The State of Aloha

These eight islands make up the State of Hawaii: Hawaii, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai and Niihau. That’s the easy part.

But it wasn’t always this way. There used to be more. Next week we commemorate our entrance into the Union on Admissions Day — the day Congress passed the Admission Act of 1959. That act not only marks the start of statehood, but it also defined the boundaries of the State of Hawaii. In doing so, Congress actually took away some of the islands that constituted Hawaii:

“The State of Hawaii shall consist of all the islands, together with their appurtenant reefs and territorial waters, including the Territory of Hawaii . . . except the atoll known as Palmyra Island, together with its appurtenant reefs and territorial waters, but said State shall not be deemed to include the Midway Islands, Johnston Island, Sand Island (off-shore from Johnston Island), or Kingman Reef, together with their appurtenant reefs and territorial waters.”

In other words, when we became a state, we gave up holdings that were once part of the Territory of Hawaii. The holdings include most of the northwestern atolls — that long string of mainly uninhabited, sandy specks of land and shoals that are part of the Hawaiian archipelago. The federal government held on to it and in 2006, President George W. Bush renamed the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Papahanaumokuakea and turned it into the largest marine national monument in history.

But what about the other islands? The “atoll known as Palmyra Island” is certainly not part of the Hawaiian Archipelago, and it’s not even a single atoll. It is a cluster of approximately 52 uninhabited islets and coral atolls with no freshwater source. And it’s more than 1,000 miles south of Honolulu.

The first known visit from Westerners was in 1802 when the ship Palmyra sought refuge in one of the many islets formed around the ring around the ancient sunken volcano. The atoll was named after the ship.

During the reign of Kamehameha IV in the mid-19th century, the king encouraged Hawaiian subjects to explore small, isolated islands and claim them for the Hawaiian nation. An expedition headed south to Palmyra and claimed it for Hawaii in 1862. The king approved of the claim, and it was part of Hawaii for nearly a century. During the territorial period, it was technically part of the City and County of Honolulu. One observer cheekily noted that this gave Honolulu the largest city limits in the world. The Admission Act cut us off from Palmyra, and now it’s a federal territory.

But Palmyra wasn’t the only addition to the Hawaiian kingdom. In 1858, Hawaiian subjects took Johnston Island, a tiny atoll between the Hawaiian Islands and the Marshall Islands. Although it was initially claimed by the United States, the kingdom’s captain tore down the American flag and raised the Hawaiian one in its stead. The claims were disputed until Kamehameha IV backed down later that year.

The islands acquired during the kingdom were never relinquished after the overthrow when the dubious Republic of Hawaii was established in 1894. And when Hawaii was annexed to the United States in 1898, it annexed “the Hawaiian Islands and their dependencies.” Two years later, Congress declared Hawaii (and her dependencies) the Territory of Hawaii.

Then came statehood, and the islands expressly mentioned in the Admission Act were cut loose from Hawaii. You’d think it was easy to resolve, but decades later a strange and outlandish claim came from the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Thousands of miles from the Hawaiian Archipelago are the Solomon Islands, a group of Melanesian islands near Papua New Guinea and Australia. In a remote corner of those islands are a group of atolls known as Sikaiana. The people there have retained a Polynesian culture in stark contrast to their neighbors.

In 1996, the Hawaiian Sovereignty Election Council received applications from residents of Sikaiana. They claimed to be Native Hawaiians and wanted to participate in an upcoming plebiscite limited to Native Hawaiians.

The Sikaianans argued that in 1856, Hawaiian subjects claimed them for King Kamehameha IV and that the king made them part of the Kingdom of Hawaii. That meant that they were among the “dependencies” during annexation and establishment of the Territory of Hawaii. It also meant that because they were never expressly excluded during the Admission Act, they were made part of the State of Hawaii. And so, the residents claimed, they were not only Native Hawaiians, but American citizens. It was a remarkable claim. Perhaps too remarkable for the council. Their request for ballots was ultimately rejected. No one from Sikaiana has tried it since.

And so please enjoy your holiday next week for Admissions Day — no matter where in the former kingdom you may be.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

COMMENTS