Hawaiʻi’s History of Civic Engagement


Participation in the political process can feel futile. Outnumbered in our kulāiwi with too many lawmakers seemingly impervious to the issues that matter to our lāhui, some ʻōiwi have simply opted out of voting. Others, not unreasonably, question the legitimacy of the current political system and have taken a political stance against participation. While these perspectives are valid, failing to participate in the political process, including voting, wastes a valuble tool in the toolkit that each one of us has as a citizen, however marginalized we may feel.

Civic engagement in the political life of the Kingdom was the norm for our kūpuna, from aliʻi to makaʻāinana. And so it must be for us today.

Photo: National Guardsmen Watching the Battle of Kamoiliili
National Guardsmen Watching the Battle of Kamoiliili from the tower of the Executive Building. – Photos: Courtesy

An example is noted activist and renaissance man, Joseph Nāwahī, who was born in 1842. He was a lawyer, artist, orator, political organizer and newspaper publisher. At the age of 30 Nāwahī was elected to the Kingdom Legislature representing Hilo. Nāwahī served nine consecutive terms in this position until the 1893 overthrow.

At that point, he and his wife, Emma ʻAʻima Nāwahī, a political activist in her own right, founded the Hui Aloha ʻāina political party (with both kāne and wāhine leagues) to oppose annexation to America and support Liliʻuokalani. In December 1894 Joseph Nāwahī was arrested for treason by agents of the oligarchical “Republic of Hawaiʻi” established on July 4, 1894 to replace the short-lived “Provisional Government” formed after the overthrow.

Nāwahī was released from prison in the spring of 1895. Upon his release, he and Emma founded Ke Aloha Aina, an anti-annexationist newspaper which ran weekly through 1920. However, three months in Oʻahu Prison had exposed Nāwahī to tuberculosis, and his health deteriorated. He passed in September 1896 at the age of 54.

Emma Nāwahī continued to be actively engaged in politics. In 1897 she, along with fellow members of Hui Aloha ʻāina, collected 21,269 signatures from citizens opposed to annexation (the Kūʻē Petitions). After Hawaiʻi was annexed by America in 1898, Nāwahī helped to organize the Hawaiʻi Democratic Party and during the 1910s she was active in the women’s suffrage movement.

A contemporary of Joseph Nāwahī was Robert Wilcox, who also served in the Kingdom Legislature. Two years after members of the “Reform Party” forced Kalākaua to sign a new constitution in 1887 which limited the power of the monarchy and restricted voting to those with income and property (dubbed the “Bayonet Constitution” because it was signed at gunpoint), Wilcox led an armed insurrection to restore the powers of the monarchy. However, after a brief battle, Wilcox surrendered.

Then in 1895, Wilcox led a counter-revolution against the Republic of Hawaiʻi to restore Liliʻuokalani to power. The royalists were overwhelmed and the leaders arrested, including Wilcox, who was tried for treason and sentenced to death. His sentence was later reduced to 35 years in prison, then in 1898 Wilcox was pardoned.

Undaunted, he became the Republic’s first elected delegate to the U.S. Congress, serving one term until he was beaten by Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole in the 1902 election. Wilcox passed away in 1903 after suffering a stroke at the age of 48.

Prince Kūhiō and his older brother, Prince David Kawānanakoa, were both involved in the 1895 revolution attempt, and, like Wilcox, were found guilty of treason, sentenced to death, but later pardoned.

Following his release from prison, Kūhiō became active in politics. After winning the 1902 election, he served as Hawaiʻi’s representative to Congress until his passing in 1922. Despite the subversion of Hawaiʻi’s constitutional monarchy, Kūhiō continued to fight within the new, imposed system for the betterment of the lāhui.

Kūhiō’s impact on the civic and political life of Hawaiʻi lives on. In addition to orchestrating the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, he created the county government system still in place today. He also founded the first Hawaiian Civic Club in 1918, because, according to the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs’ website, Kūhiō was “anxious that his people know more about government and the community at large to carry on the tradition of civic responsibility that he felt was vital to the development of Hawaiʻi and its people for a better way of life.”

If we are unhappy with what is happening in our pae ʻāina, then it is our kuleana to try and make changes for this and future generations, as did our kūpuna. Civic engagement is our cultural and political heritage, and one of the easiest and most effective ways to influence change is by voting for the leaders who share our concerns and will best represent our interests.