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Hawaii celebrates 50 years of statehood

world Updated: Mar 19, 2009 08:35 IST

The state that gave America its first black president was hailed as a model of tolerance and diversity on the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D Eisenhower's signing the bill that led to Hawaii becoming the 50th state.

The pen Eisenhower used was on display at the state Capitol as past and present state leaders sang Hawaiian music, held hands and reflected in speeches Wednesday on the meaning of joining the United States.

The Hawaii Admissions Act was signed March 18, 1959, clearing the way for a vote of Hawaii residents in June and the islands' acceptance into the nation Aug. 21.

Statehood was the culmination of a long series of events: the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the islands' years as a remote US territory and its importance in the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

As the 111th Army Band played patriotic songs for the ceremonies, about two dozen Native Hawaiians chanted and marched in protest of statehood near the statue of Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, wearing shirts that spelled out "A history of theft" and "Fake state."

Speeches commemorating the 50th anniversary emphasized the islands' ethnic diversity and its right to have a voice in the United States through its overwhelming 93 per cent vote for statehood.

The Nisei soldiers, those who were born of Japanese parents but fought for the United States in World War II, showed Hawaii's commitment to the nation before it even became a state, said Gov. Linda Lingle.

"These soldiers showed that being loyal to the American cause was in no way defined by ethnicity. It was determined instead by a belief in the principles of freedom and democracy," Lingle said. "Hawaii provided a model of tolerance ahead of its time." Hundreds of the state's former governors, legislators, congressmen, judges, entertainers and their families packed the Capitol for the event. During the song "This is aloha," singer Danny Couch persuaded them and the audience to hold hands and sway to the music.

The Native Hawaiians outside weren't so cheerful. Longtime protester Richard Pomai Kinney carried his Hawaii state flag upside-down as a sign of distress.

"Statehood is a fraud," said Kinney, who was 19 years old at the time. "My parents said Hawaii would become a place only for the wealthy. Look at it today. There's nothing to celebrate." Others with the Hawaiian Independence Action Alliance said they feared the islands' native people will lose what's left of their sovereignty if the US Congress passes a pending measure that would give them a degree of self-government similar to mainland Native Americans.

They insist that Hawaii is still an independent nation because the Hawaiian Kingdom never agreed to be annexed.

"There was no treaty of annexation. Show me the treaty," said group organizer Lynette Cruz. "There's been an incorrect interpretation of history all these years."

But House Speaker Calvin Say told the audience in his speech that Hawaii embraced core American ideals of overcoming adversity and accepting different cultures, as shown by the state's election of the nation's first Chinese-American, Japanese-American and Native Hawaiian senators, as well as being the birthplace of President Barack Obama, the first black president.

"History shows time and again that even if you were born in the poorest part of town, you can achieve," Say said.