updated 8/21/2009 11:05:55 PM ET 2009-08-22T03:05:55

Hawaii welcomed its entry as the 50th state with a new postage stamp Friday but independence supporters marked the day with passionate protest — including an effigy of Uncle Sam being beaten and Hawaii's star cut out from the U.S. flag.

State leaders called Friday's events a statehood "commemoration" rather than a "celebration" out of respect to Native Hawaiians and their unresolved claims since the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.

A few hundred Native Hawaiians marched through the street of downtown Honolulu with an effigy of a 15-foot Uncle Sam holding machine guns and riding in a tank made of cardboard. They chanted in Hawaiian, blew on conch shells, waved ti leaves, carried upside-down Hawaii state flags and yelled, "We are not Americans! We want our country back!"

"Genocide" and "imperialist" were written across the cardboard machine guns.

At the end of the march, protesters knocked off Uncle Sam's hat, which contained a U.S. flag from which they cut out a star that represented Hawaii. They lit the star on fire and held it up to a crowd yelling "freedom."

"We were never the 50th state," said Kaleo Farias, one of protesters who cut the U.S. flag. "It was an illusion, fabrication, something that was told to us that never happened. ... We're not part of the United States."

The events commemorating Hawaii's 1959 admission into the union have been light on flag-waving and parades. Instead, they have focused on the state's economic future with panel discussions on tourism, alternative energy and Hawaiian rights.

Elsewhere, it was being marked as a cause for celebration with one of the more elaborate displays taking place Friday afternoon in New York City's Times Square, where dancers dressed in traditional Hawaiian clothing were teaching people how to Hula dance.

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation marking the anniversary and said it was in Hawaii, where he grew up, that he learned from its diversity of cultures how they blend together into one population. Slideshow: The heart of Hawaii

The proclamation said: "The Aloha Spirit of Hawaii offers hope and opportunity for all Americans."

Outside the Hawaii Convention Center, the protesters argued that Hawaii's statehood was never legal and that the islands should return to its status as a sovereign nation.

Lynette Cruz, an organizer of the march, said the demonstration was recognizing that "the United States has engaged in imperialism forever. The idea of building a state on top of a wrong doesn't make sense."

Inside the convention center, the official statehood events highlighted Hawaii as a model for diversity while attempting to dispel misconceptions of the islands as an exotic location separate from the rest of the country.

Hawaii's Bryan Clay, who claimed the title of "world's greatest athlete" after winning Olympic gold in the decathlon in Beijing last year, said many Americans still think of the islands as a place with grass huts that requires a passport to visit.

'Perception is different'
"Hawaii is far more than just a beautiful vacation spot," Clay told a packed audience at the Hawaii Convention Center. "In the case of Hawaii, more so than in other states, perception is different from reality."

Others spoke about how the rest of the U.S. should look to Hawaii as a model for how people of different backgrounds can get along, preserve their natural resources and develop renewable power.

"The mere mention of Hawaii draws recognition that overcomes language and geographic barriers," said Gov. Linda Lingle. "We are regarded as a true island paradise where the unique hospitality of our people, abundant natural resources, diverse heritage and host culture sets us apart."

Outside the Hawaii Convention Center, protesters who would rather see Hawaii's independence restored plan a march and a rally. They argue that Hawaii's statehood was never legal and that the islands should return to its status as a sovereign nation.

The postage stamp, available Friday, shows a painting of a longboard surfer and two paddlers in an outrigger canoe.

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