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1978 Constitutional Convention, a turning point in the recognition of Native Hawaiian rights

The 1978 Hawaiʻi Constitutional Convention uh manoa
University of Hawaii
The 1978 Hawaiʻi Constitutional Convention

In about a week and a half, Josh Green will take office as the next governor of Hawaiʻi. At this time of change for the administration, we're taking a look back at a turning point in the state's political history: the 1978 Hawaiʻi Constitutional Convention, sometimes known as the "Con Con."

As part of an ongoing project with the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Center for Oral History, ethnic studies professor Ty Kāwika Tengan shares insights from delegates to the convention, Charlene Hoe and John Waiheʻe, who laid the groundwork for recognition of Native Hawaiian rights.

John Waiheʻe would one day become governor, but in 1978 he was a little-known young Native Hawaiian lawyer among the 102 Con Con delegates. Waiheʻe cites the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court under the leadership of former Chief Justice William S. Richardson as providing the legal underpinnings for Native Hawaiian rights and recalls that fellow delegate Frenchy DeSoto led the way at Con Con.

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

Waiheʻe: So, every time I talk about the Con Con, I tell, I says, you know, if Frenchy DeSoto was the mother of Hawaiian rights, and she definitely was in the 1978 Constitutional Convention, the kahu for the whole thing was Richardson. Because he provided the framework for this stuff to happen, by his decisions by reaching back to the old kingdom law.

Waiheʻe: Most people don’t realize the Con Con had less than a dozen people who would even have Hawaiian blood and they probably only had one and a half activists. Frenchy being the activist, the full activist, and I'm the half, you know just kind of going along. She hired all the people, all the activists, to be on her staff. So not only does she have good lawyers and stuff, all her staff were all veterans of Kahoʻolawe or veterans of the movement and so forth. And before we did anything in the Con Con, she held this series of — we call them puwalus back then. And puwalus would be where people would come with their ideas, right? And all these groups that we had talked about all up to now. It's contributed to something that is now in the Hawaiʻi State Constitution.

Delegate Charlene Hoe, whose family owned a taro farm in Waiahole Valley, was similarly inspired by the growing consciousness about Native Hawaiian rights. Hoe said she become a delegate out of concern for the natural resources, and that concern led to an amendment to protect water resources in the state.

charlene hoe
Andrew Lih
Smithsonian/Wikimedia Commons
Charlene Hoe at the Smithsonian book launch of "We Are Here: 30 Inspiring Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Have Shaped the United States" in October 2022.

Hoe: I think the overall emphasis was on the well-being of our state and not for the moment, but for the long term. And so, as we had discussions, as we grappled with this or that or the other thing or this or that or the other approach, I think that stayed in the center. And if we couldn't honestly say collectively, "yes, we think this is a positive," it made more discussion and it pushed us to look again and find something else that could get us there. Did we do it on everything? Probably not, but we did it on a lot.

Hoe: I think the language in the Constitution is as we envisioned. The fact that it took a long time was a surprise to me. I didn’t realize that it would take quite so long. Had I realized at the time that we'd still be working on it today, I don't know, as I said I might have thought “well let’s go on a cruise instead.” But I think it's, again, it's part of the responsibility of stewardship. It does take a long time. It takes a long time to do it. And it takes a long time to get a population to understand what that means to be stewards. We're still struggling with it on a lot of different levels in our state. How do we take care of well-being?


This collaboration is supported by the SHARP Initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Council of Learned Societies.

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