The Right to Control the Land: Law, Heritage and Self-Determination by Native Hawaiians

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Shay, Susan Carol Rothenberg 

Hawai‘i was once an independent Indigenous sovereign island nation with a distinctive culture, history, and legislative past. The laws of the modern state of Hawai‘i reflect that history as Indigenous heritage has been integrated into state law. However, during the last forty years the laws protecting Native Hawaiian rights have been challenged in Hawai‘i through a series of significant land claim lawsuits. Native Hawaiian struggles for sovereignty are based on the assertion of their heritage rights in lawsuits.

This dissertation explores the use of heritage in land claim lawsuits and the role it plays in the construction of a modern Indigenous identity. It uses Native Hawaiian efforts for land control in Hawai‘i as a case study to explore how involvement in the legal process has impacted both Indigenous identity and heritage. In this dissertation I examine three major lawsuits following one line of legal precedent: traditional and customary access rights. The investigation answers the questions of how legal narrative construction using heritage impacts Indigenous identity; how heritage values are substantiated; what the role is of experts in formulating cases; if there is a measurable change over time in the way that cultural claims are structured; and what the impact is of increased Indigenous political leadership and land control on Native Hawaiian identity and heritage. To complete this research, I applied a mixed qualitative method approach of ethno-historical, socio-legal, and legal narrative analyses with content analysis to examine Indigenous textural production and court performance as forms of social practice. I supported my research with ethnographic semi-structured interviews and participant observation in recognition of Indigenous protocol. The results indicate that Native Hawaiian use of heritage in courtrooms has contributed to Indigenous identity construction by enhancing collective memory, increasing land control, and protecting group rights. The results also provide insight into how such actions by Indigenous peoples can advance upward social mobility, encourage collective identification and civic involvement, regenerate cultural practices, and strengthen group identity. This research provides new insights into how Indigenous heritage can be used as a means of Indigenous empowerment and develops a greater and more complex understanding of the uses of heritage for land control and sovereignty. These findings may be used by other special interest groups using heritage to achieve common goals.

Stig Sørensen, Marie Louise
heritage, Indigenous, Hawaiʻi, Indigeneity, sovereignty, law, land, culture, traditional, rights, colonialization, identity, empowerment, transformation, development, historic, American, state, legal, cultural, tradition, native, subjugated, minority, control, right, empower, transform
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge