Most people in Hawaii have heard of or are familiar with the state motto, "Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono." Today, many translate it as "the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness."
But how many truly know its meaning or origin? As Americans celebrate their independence from Britain, a deeper look at this commonly used phrase provides invaluable insight into the differences between the American and Hawaiian understandings of independence and sovereignty.
On July 31, 1843, after the nation of Hawaii regained its independence from Britain through stealth diplomacy, King Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, said to his people, "Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono." So in that context, ea did not mean "life"; it meant "sovereignty." That’s why July 31 is known and celebrated as "Sovereignty Restoration Day."
But Kauikeaouli was not referring merely to individual, personal sovereignty. It was sovereignty of the ‘āina, of which we the people are a part.
‘Aina carries significant meaning and encompasses much more than just "land." Translated as "that which feeds," ‘āina captures a relationship people had and have with this land, ka pae ‘āina o Hawaii.
For example, after the illegal overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, loyalists to the queen and patriots of the Hawaiian Kingdom called each other aloha ‘āina. On Sept. 6, 1897, James Kaulia, president of the Hui Aloha Aina, said to the maka‘āinana gathered: "Do not be afraid, be steadfast in aloha for your land and be united in thought. Protest forever the annexation of Hawaii until the very last aloha ‘āina!"
To Hawaiians of 1843 and of today, freedom and independence are not about individual "unalienable" rights vested in "all men" by the Creator.
Independence of the individual was permanently woven into the fabric of ‘āina, our relationship to our lands, resources, and to our one hānau, the sands of our birth.
This concept of sovereignty and ‘āina developed over 2,000 years of living in these islands and supporting, cultivating and living on the land — to ensure that together they could feed a people, a lāhui, in one of the most physically isolated places on Earth. It is continued in part in our "traditional and customary" practices we continue to fight for, engage in, and protect today.
Some people in Hawaii hear the word sovereignty and independence and immediately fear exclusion. Perhaps they are envisioning a Honolulu Tea Party, complete with natives throwing prized belongings off of Matson containers, or haole being sent to the continent like so many defeated and dejected redcoat soldiers.
These are unfortunate, misplaced reactions to a very sophisticated sense and state of being that has been marginalized through a western paradigm which misses the mark.
Indeed, the Hawaiian belief that life, independence and governance are intertwined within ‘āina stands in stark contrast to the stated ideals that support America’s independence, wherein the rights of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" are secured by "Governments … instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Understanding sovereignty on our terms, not America’s, is to understand that sovereignty is not based on independence for some individuals at the expense of others. It is sovereignty for our ‘āina, which includes land, people, and the reciprocal relationships between them that in turn gives us life, liberty, and true happiness.
So, "ua mau ke ea o ka ‘āina i ka pono." Ua mau — it has been continued, perpetuated. Ke ea — the sovereignty, independence. O ka ‘āina — our lands, our people, our resources and the traditions and practices that enable us to feed each other. I ka pono — in justice. In righting a wrong.
We are still waiting. The ‘āina is still waiting …
Aloha ‘āina ‘oia ‘i ‘o.