The State of Aloha

That far-off chunk of land called Crimea is all over the news these days. At first, I didn’t think the crisis was all that relevant to our day-to-day existence in Hawaii. But as the story unfolded, the situation in Crimea started to look familiar to any student of Hawaiian history.

Here are the basics: Ukraine is a former Soviet socialist republic that declared its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With it, Ukraine took a large peninsula on the Black Sea – Crimea – out of the Soviet orbit. This piece of land was transferred over to the Ukraine in the 1950s under the auspices and authority of Nikita Khrushchev himself.

Since independence, Ukraine has struggled in finding or maintaining a democratic system of government. After the Russian-backed leader was overthrown and a new government formed, Russia started making moves to take the Crimean Peninsula. And this month it looks like it has.

Russian armed forces have occupied all military posts in Crimea. The Ukrainian flags were lowered and replaced with the Russian tricolor, and it even set all official clocks to the Moscow time zone.

Everybody outside of Russia says this is unlawful. This act of aggression flies in the face of international treaties, diplomatic resolutions, and all other agreements to respect another country’s sovereignty and border.

Our secretary of state, John Kerry, went on television and called Russia’s aggression “a 19th-century act in the 21st century.”

The media have been using an old word to describe what happened in Crimea. It’s a word that brings the crisis and sovereignty of a distant land home for almost anyone living in Hawaii: annexation.

Kerry’s description of the taking of Crimea aptly applies to our own country two centuries ago. The United States engaged in its own “19th-century act” out here. In 1898, a minority of American businessmen overran the Hawaiian kingdom and encouraged the United States to annex the islands, not as a state on equal footing with the union but as a territory, over the objection of the vast majority of Hawaii’s citizens.

The invitation sparked a vigorous debate stateside. Many Americans felt that this would be an unjust act of aggression. Some argued that it would make the United States an imperial power no different from European nations who went all over the world accumulating colonies and territories. A democratic republic has no need for colonies.

The president at the time, Grover Cleveland, was in this camp. He refused to submit an annexation treaty to the Senate. His letter to the Senate could easily be used to describe our policy about Crimea today:

“It has been the boast of our government that it seeks justice in all things without regard to the strength or weakness of those with whom it deals. I mistake the American people if they favor the odious doctrine that there is no such thing as international morality, that there is one law for a strong nation and another for a weak one, and that even by indirection a strong power may with impunity despoil a weak one of its territory.”

Unfortunately, President Cleveland did mistake the American people. His party lost the next election, and pro-annexationist William McKinley was the new president. The American military occupied the islands, and kingdom flags were replaced with the Stars and Stripes. Hawaii was a territory.

The United States’ imperial aspirations cooled long ago, but annexation hasn’t left. Despite Kerry’s words, annexation is very much a 20th-century thing. Hotly disputed territories are still found all over the world.

Gigantic portions of Poland were taken by the Soviet Union after World War II. The Italians and the former Yugoslavia had their own turf war surrounding the city of Trieste in the 1950s. China and the Philippines both claim sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea. And England’s claim to six counties in Ireland is one of the oldest conflicts that continues to this day. Each situation present a different set of facts, but one thing is fairly constant: once annexed, it is hard reacquire sovereignty.

We are still feeling the effects of annexation in the islands. All of us know about small and dedicated groups seeking to reclaim sovereignty for the islands. Some take the position that the overthrow and annexation were unlawful and therefore the forms of government over the last 120 years are illegitimate. Others take a different route and have been lobbying for decades with Congress to relinquish some kind of autonomy for Hawaii’s indigenous people. So far Congress hasn’t budged.

If history is a guide, the Crimean people will be a conquered people long after the world moves on, scolds the Russians, and finds another diplomatic hot spot.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.

The State of Aloha

State Rep. Faye Hanohano, according to her legislative biography, “grew up in a truly Hawaiian environment” on the Big Island. Hanohano has represented the Puna district in the House since 2007, and her legislative efforts normally never make the news. It’s her waha that makes headlines.

Last year, while workers hung paintings by local artists in her office at the Capitol, Hanohano called the paintings ugly and wondered why no Native Hawaiian artists were on display. Excellent point. But then she added that “Any work done by haoles, Japs . . . Pakes, you can take them away right now.”

After the press published her comments, she apologized on the House floor. She explained that her words “were intended to be an impassioned plea for increasing the visibility and support for Native Hawaiian artists.” She conceded, however, that her comments “did not accurately reflect their intent, sentiment or the integrity of this office.”

The whole thing blew over.

Then came Aarin Jacobs – a student from Hawaii Pacific University majoring in environmental studies. Last month, Jacobs went before the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, chaired by Hanohano, to support a bill that proposes to penalize those who harm sharks and rays within state waters.

The earnest student of marine biology from Oregon provided written testimony ahead of time and provided some oral testimony that day. Apparently, the chairwoman was not happy. According to Jacobs, he was called back to the microphone to answer Hanohano’s questions.

He said he was berated and handled quite rudely by the representative from Puna. Hanohano accused him of trying to take away her food sources. She posed a strange hypothetical: Let’s say there was a taro famine after this bill passes. That would mean she could not resort to eating sharks because of the penalties and would have no choice but to eat people. Perhaps it was meant to be a joke, but Jacobs was nonetheless stunned.

The questioning delved into other subjects like whether swimming in the ocean crowds the sharks’ home and whether the health hazards associated with eating sharks applies to loan and business sharks (no, really). For her grand finale, Hanohano asked rhetorically why Westerners come over here and tell them what they can and cannot do. Then she asked for Jacobs’ age. When he said he was just 22, she audibly sighed and ordered him to sit down.

When this story broke, reporters tried to get others who were there – namely the other legislators – to corroborate Jacobs. No cameras were rolling at the committee meeting and nobody came forward publicly. Still yet, some anonymous folks confirmed that Jacobs’ version was the real deal.

The incident roused Rep. Joe Souki, the speaker, into action. He ordered an investigation into her behavior and conduct. William Aila, the head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, wrote a scathing letter to Souki. He accused Hanohano of being “abusive in authority, racially discriminatory, and inappropriate.” He wrote that Hanohano accused a staff member of being responsible for genocide. He also reported that she complained about malihinis commenting on bills and regulations. He also wrote about Hanohano’s obnoxious tendency to lecture in the Hawaiian language without translation.

Last week, while Souki’s investigation was continuing, Hanohano was debating a bill and started speaking Hawaiian. Rep. John Mizuno asked her to “please translate for members.”

“I don’t want to translate,” she replied and resumed in Hawaiian. The incident was minor, and the business of the day quickly resumed. But it certainly seemed consistent with Aila’s letter.

Hanohano has sparked a lively debate. There is no doubt that she is a proud and vocal advocate of the indigenous Hawaiian people. She is their supporter and will defend their interests proudly and fiercely in the House. It is her right to speak Hawaiian in all public forums. After all, it is the official language of our state.

But she’s also a representative who swore to uphold and defend the state constitution. She agreed to respectfully hear the opinions of all people when considering legislation. Her actions in the office affect everyone – whether you’re a fresh-from-California hippie kid hitchhiking to Hana or a born-and-raised kanaka on Molokai. People should not be intimidated about speaking their minds in a public committee before a representative. A public official’s words should be understood by all citizens – not just those proficient in another language.

In the end, Hanohano was not punished. Souki just wrote her a letter. He found Aila and Jacobs credible, and remanded her for her conduct. Souki warned her that if her behavior continued, she would be reprimanded from her committee assignments and referred to the House for disciplinary action.

Looks like this is going to blow over too. Hanohano spent the rest of the week apologizing yet again – in both languages.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”