Chatting with Hawaiian Nation Prime Minister Henry Noa
July 21, 2005
There was to be a vigil, I was told, at a public park in Kihei. It was going to be a protest on the part of Reinstated Hawaiian Nation movement. They are nationalists who seek independence from the United States government. It was to be a solemn and serious affair.
I asked when it was to take place. All they said was "in the afternoon."
When I got to the park I saw children playing, barbeques and birthday parties. But I saw no vigil, rally, protest or any signs of such activities. I went back several times, but never found anything.
Several hours passed and I again returned, hoping for a sign. No vigil. It was now late afternoon; the sun was setting making the shadows long and distorted. People were going home. The children I saw playing earlier were now asleep on their mother's shoulders, their food consumed. I later found out that in fact there never was any vigil.
The man in charge of the vigil was Henry Noa, and he's actually many people at once: citizen, diplomat, freedom fighter, guerrilla and salesman. He's Prime Minister of the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation. It's a nationalist movement that characterizes its adversaries as "the masters of the world."
Noa is like a peasant king on a never-ending search for legitimacy. He possesses no nation, no banana republic to roost over. His is a make believe republic where citizens exist only in the realm of the strategic: supporters of The Cause.
A few months ago I met him at Mama Ding's House of Pasteles in Kahului. I found him sitting under a blood red silhouette of a crude American flag painted onto a window. It was 9 a.m., and he was eating pasteles and drinking coffee. He offered to buy me breakfast.
Noa is a taciturn man with a large face and expressive eyes. Although he is solidly built, time has taken its toll and he has developed a paunch. His mouth is missing a tooth. His salt and peppery hair was thick and slightly mussed as if he had just awoken.
Seated to my right was Nelson Armitage, a man who carries the title of "Defense Minister" for the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation. He contributed very little to the conversation except an occasional verbal support to his Prime Minister. When Noa made a point Armitage thought especially brilliant, he responded with a "10-four!"
In conversations Noa seeks to dictate exclusively. He is The Boss, and he's got The Answers. He spoke very carefully, making tiny speeches that were canned like those of a tenured professor who lectures constantly. They sounded well rehearsed and worn out.
Prime Minister Noa has a problem most people who carry such a lofty title never have to worry about: he lacks a government. Instead of bureaucrats and clerks, he has converts and activists. He must create his job by bringing about a feeling that only he can deliver the moral justice that will set right the bleak realities of Hawaiian history.
"What we, as Hawaiian people must learn is how to use the legal system to represent us," he told me. "I mean, we can't put out an army to re-conquer the lands taken from us—not yet anyway. So it has to be a sovereignty process that Hawaiian people can identify with culturally, politically and psychologically."
I asked what he meant by that.
"There have been so many different proposals over the last 112 years," he said. "Our people have all this different information on what sovereignty can be, should be, that it has divided our people. We are moving in all different directions, so it's hard to really unify our people. That's the focal point we need to resolve and that's the process we're involved in reinstating our former nation's existence."
Noa speaks in an easy, slow cadence that's easy to write down. He never became irritated on those occasions when I asked him to stop or clarify a point. Like any good salesman, he stayed on course, making his pitch for me to take and deliver to the masses.
As I took notes the Defense Minister occasionally peeked at what I was writing.
"What we are, essentially, is a provisional government," Noa said. "Now let me ask you, braddah, where you seen one provisional government in the world set up?
"Iraq," I said. "And Afghanistan."
"Yeah, but the difference is that that's one provisional government set up by another nation," Noa said. "The former Hawaiian kingdom had 24 districts set up around the island chain. These districts had representatives.
"Before any of this could happen, I had to find representatives today to step up. It took me three years. The key to reinstatement is to preserve the political authority that pre-existed before Western contact. After that, we had to follow Hawaiian royal law. So we put together a legislature and conducted elections. We took aside eight months and conducted statewide voter registration and elections. On November 6th, 1999, elections were held and those who won their seats will be representing the new government in the island chain. Right after the elections, we drafted our constitution."
At one point during our interview, Noa told me that, "We don't consider ourselves a government in absentia. We call ourselves a government suppressed. Our mission is to remove the suppression…"
"By beginning diplomatic relationships with other countries requesting support and recognition of our struggle," he said.
How is that going?
"Well," the Prime Minister said, straitening in his chair, "very well, but in the beginning it was very difficult. Not everybody knew Hawai'i was a nation but they do know that Hawai'i is the 50th American state. We have to explain to them what it is we are doing. I've had the opportunity to speak to the king of Tonga when he visited Hawai'i. Just lately I have been speaking to pro-independence groups in Tahiti that have taken an interest in what we are doing."
They recently had a coup, no?
"Yeah, well… it's continuing," Noa said. "It wasn't really so much a coup as much as a little political maneuver that was written into their constitution. As far as we know, there have been some movements in France that indicate that there is support for the independence of Tahiti. As a new nation, as a new government, it is absolutely vital that we receive support from other nations regarding our political right to exist. It will also help in our legal situations we know are inventible.
"One of our objectives, immediate objectives, as a matter of fact, is to reclaim the Hawaiian government lands that belong to our nation," he added.
I asked him what happens to people who already live on the land.
"The bottom line is that… whenever there is a dispute over property, it goes back to its original owners," he said. "That's us. Look, its been over 112 years, there are a lot of land titles that are being held illegally, land that belongs to the Hawaiian government."
"10-4!" said Defense Minister Armitage.
Throughout our discussion, Noa seemed very certain of the righteousness of his cause, even though history is filled with examples of movements like his going nowhere. Still, the Prime Minister has plans.
"We are putting together a land commission that will receive input on how best to deal with the land issue," he said.
What about hotels and resorts? I asked. Knock em' down?
"What you have is a situation where the government is under 'new management,'" he said. "Since we're the new owners, we gonna give the pre-supposed owner ways to work with us. One of the ways I can see us doing that is we lease the land to them. We will give them options."
By this point I've just about run out of questions. Then Armitage told me that I could never really know the struggle. I could know it, in the casual sense, but I could never truly understand, the way he or Noa does.
"No, but we need him," Noa said. Then he turned back to me. "It's good you came here," he said. "You can reach a lot of people."
Then he told me that there was going to be another vigil the next day. "It will serve as "public notice of our existence," Armitage said.
Such jargon may seem politically naive, but Hawai'i is a profoundly colonial state. It has long been dependant on an empire for language, law and institutions. Lost in this noisy rejection of the West is the inescapable combination of hatred and envy that comes with such a peripheral existence. It's the feeling of simultaneously hating and needing another civilization.
The Hawaiian economy is deeply dependant on the rest of the world for trade, tourism and finance. No matter how many protests, vigils and "reinstated" governments spring up, this won't change.
Nothing is made in Hawai'i. Everything is imported, including even the political ideologies and slogans nationalists use to craft their rhetoric. Even the popular slang term from North America, "the Mainland," inspires powerful feelings of exasperation and wounded dignity, automatically relegating Hawai'i to "minor" status. It's these politics of envy and indignation that fuel the reinstated Hawaiian Nation movement.
At one point during my research for this story, I obtained a copy of the movement's manifesto, titled The Lawful Government of Hawaii has Returned from Exile. It states in part that, "the reinstatement process is nearly complete" and that "Hawai'i will be an independent nation again." It even gets somewhat apocalyptic by referencing a coming "Zero Hour."
The reality is that the Reinstated Hawaiian Nation movement is very much like the phantom vigil I tried to attend. It's a shadow movement promising great things, but in the end simply fails to show up.
It's not an insurgency, insurrection, guerrilla movement or anything else so grandiose, and it's doubtful it ever will be. That's because, like many failed nationalist movements, the people it's trying to recruit are just too busy living their lives. MTW
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