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.

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.”


Reading the decision by the Arbitral Tribunal, however, it’s clear that not only did the tribunal find no dispute between the parties that it could rule on, it specifically declined to rule on whether the Hawaiian kingdom was independent from the U.S.

It noted, “… [I]n the absence of the United States of America, the Tribunal can neither decide that Hawaii is not part of the U.S.A., nor proceed on the assumption that it is not. To take either course would be to disregard a principle which goes to heart of the arbitral function in international law.”

As an organization devoted to dispute resolution in the international community, the Permanent Court of Arbitration does not limit its scope to government entities. As its Web site explains, “The PCA provides services for the resolution of disputes involving various combinations of states, state entities, intergovernmental organizations and private parties.”

"You know the move The Matrix? That’s Hawaii. People are now starting to take the red pill, and they’re starting to see two worlds. The next step is to take down the Matrix.

Today, Sai and the other members of the Council of Regency run a low-key operation. The government consists of Sai and three others who he was reluctant to identify. (However, a short 2003 DVD documentary about the Larsen Case identified the officers at that time as Umialiloa Sai, acting minister of foreign affairs, Gary Dubin, acting attorney general, and Kaui Goodhue, acting minister of finance.)

Sai considers his government to be transitional; the next proper step, he says, is for the U.S. military to acknowledge that it is illegally occupying Hawaii, and for the U.S. to create a military government that will enforce Hawaiian kingdom laws while it oversees the resumption of the full Hawaiian kingdom government.

Until that happens, Sai says his acting government is simply operating under the doctrine of necessity, under which a private citizen can assume the role of government in extraordinary circumstances. “Necessity also has parameters under the law,” Sai explains. “It’s not open ended. When a private individual assumes the role of government, in order to not come under the pains of treason, but be protected under the necessity doctrine, you cannot reinforce your self-proclamation. You cannot create laws, because you’re only there to maintain the fort.”

When one is living a reality that’s not necessarily recognized by the rest of the world, terminology becomes very important. Those running an independent Hawaiian government avoid using old catchphrases such as “Hawaiian sovereignty movement” and “self determination,” saying they just don’t accurately describe the situation. Sai took pains to insist that Hawaii was not colonized, but rather occupied. For him, it’s a world of difference.

“You know the movie The Matrix?” he asks. “That’s Hawaii. People are now starting to take the red pill, and they’re starting to see two worlds. The next step is to take down the Matrix.”

Aupuni o ko Hawaii Pae Aina

Mahealani Kahau, queen of the Aupuni o ko Hawaii Pae Aina.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

For Mahealani Kahau, queen of the Aupuni o ko Hawaii Pae Aina, or Hawaiian Kingdom Government, the most important term is “corporation.” As in, the United States is not a government, but a corporation, with no jurisdiction over the Hawaiian people. “We’re just dealing with another McDonald’s,” she says. “When you remove the mask, you’ll discover the truth.”

Kahau (formerly Asing) made headlines around the world in May 2008 when she and her government barricaded the normally open gates of Iolani Palace, and claimed the palace grounds as the kingdom’s seat of government. After some negotiation with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, she managed to secure permits allowing her people to remain on the grounds during the day, as long as she did not continue to obstruct entry to the general public.

A year and a half later, Kahau and her council can be found from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday, underneath a tree on the mauka end of the property, conducting government business around a pair of folding tables. According to Kippen de Albu Chu, executive director of the Friends of Iolani Palace, at this point no permit is needed as long as there are fewer than 25 people assembled at a time.

Regular hours or not, Kahau is hard to get in touch with. It took us a week of walking over to the Iolani Palace grounds to secure an interview with her, and she stood the magazine up twice, once for the interview, and again for a photography session.

(She did eventually agree to sit down with us. Other independence groups remained unreachable, even after repeated tries. And Keanu Sai, after granting an interview, later requested that any mention of him be removed from the article. Skepticism about the media seems to be common among these groups, as is a reluctance to discuss their internal business. “Different groups will talk to each other, but they don’t let everyone know what they’re actually doing, until it happens,” says Leon Siu, minister of foreign affairs for a different Hawaiian kingdom. “That’s the way to do it, because otherwise you’ll have constant bickering and you’ll never get anything done.”)


The “U.S. is a corporation” idea isn’t unique to Kahau; Google the phrase and you’ll find more than a few people who believe that a congressional Act of 1871 converted the District of Columbia into a foreign corporation, incorporated in England. Kahau extends that concept a little further, though: “The state of Hawaii is a corporation, as far as we’re concerned, as well as the city and county,” she says. “And they both admit they are corporations. If you are a private corporation, you have no business sending your private security, which you call sheriffs and police, to come arrest us, because you have no jurisdiction.”

Because Kahau doesn’t recognize any equivalent governments in Hawaii with which to parlay, her main strategy going forward is to carry on the affairs of the Hawaiian kingdom, and wait for the U.S. to fall by the wayside.

“The fall of the United States will be happening, and it will not be by our hands, but by the hands of God,” she says. “It will be in His time, but, in the meantime, we function to protect our people when they’re being oppressed by the so-called state of Hawaii courts that have no authority.”

A passport issued to Leon Siu by the Hawaiian Kingdom government.

Kahau dreams of a better future for the Hawaiian people, one in which the current economic depression is solved, and the kingdom is able to care for all its subjects. “Our people who were promised lands will have lands,” she says. “Kamaaina, those who don’t have the blood, they’ll have homes, too, definitely. If we accept you to be here, you will have a home.”

One assertion made by many of the independent Hawaiian governments: If you are a citizen of a Hawaiian kingdom, logically you are not bound by the laws of the United States. Kahau’s government issues Hawaiian kingdom driver’s licenses and license plates, and is not the only one to do so.

Historically, the claim to immunity is one of the oldest aspects of the Hawaiian Independence movement. Hayden Burgess, also known as Poka Laenui, used this argument (unsuccessfully) in the 1970s when defending alleged underworld crime boss Wilford “Nappy” Pulawa.
It’s generally up to each Hawaiian national to decide how far he or she wants to take this idea. On a recent visit to the Hawaiian kingdom government at Iolani Palace, for example, only one of the members’ vehicles sported a Hawaiian kingdom license plate.

While we heard several anecdotal accounts of Hawaiian nationals being given passes by police officers, or having their cases dismissed in court, it’s definitely a risk to drive without a Hawaii state driver’s license or plates, financially and time-wise. None of the city or state authorities we spoke with acknowledged any legal leeway for Hawaiian nationals. Honolulu Police Department assistant chief Michael Tamashiro says, “HPD officers do encounter sovereignty groups from time to time. When they do make a stop, they cite, and recover the Hawaiian kingdom license plates.”

And Mark Santoki, public information officer for the Hawaii State Judiciary, says, “There are many legitimate reasons for dismissing traffic cases. Being a member of a sovereign Hawaiian nation is not one of those reasons.”

The Kingdom of Hawaii National Election Office

One of the most controversial figures in the Hawaiian Independence movement is Richard Kamahele Figueroa. The president and CEO of a company called FullOn Holdings Inc. who lives in Cambria, Calif., Figueroa is organizing an election to establish a new kingdom of Hawaii constitution, as well as a president and vice president. “The only legal way to do this, the creation of a sovereign, independent Hawaiian government, is to be open and transparent, and do what needs to be done politically, via elections,” he says.

The election is open to anyone of Hawaiian ancestry, anywhere in the world. Interested voters can print out a ballot from and mail it into the League of Women Voters, which has been contracted by Figueroa to count up and verify the results. (This isn’t an endorsement by the League. The non-partisan organization routinely handles elections for local unions across the state, from SHOPO to the Teamsters, and strictly limits itself to tabulating and verifying election results.)

Figueroa is one of the few in the movement to restrict government involvement to ethnic Native Hawaiians. Most of the other governments have made Hawaiian kingdom citizenship a political distinction rather than a racial one—harkening back to the way the constitutional monarchy was run in the 19th century.

For all Figueroa’s talk of openness and transparency, it was hard to get a straight answer out of him in conversation regarding the specifics of the election. Excitable and passionate, he answers questions with digressions.

How were his presidential candidates selected? “Mr. Yasuhara used to work for OHA,” he replied. “I met him in May, and I explained to him my case of Native Hawaiians and how OHA has used the Kau Inoa list, and lied to people, and now to push them towards voting for the Akaka Bill. I’m sick and tired of people lying. Misrepresentations have to stop. And they do it unconscionably, because it’s part of their own culture of what politics is all about. And I’m ashamed for humanity of what they do to other human beings.”

His Web site lists the names of the two presidential candidates: Frederic Mark Iaikakuukainoakamanaokealoha “Kaina” Yasuhara and Mark Castro, but while Yasuhara had a short candidate’s statement available, no biographical information was available for Castro, and neither Figueroa nor his lawyer, Thayer “Ted” Lindauer, would give us phone numbers or e-mail addresses to speak with the candidates directly.

Figueroa is wary of who might be interested in his project. He says his Web site is being monitored by the White House, foreign countries and the CIA. “Barack is having a hard time dealing with me,” he says. “I love him dearly, and he knows what I’m doing, because I copy him on everything that I do. The day of reckoning will come down, that this will happen. I want to sit down with Mr. Obama, one-on-one, and discuss the issues of national security and of fair compensation.”

By fair compensation, Figueroa means $20 billion—the amount of money he figures the U.S. federal government owes Hawaii for the use of Hawaiian lands. This money would fund the newly minted Hawaiian government and finance Hawaii’s transition from U.S. to home rule.


Figueroa’s claim of recognition from U.S. government agencies is similar to claims to legitimacy staked by other Hawaiian kingdom governments. Many of the Hawaiian nationals we spoke with told triumphant stories of encounters in which the chief of police or a district court judge or some other authority figure was convinced of the legitimacy of the Hawaiian kingdom. Kahau says she was inspired to move her seat of government to Iolani Palace when some of her council officials appeared before the state Legislature, and the legislators clapped for them “in their official capacity,” thereby recognizing the Hawaiian kingdom government.

As we went to press, the specifics of Figueroa’s election were in flux. Figueroa said he would soon be traveling back to Hawaii meet with various Hawaiian independence faction leaders (who he said he was not at liberty to reveal) about revising the slate of candidates and possibly rewriting the constitution. He also said the voting period would likely be extended, although he did not explain how adding new candidates halfway through an election wouldn’t invalidate the entire process.

In any case, Figueroa vows never to give up on creating an independent Hawaiian government. “I will be relentless, and I will move this process forward the way I deem possible to have the most positive results,” he says. “Everyone who knows me, and looks me in the eye, says, Rich, the passion, it oozes out of your eyes!”

The Once and Future Kingdoms

Sai, Kahau, Figueroa—and just about anyone involved in a Hawaiian Independence government—all share a sense of optimism about their chances for success. There’s an unshakeable faith that justice will win out in the end, no matter how daunting the obstacles may appear.

James Akahi, king of the Kingdom of Hawaii on Maui, was convicted this year of breaking into Iolani Palace.

Photo: Courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin


“In the past 10 years or so, just about every avenue of escape for the United States has been sealed off,” says Leon Siu. “They can’t claim ignorance, since they admitted wrongdoing in the apology resolution. They can’t use the argument that what they did was in our best interest. And they can’t say that it was in the past, and we should just move on. International law doesn’t work like that, there’s no expiration date. Very soon they won’t be able to hide behind the ignorance of the rest of the world. I think it’s quite imminent that this will happen.”

The optimism may be shared, but the kingdom itself, not so much. Each of the independence groups is convinced that it, and it alone, is the rightful heir to the kingdom. Compromise is unthinkable, and consensus not needed; either one falls in line and joins his or her real Hawaiian kingdom government, or one becomes irrelevant.

How, for example, does Keanu Sai respond to the claims of other Hawaiian Independence groups?

“I don’t,” he says. “It’s either within the law or not within the law. How does the president deal with the claim that Texas should secede? He doesn’t have to. How does a senator deal with someone saying that Barack Obama is not the president? They don’t have to. You don’t have to entertain these notions that are not reality.” 

Many Nations

We profiled three of the most distinctive Hawaiian kingdom governments, but they’re by no means the only ones staking claims on the leadership of Hawaii. These factions range from the well-established and well-known to the tiny and obscure.

Leon Siu serves as minister of foreign affairs for two Hawaiian kingdom governments, one on Oahu and one of the island of Hawaii.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

The Nation of Hawaii Led by Bumpy Kanahele. One of the most well-known factions, thanks to his 1990s standoff with the state. Fifteen years later, the Nation is still alive and well, operating a community called Puuhonua o Waimanalo (Refuge of Waimanalo) on the 45-acre property secured by Kanahele as a result of the standoff.

The Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom Government Led by Henry Noa, prime minister. This government has been operating since 1999, complete with an updated constitution. The group was most recently in the news this spring, when three members of the government, including Noa, were sentenced to community service for illegally entering (reclaiming, in their words) the Kahoolawe Island Reserve in 2006.

The Kingdom of Hawaii Led by Dennis Ragsdale, this government focuses heavily on the importance of international law, especially as outlined in Emerich de Vattel’s classic text The Law of Nations.

The Hawaiian Kingdom (Ke Aupuni o Hawaii, Ko Hawaii Pae Aina)  This government consists primarily of a Cabinet Council acting to restore the full function of the Hawaiian kingdom, although it has also set up a Supreme Court for the Hawaiian Islands, with which to enforce the laws of the land. Foreign minister Leon Siu has been working to raise awareness of the government internationally.

Norman Keanaaina, king of the Kingdom of Hawaii on the Big Island.

Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

The Kingdom of Hawaii  Led by James Akahi, who claims to be king based on a direct lineage from Kamehameha the First. Akahi, who is known as Akahi Nui, was first coronated in 1998, and gained notoriety last year when he and others from his government broke into Iolani Palace, and he attempted to chain himself to the throne.

The Kingdom of Hawaii (Aupuni Hawaii)  Led by Norman Keanaaina. This government, based on the island of Hawaii, has about 20 officials and claims a few hundred followers. Keanaaina also claims the monarchy as a direct descendent of Kamehameha the First, and has been active in attempting to reclaim lands in Kona.

The Kingdom of Hawaii  Led by Edmund Silva. A small faction on Hawaii Island; not much is known about this government.


(Thanks to Leon Siu, who keeps a running inventory of active Independence groups in Hawaii.)