Hawaii - "Nation Within"

SOURCE: Ken Taylor (taylork021@Hawaii.rr.com)  
SUBHEAD: "Nation Within" is a gripping new book of Hawaii's illegal overthrow.  

By Jean Cooper on 19 September 2009 in Hawaiian Insider - 

Image above: A C-Span2 crew films author Tom Coffman reading from "Nation Within" at Native Books in Honolulu.

Given everything else the Obama administration has to deal with -- from health care to war in Iraq -- it's hard to imagine that a a political injustice that took place more than a century ago, thousands of miles from Washington, D.C., is going to rise to the top of the list. But this particular injustice involves the American-led takeover of President Barack Obama's boyhood home of Hawai'i, leading to high hopes that he may pick up the hot potato dropped by President Clinton 16 years ago, just after formally apologizing for the events of 1893.

At least that's one theme of the new edition of "Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawai'i" (www.hawaiinationwithin.com) by Tom Coffman, who'll be seen reading from his work on C-SPAN2's "Book TV" today (September 19) at 11:45 a.m. Pacific time and again at 1 a.m. Sept. 20 (so there's still time to set your DVR.)

The Koa Books imprint comes with a poignant new forward, by UH professor Manulani Aluli Meyer, and a new author's note. The subtitle has also changed since the original 1998 edition, which was made into a documentary aired on PBS: "Occupation" has replaced "annexation," Coffman explains, since the latter could imply mutual agreement, which clearly did not exist at the time the U.S.-backed "Republic of Hawaii" leaders turned the country over to Mainland control.

Raising the sovereignty issue is a sure-fire way to get some right-wing knickers in a twist, and even relatively liberal folk may wonder why revisit "ancient history." But that's where Coffman's expertise as a journalist, historian and gifted writer come in handy.

At the very beginning of his painstakingly researched, grippingly told narrative, he lays out how the dominant Western view of time and national identity eventually submerged the very question of Hawaiian sovereignty -- without claiming any easy answers for resolving the issue in the present day. A chance find in an antiques bookstore revealed to him how Hawaii's history began to be rewritten at the very point most Americans think it started.

But, as Coffman definitively shows, the loss of Hawai'i isn't ancient history, especially not in a culture with "a hundred generations of history." The Native Hawaiian grandparents of people still alive today (like Prof. Meyer) signed petitions by the thousands protesting the annexation of their country, while constitutionally elected but forcibly deposed Queen Lili'uokalani made numerous appeals, as did other Hawaiian delegates, to Washington.

Initially the queen had some sway with the White House, and Coffman writes that experiences earlier in the 19th century would have taught her that distant regimes (including Russia, England and France) always backed away from the impulsive imperialism of individuals. But in this case, he expalins, the manifest destiny/social Darwinist fever had taken hold of many American politicians, and the entrance of California into the Union fixed their eyes even farther west. Coffman's cast of American (born or descended) characters -- a young and ambitious

Theodore Roosevelt, the prime instigator Lorrin Thurston and the missionary scion Sanford B. Dole, among others -- are vividly but not unfairly drawn, placed in the cultural context of their time, as are their Hawaiian counterparts: King Kalākaua, his sister Lili'uokalani, the hapa insurrectionist Robert Wilcox, nationalist Joseph Nāwahī and more. Their personalities, as much as political views, played key roles in the events that unfolded -- and continue to unfold today.

The plunging number of Native Hawaiians was also critical, but Coffman is also careful to note how very few people (nearly all American-descended men) were involved in the takeover, perhaps 2 percent of Hawaii's total population at the time. The "revolution," as Thurston styled it, was virtually bloodless (though not completely, as Coffman details) but in some ways that makes it more difficult for a modern government to redress. After all, everyone knows an apology won't bring the dead back to life, so there's no risk in expressing contrition there.

But Native Hawaiians are very much alive today, as is their concept of a sovereign Hawaiian nation, though they might not agree on exactly what a restored version would look like. (There were differences of opinion before the annexation, too, Coffman relates, but republicans and monarchists were united in opposing absorption by the States.) Coffman draws on the research of Native Hawaiian scholars to explore the historical Hawaiian perspective of the loss of nationhood and the contemporary challenges they cause, without pretending to assume their voice. His final words explain his position, and implicitly reveal why we travelers to Hawai'i -- and all Americans -- should care about the real history of the islands:
"I ... attempted to stay centered in my experience as an American and to write about annexation as an American event, believing that America will soon be dealing with the rising demand by Hawaiians for a renewal of national sovereignty. ...

Obviously we in Hawai'i today are in transition. We are variously living inside of -- or in proximity to -- an indigenous nation that has been submerged by the American nation. To see and sense the revival of this Hawaiian lāhui, to feel it thumping on the interior of the womb, is a thing of awe. Yet if destiny is not manifest, then outcomes are not inevitable.

Our relative success in developing a more real and honest history will have something to do with determining the future -- not only of Hawai'i, but perhaps of America as well."

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