Honolulu Hawaii turns 50 years old as the 50th state Friday, but there will be no grand parades, no dazzling fireworks, no lavish displays of native culture.
Organizers of the observation are not even willing to call it a party. It is simply a “commemoration,” one that is sensitive to a painful history of the Hawaiian monarchy’s overthrow and unresolved claims of Native Hawaiians.
The main event is a low-key daylong conference reflecting on Hawaii’s place in the world. Behind the tourist-friendly tropical images of beaches and sunshine, many remain uncomfortable with the U.S. takeover of the islands and the idea that businesses have exploited Hawaiians’ culture.
“Instead of state government having huge parties and fireworks, we’re having a convention,” said Manu Boyd, cultural director for the Royal Hawaiian Center, a shopping and entertainment area in Waikiki. “That shows the strength and spiritual power of the Hawaiian people, whose shattered world has not yet been addressed.”
Prosperity with a price
When statehood came calling in 1959, it ushered in an era of economic prosperity through tourism and the side effects that came with it: resort high rises, more than 500,000 monthly tourists and an emphasis on hokey luaus rather than the authentic host culture.
Sovereignty groups advocating independence from the United States make up a minority, but many residents recognize the long-standing issues associated with the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy, the islands’ annexation and past harms to the Native Hawaiian people.
Besides the statehood conference, the Hawaii Statehood Commission has been airing TV and radio ads with “50 Voices of Statehood” interviews, inviting schools to place commemorative items in time capsules, displaying artwork on the meaning of statehood in the Hawaii Convention Center and showing exhibits in state airports. State lawmakers allocated $600,000 for statehood events.
“Out of respect, we decided not to do the parade and the big party,” said Kippen de Alba Chu, chairman of the Statehood Commission. Those kinds of events “would have been a waste of state funds, especially given the economy.”
Alaska, by contrast, which joined the union in January 1959, embraced the 50th anniversary of statehood with concerts, fireworks displays, a prize-winning float in California’s Rose Parade and observances throughout the state during the past 12 months. Among the festivities celebrated in a downtown Anchorage festival was the re-enactment of placing the 49th star on the American flag.
Here, even the low-key conference is drawing complaints. Hawaiian sovereignty groups are planning protests outside the convention center Friday, and some say the conference’s topics are too focused on tourism, economic development and business opportunities.
One panelist, University of Hawaii Center for Hawaiian Studies professor Jonathan Osorio, said the conference should focus more on Hawaiian culture and history.
“It’s a political cop-out because the state doesn’t really want to address the legal or political nature of its claim to authority in Hawaii,” Osorio said. “It’s one of the reasons they have really muted its commemoration.”
Nearly 18 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, Hawaii was admitted into the United States on Aug. 21, 1959.
About 94 percent of island chain’s voters supported statehood. Opponents argue that the vote was tainted because the only choice on the ballot was to become a state or remain a territory — independence was not an option.
The Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown in 1893 when a group of white businessmen forced Queen Liliuokalani to abdicate while U.S. Marines came ashore. Hawaii was considered a republic until it became a U.S. territory by a resolution approved by Congress in 1898.
“This newfangled idea of celebrating statehood shows that people don’t understand Hawaii’s history, or if they do understand, then they’re celebrating a lie, a theft, that essentially stole a people’s right of self-determination,” said Poka Laenui, a Hawaiian and attorney who has worked for independence for more than 30 years.
Along with statehood came striking changes to the islands, as the first commercial jetliner’s arrival in Honolulu just a few weeks earlier began the dawn of the tourism era. Today, Hawaii’s economy depends on tourism as its primary industry, with nearly 7 million visiting the islands in 2008.
Hawaii’s image as a beach paradise captured the imagination of the rest of the world, aided by sometimes irreverent marketing of hula girls, leis or tiki torch-lit hotels.
In recent years, the tourism industry has made strides in ensuring the Hawaiian culture is respected rather than exploited, said Kelii Wilson, Hawaiian cultural coordinator for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
For example, businesses should ensure that Tahitian dancers aren’t called Hawaiian hula dancers, and that Hawaiian words are pronounced and spelled correctly, Wilson said.
“Growing up as a child here in Hawaii, I did see misrepresentations of the culture,” she said. “Now we’re getting closer to the right place.”
One way Hawaiians are moving toward having a voice in their self-determination is through legislation pending in Congress that would treat them similarly to Native American tribes and Alaskan natives.
After a decade of efforts, the measure could pass into law as soon as this year with the support of Hawaii-born President Barack Obama.