Hawaiian sovereignty seekers take over palace grounds
HONOLULU — Native Hawaiian sovereignty advocates briefly chained shut the gates of a historic palace, saying they were reclaiming land of the Hawaiian monarchy that was stolen during the overthrow of the kingdom more than 100 years ago.
Unarmed security guards from the Hawaiian Kingdom Government group allowed only Native Hawaiians, students and the media to enter the Iolani Palace on Wednesday. Tourists, employees and the general public were kept out for hours until the conflict was peacefully resolved and the palace grounds reopened.
Hawaiian activists have long used the palace as the site for protests of what they call the United States' occupation of the islands, but never before had they physically taken control.
"This is our seat of government and always will be," said Mahealani Kahau, who was elected "head of state" of the group seven years ago. "As long as we have breath to speak, we'll be here.
About 60 people arrived at the palace Wednesday morning, sealed the gates with chain-link locks and hung yellow signs stating: "Warning! No trespassing. This is private property."
Police surrounded the palace, which is next to the state Capitol, but didn't force their way inside the fence. The protesters were locked out of the building itself and didn't do any damage to the grounds, which they consider sacred.
After more than six hours, the protesters agreed to end the blockade. No arrests were immediately made, but state officials said the protesters could still be charged. Protest leaders had said they were prepared to be arrested and would go peacefully.
The Hawaiian Kingdom Government is one of several Hawaiian sovereignty organizations in the islands, which became the 50th U.S. state in 1959. One of the most visible signs of protest across the islands is upside-down Hawaii state flags on display at members' homes, signaling distress.
"Hopefully the occupation today will make the people aware of the history of the Native Hawaiian people and the attacks on their land," said Trisha Kehaulani Watson, executive director of Kakoo Oiwi, another Native Hawaiian group.
The ornate Iolani Palace is operated as a museum. Hawaiian King Kalakaua built it in 1882, and it also served as the residence for his sister and successor, Queen Liliuokalani, the islands' last ruling monarch. She was later imprisoned there.
It was neglected after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 and restored in the 1970s as a National Historic Landmark. It includes a gift shop and is open for school groups and paid tours.
The protesters said they wanted to re-establish the palace as the seat of their government, and they plan to meet there daily to conduct the business of a sovereign Hawaii. They pledged to return Thursday, although they said they won't restrict access to the palace again.
"This is the manifestation of the frustration of the Hawaiian people for the loss of sovereignty and land," said state Sen. Kalani English, a Native Hawaiian who met with the protesters and brought them food. "This made a statement. It got the word out about the plight of the Hawaiian people."
Kippen de Alba Chu, executive director of Iolani Palace, said the building was originally used as the royal residence of the monarchy, not as the seat of government.
Only after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was the palace renamed an "executive building" to show that the old rulers were powerless, he said.
"It is historically wrong for any individual or group to state that the palace is to serve as a government building," Chu said. "We welcome any group who would like to celebrate the history of Iolani Palace and Hawaii's monarchy in a historically appropriate manner that embraces all visitors."
About 40 students from Halau Lokahi, a Hawaiian-focused charter school, joined the protesters, blowing conch shells and reciting Hawaiian chants.
"This is a crucial spot. This is where much of the injustice took place," said Hinaleimoana Wong, cultural director at the school.
The last significant conflict at Iolani Palace before Wednesday occurred in 2006 when sovereignty advocates clashed with flag-waving Statehood Day celebrants trying to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."