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Life, Liberty, And The Pursuit Of The Perfect Wave: The Hawaiian Independence Movement Gains Momentum

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's statehood, I went down to the beach at Waikiki and witnessed a lovely evening fireworks display. Only thing is, the fireworks didn't have anything to do with the anniversary -- it's something my hotel does every Friday night for the tourists. At least in Oahu, there wasn't much of anything else going on to commemorate the historic anniversary, either. A '50s nostalgia concert starring the Platters, the Coasters and the Drifters, or imitations thereof. A conference at the Hawaii Convention Center. A march and rally for Hawaiian independence.

Wait a minute, I said to myself as I read that last one in the Honolulu Advertiser. I thought Texas was the only state that wanted to secede from the Union. Why would Hawaii want out?

Turns out there was a lot I didn't know about this place when I came here with my wife for a vacation last week. Heck, we didn't even know that today was the day Hawaii became the 50th state. When we looked for ways to commemorate the event and came up dry, we figured, well, the local economy is in the crapper (which is why we got such a great deal on our hotel), so maybe the locals aren't in a celebrating mood.

But the pieces started to fall into place when we went to 'Iolani Palace, built by King Kalakaua in 1882 when Hawaii -- the only state to have ever been a legitimate, globally recognized kingdom -- was still a sovereign nation. A decade later, his successor, Queen Lili'uokalani, was forced by an American-led faction to relinquish the monarchy and was placed under house arrest there. Restored to something approaching its 19th century glory in the late '70s, the palace is now a major tourist attraction -- and a gathering place for Hawaii's many independence groups. We weren't shocked by the unabashedly pro-royal tone of the palace's audio tour. After all, the royals are the place's big selling point. But the final audio segment, in which "Prince" David Kawananakoa (a descendant of the Hawaiian royal family) advocates Hawaiian sovereignty, made us prick up our ears.

It turns out that the independence movement isn't just a nutty gambit to avoid paying federal taxes, the way it is in Texas. The Hawaiians, especially those who can trace their ancestry back to the time when Captain James Cook "discovered" the islands, have some pretty legit grievances. Apparently, the United States violated international law and treaties it had signed with Hawaii when it overthrew the monarchy and annexed and occupied the country back in the 1890s. In fact, at least one legal scholar says that when President Clinton issued a formal "Oops, our bad" apology to the Hawaiian people in 1993 for America's actions of 100 years earlier, it negated any claim the U.S. of A had to the islands.

This legal hullaballoo should delight all the birthers, who now have another weapon in their arsenal. If they can't prove that President Obama wasn't born in Hawaii, then they can try to prove that Hawaii isn't actually part of the Union. And while the odds of Hawaii becoming an independent monarchy in the near future don't seem that great, the movement has a lot of people on its side. The total number of members of various Hawaiian independence groups is estimated at about 30,000, while 13% of residents polled by the Honolulu Advertiser say that becoming a state was a negative for Hawaii. That translates to about 165,000 pissed-off Hawaiians.

The natives I've spoken with don't realistically expect revolution, secession, or any other major upheaval anytime soon. Nor do they really want it. But, said one woman, "given how much the native language and culture suffered for so long after the Americans occupied us, I think we understand where the movement is coming from."

While still representing only a small percentage of the population, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has gained enough power and respect within the state -- er, kingdom? -- to effectively mute any celebrations of a half-century of statehood. In fact, the only event scheduled at 'Iolani Palace today was a traditional tribute to Queen Lili'uokalani, Hawaii's last reigning monarch. And while America -- led by its Hawaiian-born president -- celebrates the admission of Hawaii to the Union, Prince Quentin Kawananakoa, first in line for the monarchy, awaits his chance to regain the throne that is rightfully his.

(Please note that the above was very hastily researched -- I'm on vacation, after all -- so if there are any factual inaccuracies, please don't hesitate to post them in the Comments section.)