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John Fischer

50 Years Ago Today - President Dwight D. Eisenhower Signs Hawaii Admission Act

By March 18, 2009

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In much of Hawaii, you're more likely to hear the proverbial pin drop than hear anyone mention that today is the 50th anniversary of the day that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Act of Congress that provided for Hawaii to be admitted as the 50th State of the Union. It was five month's later, on July 27, 1959, that the people of Hawaii voted 17-1 to approve statehood.

While there will be official events today at the State Capitol commemorating the anniversary, and while there is indeed a 50th Anniversary of Hawaii Statehood Commission which will support conferences, events and workshops throughout the rest of year, celebrating Hawaii statehood remains taboo in much of Hawaii.

While there's little doubt that if a similar referendum were held today it would also pass by large numbers, there is in Hawaii what some will call respect, and others fear, of that part of the remaining native Hawaiian population which continues to press for some form of independence for Hawaii or, at least, the native Hawaiian people.

Don't get me wrong. The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and government in 1893 was illegal. A certain degree of reparations still are owed to the Hawaiian people. What those reparations should be and precisely who are the Hawaiian people is the much bigger question.

Just this February the United States Supreme Court heard the case on the issue of Hawaii's ceded lands. These are the lands which were owned by the crown at the time of the overthrow. They consist of 1.8 million acres, of about 1/4 of land in Hawaii. The state of Hawaii maintains that it has the authority to sell these lands at will and appealed a decision by the State's Supreme Court. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs wants the Hawaii Supreme Court ban upheld. The issue stems from Native Hawaiian claims over these lands. This is where the question of just who are the Hawaiian people comes into play.

As H. William Burgess and Sandra Puanani Burgess outlines in their excellent article in the Hawaii Bar Journal, July 2001:
The ceded lands are the 1.8 million acres of public lands owned by the government of Hawaii that, upon annexation in 1898, were ceded to the United States with the requirement that all revenues or proceeds of the lands, except for those used for civil, military or naval purposes of the United States or assigned for the use of local government, "shall be used solely for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands for educational and other public purposes."

In 1959, when Hawaii became a State, the United States transferred title to these lands, less those parts retained by the United States for national parks, military bases and other public purposes, to Hawaii, with the requirement in the Admission Act that the State hold them "as a public trust" for "one or more" of five purposes: "for the support of public schools and other public educational institutions"; "for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians as defined in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act," i.e., fifty percent or more blood quantum; "for the development of farm and home ownership"; "for the making of public improvements"; and "for the provision of lands for public use."
Many in the Native Hawaiian community believe that the crown or ceded lands are theirs, period. Other residents believe that they belong to all of the people of Hawaii. It is important to remember that in 1893, about 70% of the citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii were non-Native Hawaiians.

The ceded land case is in the headlines this year because of the pending Supreme Court decision. The fact that the timing coincides with the commemoration of 50 years of Hawaii statehood is unfortunate - but a good example of why you won't see much in the way of public celebrations of statehood in Hawaii in 2009.

The majority of state residents who continue to support statehood, but who will remain silent, are in three camps. There are those who genuinely respect the rights and some of the goals of the state's Native Hawaiian population. There are also those who just as equally genuinely afraid to say that they are proud to be Americans. Then, of course, there are those who simply don't care one way or the other.

I try to remain silent on most of these issues since I'm not a resident of Hawaii. I just visit there several months a year for my work. It is sad, however, that most of Hawaii's people will be unwilling, or afraid, to celebrate statehood in a way that they otherwise might.

My biggest confrontation over these issues came last spring when I had a discussion with a non-Hawaiian editor of a major island based magazine. I expressed my opinion that Hawaii will never again be independent. The bottom line is that the United States will never allow it to happen. She laughed derisively and told me that it indeed would someday. Our discussion quickly deteriorated.

If Hawaii had not come under the protection of the United States, and ultimately became our 50th State, does anyone really believe that it would remain an independent kingdom or nation today? I will always believe that absent the United States, the primary language in Hawaii today would be the King's English, Japanese or even Russian. Hawaii's geography, strategically located in the middle of the Pacific, would have led some other nation to sieze the islands.

It seems somewhat ironic to me that the Native Hawaiian people actually have their best chance for fair reparations because Hawaii is part of the United States of America. Our system of laws and courts allows their issues to be addressed. Such would not necessarily be the case if the Rising Sun or tricolor flag of Russia were flying over Hawaii's Capitol Building today. If, for no other, that's a reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hawaii statehood.
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