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Contenders to the Throne

Sovereignty has been an elusive goal, but some Hawaiians aren’t waiting around. We take a look at local groups who are already operating their own functional Hawaiian governments—kings, queens and ministers of the interior.


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We all live in Hawaii.  Some of us however are living not in the state of Hawaii, but the kingdom of Hawaii. A sovereign Hawaiian nation is something that many in the Islands have been seeking for decades. There have been moments when the goal seemed just around the corner, such as in 1993, when righteous anger over the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the kingdom galvanized thousands into the streets to march on Iolani Palace, and President Bill Clinton signed a resolution apologizing for the overthrow. How could a solution fail to appear?

In the years since, though, the sovereignty movement has plugged away without much result. The highest profile effort, The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, popularly known as the Akaka Bill, has languished in Congress for almost a decade.

But what if the kingdom of Hawaii never went away? There are a growing number who believe just that. Rather than settling for the “nation within a nation” offered by the Akaka Bill, they are declaring that not only does the promised land exist, they are already living in it. All that needs to be done is to claim it and proceed as a functional Hawaiian kingdom.

More than 10 factions currently claim to be the legitimate government of the Hawaiian kingdom. Some toil alone in legal abstractions, others stage news-grabbing demonstrations at Iolani Palace.

We set out to talk with some of the queens, kings and ministers of Hawaii, to find out more about their governments.

Keanu Sai defends the acting Hawaiian kingdom government before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Image from: "Larsen Case" DVD

The Acting Hawaiian Kingdom Government

Of all the factions, David Keanu Sai, who calls himself chairman of the Council of Regency and acting minister of the interior, has perhaps the most detailed justification for the continued existence of the Hawaiian kingdom.

Sai recently earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii, and makes a meticulous, legalistic argument that the kingdom never disappeared.

As he explains it, an 1893 Agreement of Restoration between Queen Liliuokalani and President Grover Cleveland established that the overthrow of the monarchy was illegal, and should have reseated her on the throne. Because the U.S. never honored the treaty, and went on to annex Hawaii—illegally, Sai says—it became an occupying force, in violation of international law.

“Any government is the physical manifestation of the people,” Sai says. “Just because the United States overthrew the Hawaiian government, didn’t mean it overthrew the country. It’s like Iraq.”

Sai said he came to his conclusions in the early 1990s, and if his name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he became a notorious household name while putting his theory into practice.

He set up a company called Perfect Title, which offered a historical check on Hawaii property titles. Because Sai posited that the illegality of the U.S.’s annexation of Hawaii invalidated any business or legal matters stemming from it, including land transfers, his company’s title checks would invariably lead to one conclusion: You don’t own your land, the original 1893 owner does.

“If someone comes down the road and says the title’s no good, you don’t have a mortgage,” he explains. “The mortgage went up in smoke. Because it was dependent on you having a title.”

Hundreds of clients paid $1,500 apiece for Sai’s services, and predictably, things quickly hit the fan. Sai was eventually convicted of attempted first-degree theft, and sentenced to five years of probation, for his role in helping Michael and Carol Simafranca try to reclaim a home they had lost to foreclosure in 1996. (The couple used Sai’s title search as justification for breaking in and attempting to reoccupy the house, which had already been sold to new owners.)

Sai says that Perfect Title was a political experiment, and regards his felony conviction as a “feather in my cap,” proving his point. “If this thing was frivolous, why the hell [were they] attacking so hard?” he asks.
After his conviction, Sai switched his focus to gaining recognition for the Hawaiian kingdom government, which he and several others had set up around the same time as Perfect Title.

In 2000, Sai traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, to lay out his argument at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The specific case involved Lance Larsen, a Hawaii resident and declared Hawaiian national, who sued the Hawaiian kingdom government for failing to protect him from being jailed for 30 days. (Larsen had run into trouble for driving without Hawaii state license plates on his vehicle and refusing to pay the resulting fines.)
Sai might ostensibly have been defending his government against one of its citizens, but his primary goal was to secure recognition of the Hawaiian kingdom from the Court of Arbitration.

Here, again, he claims success. “Before we even get there, the acting government has to have standing. They couldn’t deny Hawaii’s status as not part of the United States. That’s why we were able to have the hearing. We wouldn’t even get through the door if Hawaii was the 50th state.”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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