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How Hawaiʻi’s ‘78 Constitutional Convention fueled the Hawaiian Renaissance

ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono state motto king kamehameha thomas square
Noe Tanigawa

Affordable housing, angst over tourism, safeguarding resources, disputes with the military — Hawaiʻi faces many of the same issues today that it faced about a generation ago, during the Hawaiian Renaissance. HPR begins a look back at the issues and music of that period, with this perspective from former Gov. John Waiheʻe.

Former Gov. John Waiheʻe - Feb. 11, 2022
Extended interview on The Aloha Friday Conversation

The 1970s in Hawaiʻi was a time of profound change, particularly in the rebirth of Native Hawaiian awareness and pride. Waiheʻe describes the political, legal and cultural upheavals that shaped Hawaiʻi as we know it today.

"At certain points these various revolutions, as I call them, clashed, and at other points, they just folded together," Waiheʻe said.

Waiheʻe was at the University of Hawaiʻi William S. Richardson School of Law in the early '70s and saw momentum build toward the 1978 Hawaiʻi Constitutional Convention.

former hawaii gov john waihee
Noe Tanigawa
Former Gov. John Waiheʻe

He says the Democratic World War II veterans, who had struggled to the top of the political ladder since the 1950s, watched the next generation rebel over the Vietnam War and land development.

"The first two rebellions start at UH Mānoa. The protests against the Vietnam War and against the displacement of people and so forth, Kalama Valley. They come out of UH. But the community starts to build its own leadership. Facilitating that leadership were all these federal programs that were suddenly educating people how to organize, how to do things," he said.

"The poor communities were also, in a number of cases, the Native Hawaiian communities, so the spill-off became people who started saying, 'You know what? It's happening right here, right here in Waimānalo and we're standing on Hawaiian Home Lands. Why should these guys tell us how to do it. We need a better program.'"

"Meanwhile, there are young artisans beginning to express themselves and trying to recapture the language," he said.

Waiheʻe says reclaiming the Hawaiian language became a cultural foundation at the same time that changing political and legal ideas were coalescing. Hawaiʻi Supreme Court Chief Justice William S. Richardson, for whom the UH law school is named, helped craft the legal framework for Hawaiʻi's unique world view during this period.

William S. Richardson after being sworn in as chief justice
University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
"At right, William S. Richardson beams after being sworn in as chief justice of the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court in 1966, accompanied by Governor John A. “Jack” Burns."

"Richardson issues a number of decisions that say something. They say water belongs to everybody, you can't own it. That taro farmers have a right to this water. If you own the source, you can't just divert it to the leeward side of an island."

Asked how unusual this point of view this, Waiheʻe said, "It's completely opposite of the Western law, but it is very consistent with Hawaiian law, Kingdom law."

"So all of a sudden this chief justice comes out with the idea that nobody can own a beach. This is the only state in the union where you can't buy a beach. The beaches belong to the public. That is part of the cultural milieu of the Kingdom," he said.

Waiheʻe says it was important to Richardson that this kingdom perspective be embedded in Hawaiʻi's legal system with the establishment of Hawaiian as an official language of the state.

This happened at the 1978 Constitutional Convention or Con Con, along with other pivotal provisions regarding access, water, and culture.

"Guess what, that's been the agenda for the next 40 years. So what the Con Con did, was it presented the political agenda and the cultural agenda for Hawaiʻi. And who would have known that? The day after it all passed and actually became law, was the day resistance to it all began."

We continue to wrestle with those ideas today. Former Governor John Waiheʻe shares more of his perspective on the Hawaiian Renaissance on Friday with musician Henry Kapono on the Aloha Friday Conversation at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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