“Ea” is a Hawaiian word that is given many meanings; chief among them is “sovereignty”. For Hawaiians, sovereignty is a word that rings close to the heart. In 1843, King Kamehameha III proclaimed the return of our sovereignty through the Hawaiian Kingdom after a six-month occupation by the British: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻaina i ka pono,” loosely translating to: “the sovereignty of this land is perpetuated in righteousness.” It was only fifty years later that once again the word “ea” rang through the islands — only now it was a death knell.
In 1893, the last Queen of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Her Royal Majesty Liliʻuokalani, was overthrown in an American-backed military coup. The “ea” of the Hawaiian people was stolen. Though a majority of Indigenous Hawaiians petitioned for the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the passage of the 1898 Newlands Resolution led to the annexation of Hawaiʻi as a territory, pulling Hawaiʻi steps closer to her induction into the ever-expanding American empire.
The final stage in extinguishing Hawaiian sovereignty was meted out in 1959, when the Territory of Hawaiʻi was forced into statehood, officially adding it to the stars on the American flag. Sovereign no more, the Hawaiian people looked on with solemn eyes as their home was wrought from their hands by the cold gears of empire.
Meanwhile, Native Hawaiians continued to resist changes imposed by America. Despite negative stereotyping, oppressive legislation, and land dispossession, isolated communities continued to express their songs, dances, chants, and most of all, their sovereignty. Nevertheless, many Hawaiians were forced to assimilate into American ways of being and knowing for survival’s sake, while also facing a distinct lack of access to those benevolent benefits they were ostensibly granted upon annexation. The state of the Hawaiian people descended into a desolate facsimile of a once proud nation.
In 1976, the Hokuleʻa, a modern Hawaiian voyaging canoe, made her maiden voyage from Hawaiʻi to ancestral lands in Tahiti, with no Western navigational tools. Hawaiians had finally come home. The Hokuleʻa voyage was a watershed moment; it finally proved, after decades, that Hawaiian culture had substantive value in the modern day. Hawaiians could do great things, while being unapologetically Hawaiian. Hokuleʻaʻs feat ignited a fire in the souls of many Hawaiians, burning into their hearts a word that had since left the islands vacant — sovereignty.
In the following decades, a fervent movement for Hawaiian independence marched confidently throughout the Hawaiian Islands, demanding for Hawaiians to govern the land they called home once again. Today, the Hawaiian sovereignty lives on through the collective action to defend sacred land in many places: Mauna Kea, Hunananiho, Kalaeloa, Hanapepe, Makua Valley, Pohakuloa, Kahoʻolawe, and more. The threat of land use change for corporate or military interest has ignited a newfound wave of Hawaiian desires for sovereignty, and the “ea” of the Hawaiian people may soon be restored.