The State of Aloha
When they weren’t debating the finer points of a democratic republic, feuding with each other or uncomfortably tabling the pressing moral issues of slavery for another generation, the founding fathers — those long dead white men whom we all have learned about as students in the United States — were on the kind of committee you’d find in high school. On July 4, 1776, not long after declaring independence from the United Kingdom, the Continental Congress tapped Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to come up with the national seal for the new country of the United States of America. And of course, there was disagreement.
Adams opted for an image depicting the “Choice of Hercules,” a tale in which the Greek hero must choose between vice, the easy life or virtue, a harder but more glorious path. (You can guess where he goes).
Jefferson and Franklin wanted images from the Bible, which to modern Americans — at least those brought up with the notion that there ought to be a firm separation of church and state — may feel strange. Jefferson proposed a seal showing the children of Israel, freshly fleeing slavery in Egypt wandering the desert and guided by a cloud. If that became our national seal, news of immigrants seeking asylum in the United States by passing through deserts in the southwest would take on a new level of discomfort.
Franklin’s image was more action-packed and a little disturbing. He wanted to see Moses parting the Red Sea while Pharoah, his men and all their chariots were drowning. Perhaps fired up by the recent break from England, he offered a violent national motto: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” If we went with that, those words surely would have found themselves sewn onto Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s face mask (whenever she decided to wear one).
It took six years for them to come up with what we have now — a bald eagle holding arrows and an olive branch, a shield and the motto, “e pluribus unum.”
Franklin wasn’t happy with the choice of bird. In a letter to his daughter, he complained that the eagle “is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly.” Contrary to popular belief, he did not propose the turkey to serve as our national symbol. He just felt it was “a much more respectable Bird” and a “Bird of Courage” in comparison to the apparently immoral eagle.
And that’s how it happened. The eagle went on to become a national symbol screeching and glaring its way onto flags, T-shirts, NASCAR events and the endangered species list while turkeys ended up on bottles of bourbon for every kind of budget and yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner.
Turkeys are native to the Americas and were first domesticated by humans in what is now known as Mexico and Central America perhaps as early as 25 CE. The Spanish introduced the bird to Europe around 1519 and they thrived to the point of becoming a traditional English meal at Christmas before 1550.
Ironically, turkeys went back to the Americas with the English colonists a century later. The Native Americans easily recognized their domesticated cousin. Wild turkeys had a vast habitat throughout the northeast, but in Massachusetts they were hunted to extinction. The last wild turkey was killed in the Bay State in 1821.
By then, however, wild turkeys were all over the west. We even got a few. The first wild turkeys came to the islands in 1788 on a ship returning from China. Turkeys were found on Oahu and Kauai in the 1820s and ’30s. By the end of the 19th century, wild turkey populations were found on every island.
On Niihau in particular, the turkeys fared well living among the bushes and in dry areas. The same wasn’t so on Lanai or even Maui, where the mongoose preyed upon turkey eggs, and epidemics decimated the population.
Not long after statehood, turkeys made a comeback. In 1961, the United States Forest Service introduced wild turkeys from Texas throughout the state. The population exploded on islands with high elevation like Hawaii island.
Maui still has its share of wild turkeys. Your best place to find them is in Ulupalakua. But Hawaii island is the best place to spot and even sport hunt these, as Ben Franklin called them, birds of courage.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.