State and local government offices are closed today, and that’s about the only way the 60th anniversary of Hawaii becoming a state will be formally celebrated.
A group of Republicans, disappointed that they could not find any official events, have booked space at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. at Ala Moana for a reservation- only dinner for about 60 people in honor of Admission Day.
“We’re a state now for 60 years, and it seems like we ought to set off some fireworks or something,” said Eric Ryan, president of the Hawaii Republican Assembly and an organizer of the event. “It’s kind of a shame that everyone’s hiding under their desks. … We are still very proud to be American and proud to be Hawaiians in the statehood sense. There’s no real turning back, so we might as well enjoy it.”
State legislators passed no resolutions this year to mark the date that President Dwight Eisenhower signed the official proclamation declaring Hawaii a state on Aug. 21, 1959. Gov. David Ige’s press secretary, Jodi Leong, said she was not aware of any proclamations or official events planned.
>> Photo Gallery: 50 historic photos of Statehood Day in Hawaii
The hoopla over the 60th birthday of Ala Moana Center, which opened just days before statehood, will almost certainly eclipse the statehood events.
Ala Moana Center is staging “60 days of celebration,” featuring performances by top local musicians and a coffee-table book chronicling the history of “the world’s largest shopping center,” with proceeds going to Goodwill Hawaii. It is offering commemorative items ranging from wine stoppers to limited-edition pairs of Island Slippers.
“Admission Day has been sneaking up for months, and we took a look online and searched and searched and made a few calls and couldn’t find a single government agency, a nonprofit, a company, a political party, nobody doing anything,” Ryan said in an interview. “It’s this big sovereignty hot potato.”
As it turns out, there is a forum planned for Saturday at the Hawaii State Library to kick off an exhibit titled “The promise of statehood: Looking back, moving forward.” But even that is decidedly low-key.
One of the sponsors, the Hawaii Council for the Humanities, has a flyer on its website. But the exhibit opening isn’t among the events listed online at websites for the state library system or the Daniel K. Inouye Institute, two other sponsors.
The panel features former Gov. John Waihee; historian John Rosa; Dean Saranillio, author of “Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawaii Statehood”; and Anne Misawa, director of the documentary “State of Aloha.”
In an interview, Waihee remembered when news of statehood arrived in his hometown on the Hamakua coast of Hawaii island, when he was 13.
“What I remember most about statehood was the celebration,” Waihee said. “The people literally celebrated. I remember taking off to go walk around Honokaa town and listen to the cars driving up and down the street, honking and celebrating.”
“Nobody said we were celebrating because we are now part of the United States — we were already part of the United States,” he said. “What we didn’t have was equal rights like the rest of the country.”
Hawaii residents couldn’t elect their own governor and had just a nonvoting delegate in Congress, not their own senator or representatives. Statehood changed that and many other aspects of life in the islands, including a school system that separated children based on their ability to speak standard English, Waihee said.
“What statehood meant was there was a possibility that if you got injured on the job, you couldn’t get fired,” Waihee said. “Statehood meant that there wouldn’t be segregated schools in Hawaii. Statehood meant you wouldn’t have to only go to a company store, for example. It meant there would be a great deal of freedom. We were in schools that taught what American democracy was all about, yet it didn’t exist in Hawaii.”
Admission Day, also known as Statehood Day, is observed on the third Friday in August, close to the actual Aug. 21 anniversary. The Admission Act was approved by Congress in March 1959. That June, Hawaii voters approved a referendum on the question, “Shall Hawaii immediately be admitted to the union as a state?” with a vote of 132,773 “yes” to 7,971 “no,” or 94% to 6%.
On Aug. 21, after the president called to say he had signed the official proclamation, Hawaii’s appointed governor, William Quinn, announced, “Hawaii is a state!” He was at Iolani Palace, the former home of Queen Lili‘uokalani, who had been ousted in a coup in 1893.
Jonathan Osorio, dean of the Hawai‘inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, harks back to the overthrow to underscore why statehood is not celebrated today as it was in 1959.
“The most important change from then has been the issue of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement that understands the fraudulence of statehood and discusses it openly — and it’s not just some fringe movement,” he said.
“It starts with the intimidation and the takeover of a nation state that was fully recognized by all the other nation states in the world,” Osorio said. “It then moves on into the way in which Hawaii was taken off the list of non self-governing territories in 1958, which allowed the United States then to present Hawaii as eligible for statehood when in fact Hawaii was eligible for decolonization.”
“There is no way you can have a ‘celebration’ of this without then running into a good deal of pushback,” he said. “It’s really kind of similar to the way people think about Columbus in the 21st century.”
Instead, he said Native Hawaiians celebrate other holidays such as Queen Lili‘uokalani’s birthday and La Kuokoa, or Hawaiian Independence Day, commemorating Great Britain’s and France’s official diplomatic recognition of the nation of Hawaii in 1843.
During the most recent legislative session, a bill (SB 1451) to create an official state holiday for “La Ku‘oko‘a, Hawaiian Recognition Day” passed the Senate and two House committees before dying in the Finance Committee.
Waihee said another factor also puts a damper on the subject of statehood.
“There are some people who claim that the arrival of statehood for Hawaii somehow justified the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani,” he said. “I think that’s kind of revisionist bunk.”
“People like my father and other Native Hawaiians worked very, very hard supporting the concept of statehood,” Waihee said. “If they believed for a second that it had anything to do with the overthrow, they would not have been supporting it. What they believed was we would finally have a better deal.”
Ironically, Ryan, who is is staging the Bubba Gump celebration, says his mother was one of the 6% who voted against statehood in 1959. “She didn’t want Hawaii to be hooked on federal money,” he said.
What: “The promise of statehood: Looking back, moving forward” exhibit and program
When: Saturday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., activities for youth; forum at 10:30 a.m.
Who: Panelists include former Gov. John Waihee; historian John Rosa; Dean Saranillio, author of “Unsustainable Empire: Alternative Histories of Hawaii Statehood”; and Anne Misawa, director of the documentary “State of Aloha.”
Where: Hawaii State Library, 478 S. King St.