Pookela Rodenhurst lives as if he’s back in the Hawaiian Kingdom. He hunts for sea turtles, watching for the game warden behind his back. He forages for herbs in the Koolau Mountains. He drives without a license because he won’t agree to abide by state laws.
Rodenhurst and other Hawaiian nationalists who long for a return to the days when the islands were ruled by royal families are increasingly dominating the debate about the future of the islands’ indigenous people. And their insistence on someday restoring the kingdom threatens to overshadow a federal proposal that could, after years of lobbying by advocates, offer Native Hawaiians some of the same privileges that have long been available to other native groups.
Many years before Hawaii became a tourist destination, the Hawaiian Kingdom ruled over the islands and held treaties with dozens of countries. It was overthrown by a group of American businessmen 122 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1893, and annexed five years later.
Now, the U.S. government is considering extending to Native Hawaiians the same type of tribal recognition that many American Indian tribes have had for generations, potentially giving special status to more than 200 programs and securing lots of federal money, including nearly $14 million for health care, $32 million for education and $10 million for housing. The issue has reawakened distrust between moderates who generally support the idea and absolutists who want to see the kingdom rebuilt, even if it means chasing an all-but-unattainable goal — dissolving the state of Hawaii.
Rodenhurst insists the American government is "belligerently occupying Hawaii."
"They have no business to come out here and try to engage us and treat us like Indians," he said.
Resentment over the annexation is nothing new among Native Hawaiians, but it resurfaced in June, when the Department of Interior began considering extending tribal status, which moderates believe is a far more realistic goal than somehow reversing Hawaiian statehood.
"People will criticize that federal recognition is not the end-all, be-all for Hawaii’s population, but it is what I believe is achievable in my lifetime," said Michelle Kauhane, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.
Advocates have been seeking federal recognition for more than a decade. Separately, Native Hawaiians have also been organizing their own tribal government — a step that some feared would be upended by federal recognition. Skeptics would prefer to be recognized as an independent nation on equal footing with the U.S., instead of a nation within a nation.
The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission collected more than 125,000 names of people eligible to elect leaders and eventually draft a constitution.
Former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee is chairman of the commission. He said a new tribal government could negotiate with the U.S. to return military and other lands to Native Hawaiians.
"This is a very important milestone in protecting what we have," Waihee said. If tribal recognition were "as bad as some people say it is, why hasn’t anyone in the history of the United States ever given it up? What happens is, most people are trying to get it."
The latest tribe to obtain federal recognition was the Shinnecock Nation of New York in 2010, and there are now 289 groups seeking similar recognition, said Jessica Kershaw, spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior.
The department is currently reviewing public comments about Hawaiian recognition, a process expected to take several months.
But for many Native Hawaiians, trusting the federal government is too much to ask.
"I know very few Native Hawaiians who aren’t moved by the fact that the United States illegally took over Hawaii," Waihee said.
Williamson Chang, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, says the annexation of Hawaii was illegal because the U.S. acquired the islands through a joint resolution of Congress instead of a treaty and because the islands were not named in the acts that created the state. Chang also found documents indicating that the federal government knew its jurisdiction over Hawaii was questionable, he said.
After those revelations, the CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asking whether the United States believes the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists.
The CEO, Kamanaopono Crabbe, did not receive a reply. But meetings to discuss federal recognition were announced just weeks after his inquiry.
"Suddenly they want to nail down this more conservative result, which is recognition as a tribe," Chang said.
Hawaiian attorney Keoni Agard envisions a restored kingdom where the U.S. provides military protection to Hawaii. "I foresee a situation like Hong Kong, where there’s a transition plan, in which Hong Kong went back to China and Great Britain walked away," Agard said.
For Rodenhurst, restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom would mean a return to laws that allow him to fish in areas that are off-limits, a tradition his family practiced for centuries.
"It’s like an infringement of my spiritual rights," Rodenhurst said. "You’re interfering with me feeding my family. Not that I can’t go buy chicken at Safeway, but that’s my spiritual time."
Kauhane questions whether it’s reasonable to imagine the U.S. withdrawing from Hawaii. She believes she’s among a silent majority of Native Hawaiians.
"What would the economy be? How would we take care of our people?" she asked. "Unless we can amend the U.S. Constitution, there’s no undoing of statehood."
Still, even if federal recognition occurs, that would not necessarily prevent eventual independence from the United States, Kauhane said.
"I don’t believe that the only solution for me is that I have to un-become a U.S. citizen," she said. "I also don’t believe that folks who fight for independence should stop that fight."