Hawaii is the 50th and most recent state to have joined the United States of America, but its history of becoming a state is unique and somewhat complicated. Despite the distance from the continental U.S., Hawaii is very much a part of the country today.
A Brief History of Hawaii
Early Hawaiian Settlement
The Hawaiian Islands were originally settled between 124 and 1120 AD by Polynesian voyagers. The first settlements were on the Big Island, where the volcanoes and fertile land provided a good place to live.
The Kingdom of Hawaii
Over the centuries, the islands were united under single rulers. The Kingdom of Hawaii was established in 1795 by King Kamehameha the Great, uniting all the major islands under his rule.
The Overthrow of the Monarchy
In 1887, King Kalākaua was forced to sign a new constitution by American businessmen, limiting his power. After Kalākaua died, his sister Queen Liliʻuokalani ascended the throne in 1891. She attempted to establish a new constitution to restore powers to the monarchy, but opposition from American businessmen led to her overthrow in 1893.
Annexation by the United States
After the overthrow, Hawaii became the Republic of Hawaii, but it was soon annexed by the United States in 1898 at the height of 19th century American imperialism. Hawaii became an official U.S. territory.
Hawaii’s Path to Statehood
Hawaii’s pathway to becoming a state was bumpy and controversial.
For over 60 years after annexation, Hawaii remained a U.S. territory. There was debate about whether its non-white population was “American” enough for statehood.
Pearl Harbor and World War II
The Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 was a turning point, increasing Hawaii’s strategic importance for the U.S. Hawaiians also proved their loyalty by enlisting in the military in high numbers during World War II.
Statehood Act of 1959
Finally, after decades of lobbying by territorial leaders, Hawaii was admitted into the Union as the 50th state through the Statehood Act of 1959, signed by President Eisenhower.
Hawaiian Renaissance and Sovereignty Movements
Statehood did not end the debate, as the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s reinvigorated native culture, language and nationalism. Sovereignty movements continue to argue for native Hawaiian independence from the U.S.
Hawaii’s Government and Laws
As a state for over 60 years now, Hawaii is fully integrated into the federal system with local state governing bodies.
Hawaii has two senators and two representatives in the U.S. Congress, giving it federal legislative representation on par with other states. Hawaiian citizens also vote for president.
Hawaii has its own elected governor, state legislature and court system. The state government has jurisdiction over state laws, taxes, education, inter-island transportation and more.
Federal Laws and Funding
As with all other states, federal laws like the U.S. Constitution apply in Hawaii. Hawaii also relies on federal funding and partnerships with federal agencies for many programs and services.
Unique Local Laws
Hawaii also has its own laws to preserve native traditions and manage tourism. For example, restricts can restrict access to native gathering rights or regulate commercial activities near cultural sites or beaches.
Hawaii’s Culture as Part of the U.S.
Hawaii’s culture blends Polynesian, Asian, American and other influences into a unique local culture that enriches the U.S. as a whole.
Hawaii is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse states. Around 10% of the people are native Hawaiians while there are major populations with Japanese, Filipino, Chinese and Korean ancestry. Blending together, local culture draws from various traditions.
Native Hawaiian Traditions
Ancient Hawaiian customs like the hula dance, Surfing legends like Duke Kahanamoku, and Hawaiian music with ukulele and slack key guitar add local flavor. Hawaiian pidgin, a Creole language, is commonly spoken.
Local cuisine combines flavors from its diverse cultures, like Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Polynesian ingredients and cooking methods. Dishes like poke, saimin noodles, plate lunch, and snacks like Spam musubi or malasadas reflect this fusion.
Tourism and Pop Culture
Hawaii’s surfing, beaches, aloha spirit and gorgeous landscapes have made it iconic in American pop culture. Hawaii is a hugely popular tourist destination. Hawaiian motifs are popular in fashion, music, film, television, decor and more throughout the mainland U.S.
Geography of Hawaii as Part of the U.S.
Despite Hawaii’s distance from North America, it is as much a part of the contiguous United States as Alaska.
Location in the Pacific
The Hawaiian archipelago consists of over 130 islands, but only 8 are inhabited. The islands span 1,500 miles across the northern Pacific Ocean, southwest of the continental U.S.
Hawaii is a fully incorporated U.S. state, not just a territory. It achieved this status through the legal process of statehood like other states. All islands in the Hawaiian chain out to Midway Atoll are part of the legal State of Hawaii.
The federal government owns large tracts of land in Hawaii as parks, military bases and scientific facilities. Examples are the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam military base, and Mauna Kea Observatories for astronomy.
Infrastructure and Travel
Modern transportation and infrastructure like interstate highways, airports, and shipping ports connects Hawaii closely with the mainland U.S. Hawaii can be reached by plane in about 6 hours from California.
Climate and Environment
Hawaii’s tropical climate and marine environment is certainly distinct from the mainland but is studied and managed cooperatively by both state and federal agencies. Both benefit from preserving Hawaii’s natural resources.
Despite Hawaii’s unique history and geographic isolation from North America, it went through the process to become a fully-fledged member of the United States and has been an integrated part of the country for over 60 years now. The 50th state’s rich cultural heritage melds with American culture, enriching the diversity of the U.S. as a whole, while Hawaii reaps the benefits as well as the responsibilities that come with statehood. The Aloha State’s stunning natural landscapes, multiethnic population, and fusion cuisine have become iconic parts of the American tapestry.
Q: When did Hawaii become a U.S. state?
A: Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in the Union on August 21, 1959 through the Hawaii Admission Act passed by the U.S. Congress.
Q: Does the U.S. Constitution apply to Hawaii?
A: Yes, as with all U.S. states, the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law that applies to and protects Hawaiian citizens.
Q: Are Hawaiian laws different from the mainland?
A: Hawaii has some unique state laws, but they operate within the same federal legal system as other states. Hawaii also has state government branches like a governor, legislature and judiciary.
Q: Does Hawaii have representation in the federal government?
A: Yes, Hawaii elects two senators and two representatives to represent the state in the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C.
Q: Do you need a passport to travel to Hawaii?
A: No, because Hawaii is a U.S. state, you do not need a passport when travelling from any other part of the U.S. You only need government issued ID like a driver’s license.