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50 years of statehood, but who’s counting?

November 22, 2007

50 years of statehood, but who’s counting?

Nov. 21, 2007

By David Shapiro

Plans to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hawai’i’s statehood on Aug. 21, 2009, are off to a decidedly low-key start.

With little fanfare, Gov. Linda Lingle last week convened the first meeting of a 25-member statehood commission created by the Legislature to plan an appropriate celebration.

The governor seldom calls together her East ‘O’okala Council of Advisers without issuing a news release, but there was none to trumpet this gathering, although Lingle did give it a brief mention in her weekly newsletter.

There’s no Web site providing information or inviting public participation, no list of commission members and no phone number or e-mail address where people can direct questions and comments.

It’s a continuation of the walking-on-eggshell jitters that have gripped the officials worried about potential conflicts between those who want to wave the flag on this landmark anniversary and a vocal minority of Native Hawaiians who regard statehood as the theft of their nation.

Concerns are so great that the Legislature appointed a 25-member commission — the same number as the state Senate itself — to make sure all bases of sensitivity are covered in planning the observance.

We saw an example of how tense matters can become on Admission Day last year when a small group led by state Sen. Sam Slom provoked Hawaiians by holding an observance at ‘Iolani Palace that drew emotional protests. A repeat was deflected this year when the palace was conveniently reserved for another event on Admission Day.

And stakes have gone up since the Battle of the Superferry so dramatically showed that disputes involving Hawai’i’s culture and perceived values are only going to get angrier and more confrontational as time goes on.

In gathering the 50th Anniversary of Statehood Commission for the first time, Lingle attempted to frame the celebration as “a meaningful and fun instrument to unify our state,” saying she wants to respect cultural sensitivities while also using the occasion to draw visitors.

“We must make certain that our young people don’t take our history for granted,” she said. “In order to celebrate this milestone, we need to remember our past and look ahead to our future.”

It’s a good idea to bring dignity to the occasion by respecting the history from all points of view and trying to find some meaning for the future, but unity is going to be hard to come by in our polarized community.

Attempts to please everybody often please nobody, and trying to turn the statehood observance into a history lesson and visioning exercise won’t likely satisfy either those who want a star-spangled bash or those who wish to make a point about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Statehood was supported by 93 percent of local residents who voted in 1959 — including most Native Hawaiians — and there’s good evidence that the vast majority of us still cherish our American citizenship.

That’s cause for a big party, and it would be a mistake to put a damper on it.

But at the same time, Hawaiians have legitimate issues about how they’ve fared under U.S. rule, how non-Hawaiians are grabbing at their traditional assets and how they’ve become increasingly vilified in their own homeland. Any statehood observance that tries to deny them their say would be asking for trouble.

As the commission undertakes its daunting task, perhaps we can take some guidance from Alaska, which was a year ahead of us in gaining statehood and is a year ahead of us in planning its commemoration.

The Alaska Statehood Celebration Commission’s Web site, www.gov.state.ak.us/state_commission provides a good outline of the direction they’re headed.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai’i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.

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