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Flag flap goes to core of Hawaiian issues

By Staff | Jul 23, 2009

Kahu David Kapaku of Ka‘ahumanu Church and Malihini Keahi-Heath pose lightheartedly with artist Anita Marci after discussing her painting, “Inspiration Celebration,” on King Kamehameha Day.

When artist Anita Marci was asked to fashion a logo to promote the display of fireworks for this year’s July 4 celebration in Lahaina, she decided instead to create a painting called “Inspiration Celebration.” A photo in this newspaper sparked dinnertime conversation in Hawaiian households and bothered some Kanaka Maoli. Art can be provocative to the beholder and spur debate, and so it has been with this painting.

Do Hawaiians or part-Hawaiians wave the state flag proudly? Should the Hawaiian flag, symbolizing the overthrow of the kingdom to some sovereignty advocates, be associated with American independence? Does the flag represent dependence and not independence? 

On King Kamehameha Day, appropriately, this columnist brought together the artist with two highly respected Hawaiians, friends of this column. Kaanapali Beach Hotel Concierge Malihini Keahi-Heath’s great, great-grandfather was a feather gatherer for Queen Keopuolani, one of the wives of Kamehameha the Great. Kahu David Kapaku of Ka‘ahumanu Church has ancestors who came here 900 years ago.

According to Kapaku, as well as a short film shown at the burial place of Kamehameha on Hawaii Island, today’s state flag with Britain’s Union Jack in the corner is identical — except for an extra stripe — to the flag Kamehameha I approved as the official flag of the kingdom in the early 1800s.  That flag was the successor to an older one featuring a kahili (royal standard) and paddles to represent Hawaiians’ connection with the sea.

The first post-contact flag, influenced by the arrival of the British, had the Union Jack surrounded by an all red field. There was a time when Hawaiians raised the British flag when the Brits were in port and the stars and stripes when the Americans were here. Each side became upset when they saw the other country’s flag flying.

To placate both sides — perhaps as a smart political move — today’s flag incorporating both the jack and stars and stripes was approved by the king as the official Hawaiian flag. Thus, it could be argued this “Kamehameha flag” is worthy of respect by Kanaka Maoli and anyone else who has lived here for the last 150 years.

Yet, when Malihini first saw a painting with parts of the American flag and a small Hawaiian flag in the middle, she was offended. If it was the other way around, with the big flag  Hawaiian and the American little, she said that “maybe I would have thought differently.”

“This painting is controversial,” Kapaku declared, “because of the issue of statehood. The Hawaiian flag can be considered a symbol of colonialism by hard-nosed members of the sovereignty movement.”

Kapaku pointed out that the Apology Bill passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton officially apologizes  to the Hawaiian people for the illegal overthrow of its government. 

“If someone stole your car, it was taken illegally. But don’t you still actually own the car? You look at this painting, and you are going to see people disagreeing with the fact that we are part of the U.S. By this logic, ‘stolen’ Hawaii does not belong to the United States,” Kapaku said.

Most of the flag discussion focused on Hawaiians’  loss of  land, the core value of Hawaiian life for centuries and still the subject of reverence.

“We Hawaiians are considered a minority here,” Keahi-Heath declared. “Our issues are huge.” Hawaiians had paperwork showing they owned certain land for decades, if not centuries, she explained. Yet under Hawaii law, if land is unoccupied, it can be claimed by anyone who declares it as his or her own and pays overdue taxes. 

Much of the land “owned” by the island’s largest corporations was secured through a procedure called adverse possession. Sugar growers grabbed water rights. Hawaiians, whose lives were dominated by crops to sustain themselves, left adjoining lands, because streams dried up and they could no longer grow anything. So they left the land, making it vulnerable to takeover. 

Growers, according to Keahi-Heath, abused the land, then decided, after a period of years, to abandon it, discontinuing crops and growing them elsewhere. 

“They abused the land so harshly, we can’t go back and grow what we used to grow,” she commented.

“Our land issues,” Keahi-Heath added, “are even fought in court on another island,” transferred there to discourage testimony of Maui people who would have to travel off-island on short notice.

On land that families once owned, “we sometimes get challenged that we are trespassing. This is what hurts. Others have dominion over part of the land that once belonged to our ancestors,” Keahi-Heath added.   

“Despite these differences,” she stressed, “we respect the Hawaiian flag. But the “little Hawaiian flag in the artwork is a symbol of our turmoil. For generations, we have been trying to be heard.” 

Artist Marci, who has put the painting up for sale, said  she wanted the work “to be a symbol of peace and unity. I wanted to bring the two flags together like a floating island as part of a bigger whole.”

Summing up, Kapaku said, “When I see the smaller Hawaiian flag, it makes me feel other people are still in charge of my destiny. Everybody has been deciding the destiny of the Hawaiians, but not the Hawaiians.”

“We are called the host culture, but we have not hosted anything since 1893. What are we hosting when we are not the dominant culture?”

“For me, it feels like I am being imprisoned within the borders of the U.S. Everything I believe in as a Hawaiian is being stripped. My space is getting smaller, because everything is being stripped of me. That box (of the Hawaiian flag in the painting) makes me very claustrophobic.”

If art promotes discussion and debate, so be it. On an island peopled by full-blooded Hawaiians, Filipinos, Portuguese, Japanese, “hapas” and new arrivals, we all gain by lending a sympathetic ear to the voices of this land’s Kanaka Maoli. If, that is, we would only listen. (For more voices, go to other columns at voicesofmaui.com.)