Disease, Dispossession, and Overthrow: A Case for Three Memorials


Photo: Colin Kippen

Aloha mai kākou,

Hawaiians are born historians. Before our language was written, we invested incredible effort to memorize and transmit our moʻolelo through oli. We revere the past because it holds the wisdom of our ancestors.

Like oli, memorials are vehicles to impart historical knowledge. In Honolulu there are many: the statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani ma kai of the capitol; Father Damien stands ma uka of the building; ʻEwa of the rotunda are Korean and Vietnam War memorials. These figures and events left immeasurable marks on Hawaiʻi and deserve to be recalled at the nexus of our civic life. Yet more space remains on the canvas.

Waves of pestilence wiped out over 90% of the native population between Cook’s arrival and the close of the 19th century. However, there is no memorial to the countless souls lost to foreign diseases. Our traditional ahupuaʻa land tenure system was eradicated by the Māhele. However, there is no memorial to the terrible dispossession of the makaʻāinana. The armed overthrow of 1893 ended the Hawaiian monarchy. However, there is no memorial to our kingdom’s stolen sovereignty.

These three events are foundational to our present reality. Each begat the next. Mass death left ʻāina fallow and vulnerable to predation. Loss of land paved the way for political disenfranchisement and then outright conquest. There is more that should be etched into the popular narrative, but the absence of these monumental catastrophes in the public space must be rectified. They call out for remembrance.

We need memory to build our lāhui. Hawaiians are bound by our shared history, and our achievements shine brighter against the darkness of our traumas. It is critically important to enshrine this history now when ʻŌiwi are increasingly living in exile. Imagine such memorials as places of pilgrimage for the diaspora, touchstones of education that recommit our people, near and far, to the struggle for justice.

We need memory to build bridges across borders. No matter your opinion of tourism, Hawaiʻi is a destination, and the impact of visitors immense. Many outsiders only experience Hawaiʻi on vacation. How can we expect malihini to learn if we do not teach? How can we expect them to respect us if they do not know us? Imagine a day when tourists’ itineraries include truthful commemoration of these momentous tragedies.

We need memory to build unity. Hawaiʻi is diverse, just as it was during the time of our multi-ethnic kingdom. We can only advance Native Hawaiians, and solve the deep crises facing our islands, together. How can we move forward unified if we do not start on the same page? When I attended public school in the 1960s, my curriculum made no mention of lost Hawaiian lives, land, and liberty. I imagine my moʻopuna visiting memorials to these events with their non-Hawaiian classmates, and that vision gives me hope.

Justice for Hawaiians requires understanding of our collective kuleana – kamaʻāina, ʻōiwi, and malihini alike. “I ka wā ma mua, i ka wā ma hope,” rings a storied ʻōlelo no’eau. In the future is the past. To build a flourishing Hawaiʻi tomorrow, we must account fully for the calamities of yesterday.

Colin Kippen
Ka Pouhana Kūikawā | Interim Chief Executive Officer