On Feb. 26, a convention of Native Hawaiians announced that they had made history: they had written a constitution for a Hawaiian nation.
For the past month, more than 100 Native Hawaiian delegates had been cloistered in their version of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall: the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club, tucked into the verdant hills of Oahu island. They came from every island of the archipelago as well as the mainland U.S. One delegate even traveled from Sweden.
With a vote of 88 in favor and 30 opposed, the delegates approved a constitution and declaration of sovereignty—the first steps toward creating a new Native Hawaiian nation. But there’s a sharp divide between two camps: activists who want to start what would be a federally recognized, semi-autonomous government in the same vein as other Native American groups, and a growing contingent who instead want Hawaii to become a completely independent nation from the U.S.
Most other indigenous groups in the U.S. have their own federally recognized nations—the Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, or the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. These tribal nations come with elected governments, court systems, and reservations. Hawaiians are the only major native group without these kinds of institutions.
If a Hawaiian government gets federal recognition, not much will change in locals’ day-to-day experience. There wouldn't be a large Native Hawaiian reservation, reparations, or casinos, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law professor. One small island that is important in native traditions and has been used by the U.S. military for bombing campaigns would be given over to native control, and Native Hawaiians would have more autonomy for how to use their lands.
The history behind this debate goes back to 1893, when a group of U.S. businessmen and soldiers overthrew the Hawaiian kingdom, stealing land and natural resources. A few years later, Congress annexed the island chain, and for decades officials banned the teaching of the Hawaiian language and the practice of Native Hawaiian culture. President Bill Clinton officially apologized for the overthrow in 1993.
“Our history is painful and ugly in some ways,” said Jade Danner, a Native Hawaiian delegate who voted in favor of the new constitution. “We still drive by the palace where our government was overthrown… Our connection to the stories of the past is still very much alive.”
Some activists think re-creating a sovereign Hawaiian nation would help right some of those wrongs. But it’s not just about history. Today, Native Hawaiians make up a disproportionate percentage of the state's homeless and incarcerated populations and are far more likely to suffer health problems like heart disease and diabetes. Studies have repeatedly shown that indigenous groups who have their own governments and decision-making power end up with higher socioeconomic indicators.
Other activists, however, say that a federally-recognized government like a Native American tribe wouldn't go far enough. A vocal minority of Native Hawaiians are insisting that only full independence from the U.S. would make up for the colonial legacy. They dream of Hawaii returning to the days before the U.S. takeover, and some even hope for a restoration of the monarchy.
"For a great many Native Hawaiians we feel disfranchised," said Zuri Aki, a delegate who supported independence and helped draft the constitution. "We are a minority in our own homeland. It's a daily struggle for us to protect things like our culture, our traditions, even our land."
The independence drive has gained steam over the last couple of years, especially after a proposal to build a telescope on top of Native Hawaiians' most sacred mountain launched a vigorous protest movement.
The constitution passed last month would seem to allow for federal recognition as well as the possibility of complete independence at a future date. It calls for a president and a 43-member legislative assembly, with government proceedings conducted in Hawaiian and English and strong environmental protections.
Questions remain, however, about whether the constitution will actually go into effect. It would first need to be ratified by a vote of all Native Hawaiians: Experts estimate that there are about 250,000 Native Hawaiians living in the state and about 250,000 more living in the continental U.S., and all would have the right to vote in a referendum.
Right now there’s no funding to hold that kind of election, which some observers say would cost at least $2 million. Davianna McGregor, a University of Hawaii ethnic studies professor and another delegate who voted in favor of the constitution, said groups are soliciting donations and hope to hold a vote to ratify the document by the end of 2016.
There are also various legal challenges which could undermine any vote. Some groups say that the government funding used to hold the convention was unconstitutional because the 15th Amendment bars publicly-funded elections that are based on ancestry or race. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit brought against the convention on these grounds.
“This is far from settled,” said Chang, who was also a delegate and opposed the constitution. “There are a lot of obstacles for the constitution to become a governing body.”
If a Native Hawaiian referendum is held and the constitution is approved, then a government would have to be elected and established. Then, the U.S. federal government could recognize it, a process that would give it similar powers to tribal governments.
President Obama, the most famous Hawaiian in history, has repeatedly signaled his support for federal recognition. Yesterday, Hillary Clinton released a statement commending the delegates for approving a constitution and vowing to support Native Hawaiian nationhood. But if a Republican wins the White House, all bets might be off.
Pro-independence activists still say that federal recognition isn't enough—they want to leave the U.S. completely. Realistically, it's hard to imagine how the U.S. would voluntarily give up a resource like Pearl Harbor, or what would happen to non-Native Hawaiians living in the state. If full independence for Hawaii ever happens, it would probably come generations in the future. But it's still a deeply personal topic to many.
"This doesn't meant that you have to throw away your U.S. passport and your Hawai'i driver's license and quit your state job. That just isn't practical," pro-independence leader Dennis "Bumpy" Kanehele wrote in a Facebook post. "What it does mean, however, is that you make the choice to think of yourself as a Hawaiian national… and all the rights and responsibilities that come with that."
Kanahele knows independence doesn't seem feasible to many Americans—but he doesn't care.
"We've waited over 100 years for this to happen," he told me. "This is about justice. We simply need to govern ourselves."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.