By Joe Tash
Americans think of Hawaii as a breathtakingly beautiful island chain with white-sand beaches, waterfalls, hula dancers and moonlight luaus. But to those of Hawaiian ancestry, such as Del Mar psychotherapist Hanalei Vierra, the history of the islands is much more complex, consisting of conquest, military occupation and subjugation. According to Vierra, 59, few are aware of “the price Hawaiians have paid for paradise. This is the dark side of paradise.” Vierra hopes a recently completed documentary film, called “Hawaii, A Voice for Sovereignty,” will help educate people about the history of the 50th U.S. state, and advance the cause of Hawaiians seeking to redress past wrongs.
Vierra has helped organize a free showing of the film that will include native Hawaiian singing and dance performances and a panel discussion with director Catherine Bauknight, at 6 p.m. on May 24 at the UCSD Cross-Cultural Center.
The path to Hawaiian statehood stretches back to 1893, when U.S. Marines overthrew the monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Lili’uokalani, at the behest of American businessmen who wanted to grow sugar cane and pineapples on the islands’ fertile soil.
Following the “bloodless coup,” Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1898, and achieved statehood in 1959. In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a Congressional resolution of apology for the takeover.
Today, many native Hawaiians are calling for sovereignty as a means of regaining control of land and protecting their cultural heritage, from language to music to dance.
“It really all boils down to the land. They need land to live off of, it’s part of their culture,” said Bauknight, a Pasadena-based photojournalist who began working on the film, her first documentary, in 2005. “What happens to the land happens to the people. It took me a very long time to understand how serious and meaningful that is. It’s not just a cliché.”
Since the overthrow, said Vierra, Hawaii has shifted from an agriculture-based economy to one dominated by military bases and tourism. People of Hawaiian ancestry are plagued by high rates of health problems, such as strokes and diabetes, along with alcoholism, homelessness and incarceration.
“The experiment of statehood has benefitted everyone except the Hawaiians,” Vierra said. “The Hawaiians are now on the bottom rung of all the social ladders.”
Vierra, who was born in San Bernardino, but lived in both California and Hawaii at various times during his childhood, insists his stance is not anti-American, but “pro-Hawaiian nation.”
His parents, native Hawaiians who are now deceased, would not embrace his activism on the Hawaiian sovereignty issue, he conceded. His father served in the U.S. Air Force, and later worked as a civil service engineer. His parents lived in Hawaii at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “They would look at me like I was nuts,” he said, “like, ‘How dare you?’”
But he said he wants non-Hawaiians and those of the older generation of Hawaiian natives to see Bauknight’s film, so they can understand the desires of those she interviewed, who want more control over their destiny and that of the islands.
Bauknight said the film has been shown at a number of film festivals and garnered awards. Her next step is to go back to Hawaii and film an update on the activities of those who are pursuing sovereignty, before the film is released in theaters or broadcast on a national television network in 2012. She also wants to enter it in the Academy Awards competition.
If you go
“Hawaii, A Voice for Sovereignty” documentary screening, music, dancing, panel discussion
6 p.m. May 24
UCSD Cross-Cultural Center