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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

In playing kōnane, the concept is not to “eat” as many of your opponent’s ʻiliʻili as possible. Instead the goal is to continually find moves on the board and remain in play. Photo: Francine Murray

The art of kōnane and mastering diplomacy

A message from Kamana‘opono M. Crabbe, Ph.D.
Ka Pouhana, Chief Executive Officer, Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Aloha mai e nā kini, nā hoa makamaka o ko Hawaiʻi pae ʻāina,

In thoroughly considering our current opportunities and challenges, my thoughts have turned to a strategy-training game of our kūpuna: kōnane. In playing kōnane, the concept is not to “eat” as many of your opponent’s ʻiliʻili as possible. Instead the goal is to continually find moves on the board and remain in play.

Our aliʻi spent much time engaged in this game not only for fun but to train themselves for their roles as leaders. It prepared them to succeed in the art of political diplomacy—the art of nurturing opportunities and carefully selecting when and if to use them as the “game” unfolds.

Kōnane strategies and other aliʻi standards can help guide us in meeting our most important and urgent challenge: rebuilding our Hawaiian nation.

Aliʻi were not just royal politicians, they were masters of diplomacy.

They understood the dynamic of politics involving many “ʻiliʻili” on the political game board. As their world changed, they continued to conduct themselves as noble diplomats during the 1800s, at a time when much of the world had not adopted that mindset.

Kalākaua was the first head of state to travel around the world. In those travels he forged relationships with other heads of states, ultimately opening opportunities that allowed the Hawaiian Kingdom to establish six legations and 84 consulates worldwide. These were essential for integrating the Hawaiian Kingdom in the political and economic world stage.

Such diplomatic relationships were also nurtured within the Hawaiian Kingdom. Following the centuries old practice, all monarchs such as Liliʻuokalani visited their people throughout the Kingdom and hosted large gatherings at their royal households to build and strengthen their ties with community members throughout the pae ʻāina. At these visits and gatherings, they listened carefully to their people.

Our aliʻi understood how strong diplomatic relationships and listening carefully to the voices of their people provided them opportunities and information that would  ultimately allow them to better serve our lāhui, our people and country. Their timeless approach would serve us well today.

In this era of rebuilding our nation, this means that OHA must hear all voices—the full array of our lāhui conveying how we can open and best use various pathways to empower ourselves through an organized governing body.

Following the lead of our kūpuna, OHA’s further charge is to keep as many moves open for our lāhui to consider as future opportunities unfold. In later years, our lāhui may not choose to pursue those pathways. But keeping all of them open for now is the strategy a masterful kōnane player would advise.

Do we close pathways entirely, limiting our moves as the game proceeds? Do we forge forward with only one strategy (federal recognition OR independence) and leave ourselves stuck in the game with no moves left? If that happens, what might we lose? Native Hawaiian preference policies of our Aliʻi trusts serving our lāhui? The ability of native Hawaiian families to renew their Hawaiian Homestead leases when they expire?

Diplomacy—the art of creating opportunities and selecting among the best of them in the right moment—suggests that we carefully consider our next kōnane move.

If a federal pathway is to be established, it must keep open future pathways to independence. If a long-term strategy to achieve independence is pursued, it should not cut off a shorter-term strategy for federal recognition that can allow us to preserve now what is under serious threat of being lost.

I believe we as a people can achieve diplomatic solutions. We can open the door to see what can be negotiated with the federal government AND ʻonipa‘a behind our kūpuna who signed the Kūʻē Petition. We can save our current Hawaiian-preference programs while preserving our right to achieve full independence and international redress.

There is a real threat out there. We need to defend ourselves from the threat while continuing to preserve our right to pursue more. We need to stop debating theoretical political ideologies and instead focus on how different moves will affect an ʻohana struggling to keep food on the table, a bright keiki failing in a classroom where lessons have not engaged his intelligence, a kūpuna having difficulty managing her diabetes. We need to worry about how we will keep our ʻāina and kai thriving and our cultural and burial sites protected.

The federal government is inviting us to have a seat at the table on our terms. We get to dictate those terms. And for me, if we are not at the table, then will not even be in the game.

We need to assert ourselves to make sure that we are in the game and that we determine the next moves, our kōnane moves. We must engage, not disengage.

Can we have the best of all worlds? That possibility is in our hands. We have the power to choose both and shape them in ways that will not cut off the other.

We can establish a federal pathway without closing off the options for international redress or independence. We can pursue independence without undermining opportunities to defend ourselves from urgent and real threats.

We can have the best of all possible worlds. That is the true art of diplomacy. Our aliʻi would demand no less of us.

‘O au iho nō me ke aloha a me ka ‘oia‘i‘o,

Kamana‘opono M. Crabbe, Ph.D.
Ka Pouhana, Chief Executive Officer
Office of Hawaiian Affairs


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