Kānaka Maoli and the U.S. Prison System: Decolonizing our Perceptions of Justice

**Note: This piece does not intend to speak on behalf of the Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) community. Rather, it aims to provide a critical examination of U.S. colonial histories and institutions by calling attention to the voices of Indigenous scholars and activists.

Image source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2020/07/27/disparities/

Last year, the Black Lives Matter Movement brought wide attention to the systemic racism embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system. Beyond policing, systemic racism is found in every step of the criminal justice system, including incarceration. Following Blacks, Indigenous Peoples hold some of the highest rates of incarceration in the U.S. prison system - but why?

It is no surprise that legacies of colonialism continue to pervade the physical, social, historical, and political realities of Indigenous Peoples across the globe. In settler-colonial states, like Hawai’i, Indigenous Peoples experience specific effects of colonialism that come with the fact that colonists have settled permanently on Native land and have established settler communities and institutions.

In 1893, the United States military invaded Hawai’i and overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. About 7 years later, the United States declared Hawai’i as a Territory, using the islands as a military outpost and creating an economy dependent on sugar planters. Since statehood in 1959, Kānaka Maoli have had no separate political status and, as Haunani-Kay Trask states, “are by every measure the most oppressed people living in [their] ancestral homeland.”

Kānaka Maoli continue to suffer from considerable effects of settler-colonialism. Several generations of Hawaiians are unable to speak their native language because of the Hawaiian language ban in 1896. Hawaiian lands and waters continue to be taken for military bases, resorts, and urbanization. Corporate tourism acts as an “insidious form of cultural prostitution”, exploiting Hawaiian culture as a commodity. Furthermore, Native Hawaiians experience significantly high incarceration rates in Hawai’i prisons.

According to the 2010 Census, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders had the highest rates of incarceration in Hawai’i. What is especially concerning about the high numbers of incarcerated Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is the fact that, although they only make up 10% of Hawai’i’s population, they represent 39% of the prison population on the islands. It is also important to note that a large portion of Hawai’i’s prison population is sent out-of-state, and this population is disproportionately Native Hawaiian. Because the Census counts the people within the state they are incarcerated, however, the incarceration rate for Native Hawaiians and the portion of the prison population that is Native Hawaiian is underreported in Census data.

Image sources: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/HI.html

In her piece, “Thinking Outside the Bars: Using Hawaiian Traditions and Culturally-Based Healing to Eliminate Racial Disparities within Hawai’i’s Criminal Justice System,” Lezlie Kī'aha, who received her J.D. and a certificate in Native Hawaiian Law from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law, discusses the high incarceration rates of Kānaka Maoli in Hawai’i, the destructive effects of the prison system on this population, and the importance of culturally relevant models and alternatives to incarceration. Kī'aha explains that colonization is one main factor that contributes to the high levels of incarceration for Kānaka Maoli; the historical trauma associated with the loss of land, language, and religion manifests itself through substance abuse.

In Hawai’i, non-violent crimes make up the greatest percentage of the offenses committed by incarcerated individuals. According to Kī'aha, Native Hawaiians go to prison more often for drug offenses than any other ethnic group, but Native Hawaiians do not use drugs at higher rates than other ethnic groups. Not only is this discrepancy a result of the prison system’s biased response to drug use, but it is also a result of the social and historical factors specific to Indigenous Peoples who have been culturally displaced.

Additionally, Kī'aha highlights the involuntary transfer of Hawai’i inmates to facilities on the continental U.S. as a “temporary solution” to prison overcrowding in the islands. This involuntary transfer can have particularly detrimental effects on Kānaka Maoli - separating Native Hawaiians from their ancestral land and stripping them of their support systems may contribute to the destruction of their Native identity.

Kī'aha offers culturally relevant models and alternatives to incarceration that may better serve to benefit Kānaka Maoli. Reconciliation and healing, in the form of empowering participants through cultural self-actualization and a sense of duty to the community, is critical to the success of genuine rehabilitation and effective preparedness to re-enter society. The U.S. prison system applies Western values to a culture that does not share them, making it difficult to ensure the implementation of services that are appropriate for the Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous communities.

It should be emphasized that although these culturally relevant models and alternatives seek to remedy the racial discrepancies in Hawai’i prisons, these are not efforts for decolonization. Too often, decolonization is misunderstood. Scholar and managing editor at Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Eric Ritskes, explains decolonization “is not a substitute for ‘human rights’ or ‘social justice’, though undoubtedly they are connected in various ways. Decolonization demands an Indigenous framework and a centering of Indigenous land, Indigenous sovereignty, and Indigenous ways of thinking.” Further, Indigenous Studies scholar, Eve Tuck, and Ethnic Studies scholar, K. Wayne Yang, stress that it is not a metaphor for things we want to improve in our society - “Decolonization is not an ‘and’. It is an elsewhere.”


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