Homes Commission and the recognition of native gathering rights on private property. Senator Daniel Akaka responded with a bill granting Native Hawaiians sovereignty; a version was passed by the House in September 2000, but it was not brought up in the Senate. Meanwhile, Congress passed laws with benefits for those of Native Hawaiian ancestry: the Hawaiian Homelands Homeownership Act in 2000, the Native Hawaiian Education Act in 2001. Legal challenges were brought, and in August 2005 a Ninth Circuit panel ruled 2–1 that the Kamehameha Schools’s policy of admitting only Native Hawaiians violated federal civil rights laws; the decision was reversed by an en banc panel by an 8–7 vote in December 2006. Meanwhile, Akaka worked to get his Native sovereignty bill onto the floor. It would allow a separate sovereign Native Hawaiian government, with apparently no territorial jurisdiction, but with potential custody of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’s $400 million trust monies; Akaka argues that this would be similar to Indian tribal governments. A vote was scheduled for September 2005, but put aside because of Hurricane Katrina. Akaka finally got it to the floor in June 2006, with an amendment prohibiting gambling (Hawaii is one of two states with no legal gambling whatsoever). Lingle and a delegation of Hawaiian leaders flew to Washington to lobby for the bill. But opponents rallied 41 Republicans to vote against cloture. Its chances in the Democratic Congress appear to be better, but the Bush administration has opposed it and if passed it presumably would be vetoed.

This is not the only Hawaii issue Bush has weighed in on. In June 2006 he issued an order dedicating the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, covering an expanse of ocean with a few uninhabited islands 1,400 miles long and 100 miles wide, which contain 70% of the nation’s tropical, shallow-water coral reefs, some 7,000 marine species (one-quarter found nowhere else), the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and threatened species of predatory fish (sharks, groupers, jacks); it is the largest marine sanctuary in the world. This followed up on more limited protection ordered by Bill Clinton in 2000 and 2001 and was supported strongly by Governor Lingle, Congressman Case and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, apprehensive about the effect on a tiny fishing fleet employing fewer than 20 fishermen and the precedental effect it might have on others, were dubious if not hostile to the designation. Nature, which after all has been here long before the Hawaiian Natives, has its claims, and forces its own transformations: the Kilauea volcano on the Big Island began erupting in 1983 and is still sending lava down the slopes.


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