Monday, August 17, 2009

HONOLULU | Hawaii turns 50 years old as the 50th state Friday, but there will be no grand parades, no dazzling fireworks, no lavish displays of native culture.

Organizers of the observation are not even willing to call it a party. It is simply a “commemoration,” one that is sensitive to a painful history of the Hawaiian monarchy’s overthrow and unresolved claims of Native Hawaiians.

The main event is a low-key daylong conference reflecting on Hawaii’s place in the world. Behind the tourist-friendly tropical images of beaches and sunshine, many remain uncomfortable with the U.S. takeover of the islands and the idea that businesses have exploited Hawaiians’ culture.

“Instead of state government having huge parties and fireworks, we’re having a convention,” said Manu Boyd, cultural director for the Royal Hawaiian Center, a shopping and entertainment area in Waikiki. “That shows the strength and spiritual power of the Hawaiian people, whose shattered world has not yet been addressed.”

When statehood came calling in 1959, it ushered in an era of economic prosperity through tourism and the side effects that came with it: resort high rises, more than 500,000 monthly tourists and an emphasis on hokey luaus rather than the authentic host culture.

Sovereignty groups advocating independence from the United States make up a minority, but many residents recognize the long-standing issues associated with the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy, the islands’ annexation and past harms to the Native Hawaiian people.

Dodie Brown was a smiling 6-year-old when her father took a picture of her holding a newspaper proclaiming “Statehood!” - an image that traveled around the world.

“It’s good that the commemoration is quiet,” said Ms. Brown, who now works for the city of Honolulu. “Something like this should be done with taste and finesse, in respect to everyone’s feelings.”

Besides the statehood conference, the Hawaii Statehood Commission has been airing TV and radio ads with “50 Voices of Statehood” interviews, inviting schools to place commemorative items in time capsules, displaying artwork on the meaning of statehood in the Hawaii Convention Center and showing exhibits in state airports. State lawmakers allocated $600,000 for statehood events.

“Out of respect, we decided not to do the parade and the big party,” said Kippen de Alba Chu, chairman of the Statehood Commission. Those kinds of events “would have been a waste of state funds, especially given the economy.”

Alaska, by contrast, which joined the union in January 1959, embraced the 50th anniversary of statehood with concerts, fireworks displays, a prize-winning float in California’s Rose Parade and observances throughout the state during the past 12 months. Among the festivities celebrated in a downtown Anchorage festival was the re-enactment of placing the 49th star on the American flag.

Here, even the low-key conference is drawing complaints. Hawaiian sovereignty groups are planning protests outside the convention center Friday, and some say the conference’s topics are too focused on tourism, economic development and business opportunities.

One panelist, University of Hawaii Center for Hawaiian Studies professor Jonathan Osorio, said the conference should focus more on Hawaiian culture and history.

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