Kū‘ē: Testimony of Thousands

Kathryn Drury Wagner
After spending a century tucked away in an archive, the Kū‘ē Petitions were located. Bearing witness to the tremendous effort Hawaiians made to avoid annexation by the United States, the documents are proving increasingly important. 



Sometimes the truth will set you free. And sometimes the truth is trapped in a box, curled up at the edges, waiting for you to set it free. So it has been with the Kū‘ē Petitions. 

In 1897, “the United States, founded upon the belief that a just government can exist only by the consent of the governed, is … preparing to take a nation’s life with all the complacent assurance of an old time stage villain,” reported Miriam Michelson in a piece published in the San Francisco Call on Sept. 30 that year. “For Hawai‘i has not asked for annexation. There are 100,000 people on the islands. Of these not 3 percent have declared for annexation. To the natives the loss of nationality is hateful, aberrant.”

Later in her article, Michelson writes, “At Honolulu, I had asked a prominent white man to give me some idea of the native Hawaiian’s character. ‘They won’t resent anything,’ he said, contemptuously. ‘They haven’t a grain of ambition. … They care for nothing except extremely simple and easy living. They have no perseverance, they have no backbone. They’re unfit.’”

The Kū‘ē Petitions show otherwise.


In 1996, graduate student Noenoe Silva was about a year into her dissertation work when she saw a small picture of a page of the Kū‘ē Petitions in a booklet, a guide to an exhibit that had been held in the small gallery space at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. On a visit there, she went specifically to find this petition, but says, “I didn’t know how big it was or how important it was.”

The documents Silva tracked down that day are printed in Hawaiian and English and titled, “Palapala Hoopii Kue Hoohui Aina,” or “Petition Protesting Annexation.” They’re 556 pages of signatures gathered in the fall of 1897, and presented to the U.S. Congress as proof that an overwhelming majority of Hawai‘i’s citizenry, both Native Hawaiian and non, were opposed to annexation to the U.S.

They reflect the work of three organizations, the Hui Aloha ‘Āina (divided into two groups, one for men and one for women) and the Hui Kālai‘āina. Fanning out in a massive petition drive in support of Queen Lili‘uokalani, the Hui Aloha ‘Āina gathered more than 21,269 signatures, and the Hui Kālai‘āina got 17,000 signatures, totaling around 38,000 names.

According to Silva’s book, Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism, “Even if some people signed both petitions, the total number is impressive given that the population of Kanaka Maoli and mixed-blood persons reported by the Hawaiian Commission census for that year was 39,000.”

Now a Ph.D. and professor in the Political Science Department of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Silva says the petitions were for Hawaiians “a way to try to be heard by Americans. The American press was receiving regular, very racist and disparaging dispatches from Honolulu … about who was in favor of annexation. Really lying, pretending there wasn’t any resistance.” Silva also connected with her own family history, as she found the name of her great-great-great-grandmother among the signers of the petition.

“The information was always there and no one was looking,” says Lynette Cruz, an assistant professor of anthropology at Hawai‘i Pacific University and president of the Ka Lei Maile Ali‘i Hawaiian Civic Club. “Noenoe was paying attention. The results have been information and a profound connection. We had been indoctrinated with someone else’s history, until these came along. These names belong to us; they are not foreign.”



JAN. 17, 1893: Queen Lili‘uokalani is forced to yield her authority by a group of businessmen, who form their own government. Acting without the permission of the U.S. State Department, John Stevens, the U.S. Minister to Hawai‘i, recognizes this government and declares Hawai‘i a protectorate. The provisional government asks outgoing President Benjamin Harrison and Congress to annex Hawai‘i, and Harrison sends a treaty to the Senate to be confirmed.

APRIL 04, 1893: Grover Cleveland is inaugurated president. Respecting the protests of Queen Lili‘uokalani and her Hawaiian Kingdom envoy, he withdraws the treaty from the Senate’s consideration and appoints a commissioner to investigate the overthrow, which is determined to be illegal.

1894: The provisional government proclaims a new Republic of Hawai‘i, which is officially recognized by the United States. Annexation supporter President William McKinley is inaugurate.

APRIL 04, 1897: Annexation supporter President William McKinley is inaugurated. 

JUNE 1897: A treaty of annexation is signed between McKinley and three representatives of the Republic of Hawai‘i and presented to the Senate to be ratified. Queen Lili‘uokalani files a diplomatic protest.

FALL 1897: Hoping to stop the annexation, the Hui Aloha ‘Āina and Hui Kālai‘āina conduct massive petition drives.

DEC. 06, 1897: Delegates arrive in Washington, D.C., with the 556 pages of petition signatures, which were given to the Senate. Dec. 9. Ultimately, only the Hui Aloha ‘Āina version of the petition was presented, because the Hawaiian groups did not wish to appear divided in their goals. Over the next two months, the delegates convince most senators not to vote for annexation, successfully defeating the treaty.

APRIL 1898: The U.S. declares war on Spain, and wants Hawai‘i as a naval and troop base to fight the Spanish in the Philippines and on Guam. By July, the “Newlands Resolution” unilaterally annexes Hawai‘i.



Silva explains how the first display of the petitions, in 1998, came to be. “Nālani Minton got a bunch of people together at the Bishop Museum,” says Silva. “The Bishop Museum had allocated no money to observe the 100th year since annexation, but it became clear during our meeting that they needed to do something.”

The museum was able to get some funding and media attention, and photocopies of all of the 556 pages of the Kū‘ē Petitions went on display at the Bishop Museum, Silva says. The National Archives would not permit the museum to display the individual pages of the originals, Silva says, but did send the documents, and allowed them to be shown in stacks. Copies were also shown at the state Capitol. The originals were returned, and they live in the Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, at the National Archives and Records Administration, publication number M1897.

“I believe the Kū‘ē Petitions carry the mana of our ancestors that embodies our rights of and to self-determination,” says Nālani Minton via an email interview. In the recovered evidence, “the power of the people and our love for our homeland cannot be overestimated and may set precedence for other indigenous peoples and nations who have endured similar experiences.” Minton has presented the petitions to audiences around the world, such as at Pacific regional forums, American Indian forums, the Hague Peace Appeals and the Indigenous Law Institute.

“People still make a point of telling me,” what the discovery of the petitions meant to them, says UH professor Noenoe Silva, Ph.D. “It’s been pretty significant.”

With the return of the petitions, Minton writes, “The names of many unknown and forgotten heroes were recovered. Not only the prominent organizers of the petition process, such as Joseph Nawahi, Emma Aima Nawahi, Kuaihelani Campbell and other leaders … but also every person who signed the petitions, whose descendants now know and have proof of their great efforts and heroism. Many extraordinary events have taken place since their return and many tears have been wept by descendants who have seen the signatures of their loved ones, perhaps for the first time, and of others they never knew who tried to protect their destiny and ours. From the groupings of the signers on every island, we also now have a map of where people were living and, sometimes, how they were related.”


Minton and Silva compiled the documents in a book form, The Hui Aloha ‘Āina Anti-Annexation Petitions, 1897-1898. It’s viewable online at the UHM library site.

The petitions also became available in an island-by-island format, via a company specializing in Hawaiian Kingdom-era books, Pae ‘Āina. It made purchasing sections—such as only Maui, or O‘ahu—more accessible, according to Nai‘a Lewis, whose family ran the company. While response to the books was very positive, she says via an email interview, “It was very challenging to reprint historical documents. It’s not like you can easily have mass [amounts] bound in a cost-effective way. … We remain hopeful that one day we are able to provide these reprints again, but for now we are being patient and waiting to see what the future holds.”


"Many extraordinary events have taken place since their return and many tears have been wept by descendants who have seen the signatures of their loved ones, perhaps for the first time, and of others they never knew who tried to protect their destiny and ours."


Maile Meyer, founder and president of Native Books Nā Mea Hawai‘i, carried the copies in her store. “We probably distributed thousands.” Sometimes, people would come up to her, “distraught because they couldn’t find their family member, and I would tell them ‘Don’t worry, they are in there,’ because nearly every Hawaiian citizen signed it.”


The petitions may be voices from the past, but they are getting louder.
For example, the Kū‘ē Name Signs Project, which began in 2009, displays placards bearing the names of people who signed the Kū‘ē Petitions. A coalition of Hawaiian-rights groups, the Hawaiian Independence Action Alliance, placed about 1,800 placards for a February 2011 demonstration at McKinley High School. The signs were put into the school’s lawn near a statue of President William McKinley, positioned to protest that the bronze statue is holding in his hand a historically inaccurate item, a “Treaty of Annexation.”

The Kū‘ē Name Signs Project was displayed last September at the ‘Iolani Palace. Photo courtesy Lynette Cruz.


“We wanted to demonstrate our solidarity and the continuity of the effort to inform the U.S. that Hawaiians have always been against annexation, that there was an overwhelming objection,” says Leon Siu, who identifies as a Hawaiian national and who is a frequent contributor to the Hawaiian Kingdom.net. “We want to go back to that point, that we stand as a people.

The signs have also been used in displays at ‘Iolani Palace and in Thomas Square. “These are not just names on a placard. We are really mindful,” says Cruz. The O‘ahu-based Ka Lei Maile Ali‘i Hawaiian Civic Club has been participating in the name project, and also performs Ka Lei Maile Ali‘i: The Queen’s Women, a re-enactment based on Miriam Michelson’s 1897 article.


Have they made a difference? Huge. And it’s only going to have more effect as people outside the community understand it. 


The Kū‘ē Name Signs Project has close to 2,200 placards now, Cruz says, explaining that volunteers check the names against a database for proper spelling or contact the descendants to double check. Sometimes the descendants will then want to participate in the project, and will make their ancestor’s name card, “put their mana in it,” says Cruz.

The display of silent witnesses is potent, she says. “People stand there and cry. “Or stop and chant. People can relate to this so quickly.”

The Kū‘ē Name Signs Project will reach a larger audience in October, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs Convention. Volunteers are welcome to help make or lay out signs, says Cruz; contact her at palolo@hawaii.rr.com.

The Kū‘ē Petitions are “so powerful. I’m really into them right now,” says Meyer, calling the documents “pivotal” in the next part of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. “Have they made a difference? Huge. And it’s only going to have more effect as people outside the community understand it.”

“Hawaiians anticipated the problems with annexation, and fought successfully against it,” says Siu. “And if weren’t for the illegal actions later by the U.S., they were successful.”



The historical significance of signing a petition is not lost on Clyde Namu‘o, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission. Hawai‘i’s Act 195 of 2011 acknowledged Hawaiians as the state’s only indigenous people, and required that a certified roll of Hawaiians be taken.

“As the commission began to deliberate, this seemed very exclusive,” says Namu‘o.“Gov. Waihe‘e talked about the Kū‘ē Petitions and how the people who signed that were not necessarily Hawaiians, but it provided them an opportunity to provide support. We wanted to re-create that situation here, where we satisfy the provisions of Act 195 but also use the opportunity to build unity among all people of Hawai‘i.”

The commission decided on a two-part solution. For people who want to support what Hawaiians are doing and not interested in helping form a government, they can sign a petition, whether they are Hawaiian or not, supporting the idea that the sovereignty of the Hawaiians was never relinquished.

The second part is a roll of Hawaiians who meet certain requirements, set out by Act 195:

1. Be an individual who is a descendant of the aboriginal peoples who, prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the Hawaiian Islands, the area that now constitutes the state of Hawai‘i; or an individual who is one of the indigenous, native people of Hawai‘i and who was eligible in 1921 for the programs authorized by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, or a direct lineal descendant of that individual;

2. Maintain a significant cultural, social or civic connection to the Native Hawaiian community;

3. Wish to participate in the organization of the Native Hawaiian governing entity; and

4. Must be 18 years of age or older.

To get on that list, people must fill out an enrollment form, a process slated to kick off the third week of July and run for 12 months, says Namu‘o. “We will turn over whatever we have and whatever has been confirmed as part of this list to the Gov. Abercrombie.” People can sign up in person at outreach events, or online. “Our strategy is to get as many sponsors as possible, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Kamehameha Schools,” he says, both for outreach and for easier verification of people who have already proven their ancestry.

Documents that are acceptable proof of ancestry include birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal certificates, church records, entries in Bibles and personal affidavits.

The list and petition will both be turned over to the governor. “After that, it’s up to the Native Hawaiian community to take this to the next stage,” says Namu‘o. “Most people would agree that it’s to have a constitutional convention and elect delegates to attend the convention.”



An initiative for a Kū‘ē Petitions Memorial was once underway, but appears to have fizzled. A 2005 article in the Honolulu Advertiser reported the Office of Hawaiian Affairs granted a group called Ke Kia‘i $24,950 to begin planning and consulting for the project.

“The Kū‘ē Petitions Memorial Wall will provide a wahipana (a sacred place), a tangible symbol to Nā ‘O‘iwi o Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiians, for veneration of and a space to worship their kūpuna in a respectful way,” says a website about the project. “Knowing the truth will strengthen our communities’ understanding of a key part of our history that reveals the fortitude and strength of our ancestors. …Each of the islands with signatories will be represented by walls that bear the inscribed names of their kūpuna from that island who signed the original petition.”

It’s a lovely design; an artist’s rendering shows stone walls in concentric circles, with native plants, solar-lighting accents and benches for contemplation. Attempts to reach Ke Kia‘i were not successful.

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