The third Friday in August is Statehood Day in Hawaii (formerly called Admission Day). It was on August 21, 1959, that Hawaii became the 50th state in the Union.
Standoff at 'Iolani Palace
In 2006, a small group (under 50) of folks organized by State Senator Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai) met at `Iolani Palace to celebrate the anniversary of Statehood at the place "where statehood was declared."
A larger group of people including, but not limited to, those with Hawaiian blood organized a protest, reportedly drowning out the smaller group. While there was a lot of shouting and some name calling, the encounter was non-violent, as have been all such encounters over the past years.
Each group has, historically, had what appear to be valid issues. The "Hawaiian" group felt that the choice of the `Iolani Palace was inappropriate since it is a special place for Hawaiians as the former home of the last monarchs. The issue is even touchier since it was in the `Iolani Palace that Hawaii's last queen, Lili`uokalani, was kept under house arrest following her overthrow on Jan. 17, 1893.
Native Hawaiian Issues
The ongoing conflict between native Hawaiian groups and those who support the status quo system of government in Hawaii is confusing to most visitors to the islands. It's virtually impossible to explain all of the issues to visitors primarily because there is no single voice in the islands representing those of Hawaiian blood and certainly no universal agreement among Hawaiians as to what they want for the future.
This is not to say that those of Hawaiian blood have no valid issues. They do. It is an historical fact, acknowledged by the United States Congress and President Bill Clinton that the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was illegal. If anything the Federal Government's acknowledgment of the illegality only opened deeper wounds. The problem is that if you ask ten people of Hawaiian blood what they want done, you're likely to get 10 different answers. In fact, many are content with the status quo.
Why, then a State Holiday?
My aim is not to debate these hotly contested issues. It is more to discuss what has become the absurdity of the holiday itself in Hawaii. The third Friday in August is a state holiday in Hawaii. All government offices are closed and workers get the day off. Many of those workers are people of Hawaiian blood. Aside from the closure of government offices, however, a visitor to Hawaii is unlikely to even know that the day is a holiday.
Back on June 27, 1959, 93% of voters on all major islands voted in favor of statehood. Of the approximately 140,000 votes cast, less than 8000 rejected the Admission Act of 1959. There were huge celebrations throughout the islands.
Statehood Still Has Strong Support
In May of 2006 the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (GRIH) commissioned a survey to gauge support for the Akaka Bill (native Hawaiian rights bill) pending in the U.S. Congress. As part of that survey 78% indicated that they would vote for statehood if the vote were held today.
Why No Celebration?
Why then is the anniversary of statehood so totally ignored in the islands? As Senator Slom outlined in his op-ed piece in the Hawaii Reporter, "The last 'major' observance of this holiday took place in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, with Democrat Governor Benjamin Cayetano and area Hawaii residents and visitors. The Governor explained that the celebration in Hawaii had become too controversial, and that it might now be perceived as culturally insensitive by Native Hawaiian leaders."
Nothing changed under the administration of Republican Linda Lingle (1991-1999). The anniversary of statehood is still virtually ignored under the current administration of Neil Abercrombie (2000- ).
How Absurd is This?
The absurdity of the existing situation was even larger during the 50th anniversary of Hawaii statehood in 2009 when public celebrations were quite rare. The largest celebration honoring the occurrence was that government workers got a paid day off, as they had for years.
It's a terrible message to send to Hawaii's children and a totally confusing message to send to visitors. If the intent of state government is to ignore the anniversary of statehood, contrary to the apparent wishes of the majority of Hawaii's residents, then they should eliminate the holiday. Heck, I live in Pennsylvania and I could not even tell you the date of our statehood. It's certainly not a holiday here.
Apparently Senator Slom proposed just that, i.e. eliminating the holiday, but his bill never was even debated. Such it seems is the power of Hawaii's government labor unions. Once a holiday, always a holiday even if it's not celebrated.
I would like to think that by the 75th anniversary of statehood the issues involving the rights of those of Hawaiian blood will be settled. Unfortunately, that's highly unlikely to happen. All we can expect, it seems, is another absurd Statehood Day in Hawaii.