Education, international law and self-determination
ʻUmi Perkins on framing statewide education and international discussion on occupied Hawaiʻi around a legal context.
On Monday, January 30, Kamehameha Schools hosted a panel discussion on the Fact Finding proceedings taking place at the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the legal status of the United States’ occupation of Hawaii. The panelists were Dr. Keanu Sai, agent for the Hawaiian Kingdom, and Professor Federico Lenzerini, counsel and advocate for the Hawaiian Kingdom, and professor of International law at the University of Sienna, Italy. I was the moderator, and below are my opening remarks.
Aloha ahiahi kākou and to all those who made this quite unique event possible, Mahalo nui iā ʻōukou.
The writer Thomas Pynchon wrote “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they donʻt have to worry about the answers.” This is a challenging idea that should make us think deeply about how we engage with, among other things, history, and make us ask ourselves if we have indeed been asking the right questions.
Iʻm ʻUmi Perkins and I teach Hawaiian history here at Kamehameha and Political Science at UH, so Iʻm no stranger to controversial topics. Iʻve been teaching many of the concepts weʻll be discussing tonight for nearly 15 years, and Iʻve managed somehow never to get in trouble. But I think thatʻs why I was asked to open tonight’s event. In fact, I was asked by another teacher recently who often gets in trouble for talking about the same things, how I do it – how I stay out of trouble. Which got me thinking – how do I do it? And I started to realize there are ways to discuss tonight’s issues without creating controversy, and one of them is to keep it more about law and less about politics. So for example, I was part of a student organization founded by Dr. Keanu Sai, one of tonightʻs distinguished panelists, when we were both PhD students at UH, it was called The Hawaiian Society of Law and Politics or HSLP, which was about discussing both politics and law, but in a way that was mindful of the separation between them. The Society sought, and to a large extent, succeeded, in integrating the idea of Hawaiʻi as a nation-state into curricula across the UH system and even beyond, so that now, for example, I teach a course on military occupation at UH Mānoa, which serves as a kind of testing ground for the idea of Hawaiʻi as an occupied country by comparing it with other occupations historically. This course was originally created by yet another member of HSLP.
More recently, I wrote an article on this topic in The Nation magazine, which is the oldest weekly magazine in the U.S., and I was hired to rewrite the Hawaiian history standards for the Hawaiʻi Department of Education, Dr. Sai has written a Hawaiian history textbook called Ua Mau ke Ea, Kamana Beamer (another HSLP member) wrote an award-winning book incorporating this view, No Mākou ka Mana, and several PhD dissertations and Master’s theses have been produced that have furthered this line of research, including one thesis by Donovan Preza (again of HSLP), which was named the best MA thesis in the entire Pacific Rim.
So a lot has happened since 2000 and I think it’s very significant and important that as this case returns to the PCA, this time for fact-finding, the level of understanding locally on this topic has been greatly expanded from the time of the original Larsen case.
One of the questions I’m often asked when I talk to people about these issues is: Is there really a World Court? Many think that law is a matter that is strictly domestic, that is, limited to [being] within countries. But yes, in fact, there is a world court, which has a few organs if you will. According to their website:
The Permanent Court of Arbitration, established by treaty in 1899, is an intergovernmental organization providing … dispute resolution services to the international community.
In the same building, The Peace Palace, in The Hague, Netherlands, where the proceedings weʻll be discussing tonight will take place, is the International Court of Justice, which, according to their website:
is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the UN and began work in April 1946.
Now the Courtʻs proceedings donʻt often make major headlines, theyʻre often about fairly obscure trade disputes. But one case that has made headlines is the case of the South China Sea, that region being a major global geopolitical hotspot right now. And in the ruling for that case, they cited the first Larsen v. Hawaiian Kingdom case from the year 2000.
So how did it come to be that I began teaching these ideas at a fairly traditional institution like KS. There is, in fact, a genealogy there.
Hawaiian history began to be offered at Kamehameha in 1971 but wasnʻt required until the 1980s. In 1987, when Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi was formed, the former Hawaiian history teacher Kawika Makanani resolved to make Hawaiian history a course on Hawaiian sovereignty as it was understood at that time. In 1993, KS faculty, including Kawika Makanani, former principal Julian Ako, current English department head Kaʻimipono Kaiwi and others conducted a research project to discover and expose more about the 1893 overthrow. In the late 1990s, my predecessor, Kehau Abad, incorporated many of the concepts weʻll discuss tonight into her curriculum, which I subsequently inherited and continued to develop.
Just for comparison, the Hawaiʻi Department of Education began requiring courses in Hawaiian history in response to the 1978 Constitutional Convention, and the Departmentʻs Hawaiian Studies program began in 1980.
Tonight’s event is not about taking positions or taking sides. Tonight is really about educating people, and to that purpose, Iʻd like to conclude my remarks by suggesting what might be done in terms of educating a group of people we all care about – that is Hawaiian youth and the youth of Hawaiʻi more generally. There are serious structural problems in the delivery of Hawaiian history in schools. To name only one example, to become a certified Social Studies teacher, youʻd have to pass the Praxis test, which is very demanding in a number of topics, none of which is Hawaiian history. So if you were able to pass that test, itʻs unlikely – not impossible, but unlikely – that youʻd have a deep knowledge of Hawaiian history and vice versa. If you spent your time learning Hawaiian history, as a young teacher youʻd be hard-pressed to pass that test. This is only one of many such structural problems that result, in the end, in a society that really doesn’t know, and thus has not come to terms, with its own history. Seen in this context, tonight’s event can be thought of as part of a larger community effort to educate ourselves about these critical historical issues and their ramifications today by beginning to understand the international commission of inquiry at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.