381. State Flag Revisions: Hawaii.
Jun 9, 2012 at 12:21PM

There may be no state flag more tragic than that of Hawaii. (Almost as tragic as this article taking me over four months to finish. Suffice it to say, we've been busy at Graphicology HQ.)

First let's quickly dive into a little state history, then to the history of their flag.

The earliest settlers of Hawaii were Polynesians who used jumbo-sized canoes to travel to the islands sometime between 500 and 1300 AD. There are a few theories whether this settlement happened at once, during a single drawn out period, or during many stages from a few different origins. (Tahiti and Marquesas Islands for two examples.) Nobody really knows. Modern history starts in 1778, when Captain James Cook's crew stumbled upon the islands while heading out to find the Northwest Passage between Asia and Alaska. Cook named the land, The Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich. (You don't need to know too much about the Earl of Sandwich other than that is was a 17th-century title named after an English naval commander.) So begins the Colonial influence in the area.

Or did it?

What you don't learn in history books outside of Spain, is that it's possible that the first Europeans to Hawaii were not English but Spanish. And they were not only there in the 1700s but all the way back to 1555. According to Wikipedia, there are Spanish maps of the area in which the islands are shown in their current location, with a 10° error to the east. There is also a sea chart from Ruy López de Villalobos' fleet of six ships dated in 1551 that seems to prove this, with an archipelago located very closely to Hawaii's real location. Some scholars believe this was Hawaii. Some believe it was the Marshall Islands. I tried to find this map but couldn't source even a decent-sized portrait of Señor López. I have failed you.

A surprise to me, Russia had an influence on the islands too. After 1815 three Russian forts were built on the islands, and Russia was an official protectorate of the Kingdom. (Russian had three forts on Hawai'i? Yes. Betcha didn't know that, did ya?)

Perhaps because of—and with the help of—European pressure, the islands were united by a single ruler in 1810. Using foreign (American and British) weapons and advisors, Kamehameha I established the Kingdom of Hawai'i but it wasn't easy. Battles ensued from 1795 to 1810 between the islands until Kaua'i and Ni'ihau basically surrendered to—let's call him K, OK—K's growing army. This new-found unity both preserved the islands' independence but also was the beginning of the end with the annexing of the territory to the United States in 1898. Outside of Hawaii, K is best known for the Law of the Splintered People, in which noncombatants were protected in times of war or during battles. It was the first written law of Hawai'i and has influenced many subsequent humanitarian laws. And just for fun, Kamehameha's full Hawaiian name is Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kaui Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea.

K's statue in Oahu:

Before all of the Colonial ties, The Kingdom of Hawai'i had a deep and unique culture. Hawaii had it's own religion, a polytheistic and animistic tradition. It had its system of laws and regulations called Kapu, which were pretty strict in terms of lifestyle, gender roles, eating practices and spiritual things. The Kapu system was denounced by K2. He did so by having a dinner of previously forbidden foods with the women he loved. Before that it was also forbidden for a man and a woman to eat together. Strict, yes, but the land had it's own thing. It's own culture.

So how did it become a state? It all started with the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 between the Kingdom of Hawaii and the United States which allowed for duty-free importation of Hawaiian sugar. This treaty ackowledged Hawai'i as a sovereign nation, but also gave the US the port called Pearl Harbor. For the next twenty years Hawai'i saw several rebellions and revolutions due to currupt government, debt and a growing fear of US military and agricultural presence. The island succombed to these pressures in 1894 when it became The Republic of Hawaii under Sanford Dole. That name should sound familiar. US President at the time, Grover Cleveland was against annexation of Hawaii and it was delayed until McKinley took office. He was an expansionist and wrote an annexation bill in 1894 despite lack of public support and the little matter of it being against international law. In 1897 Japan even sent warships to Hawaii to oppose the annexation. By 1898, Hawaii was annexed anyway becoming a territory of the US. Their Governor was none other than Sanford Dole. (Where have we heard that name before?)

The next forty years were marked by an explosion of agricultural expansion and water works projects to support them. Of course WWII brought Hawaii and the US closer, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And 18 years later a vote was held to approve statehood by the population of Hawaii. All islands voted at least 93% in favor of this movement, but of course the islands were populated heavily by this time with Americans.

The 1959 Ballot for Hawaiian Statehood:

The Hawaiian State Flag.

So, in the matter of about 180 years, Hawai'i went from a scattered group of islands ruled by many Kings, to a united Kingdom, to a republic, to a territory of the US, until it achieved statehood in 1959. That's a lot of change in a short period of time. The crazy thing is this, it officially had only one flag throughout this whole time. It's the only U.S. state flag to have flown over a kingdom, a territory, a republic, and a state.

In 1816, Kamehameha the Great commissioned the Hawaiian Flag, which pretty much went unchanged for these 180 years. The flag featured eight stripes of red, white and blue representing the eight islands of Hawaii. The British Union Jack sits in the top left field, a symbol of Britians long-term status of protectorate. (Russia probably feels a bit left out.) The jack is also supposed to represent something called the Hawaiian ali'i, a symbol of royalty that is marked by two crossed spears. The latter symbolism is not clear to me, so perhaps they just told locals that to make them feel better. Here's my bet for the true story behind the flag below.

In the book, The History of the United States Flag by Quaife, Weig, and Appleman (1961) the authors describe a little bit of a flag issue during the war of 1812 which featured two of the islands protectorates fighting it out. "During the War of 1812, an American asked why the King (Kamehameha) was flying the "enemy" flag. He lowered it and raised the U.S. Flag, only to have the same thing happen when a British ship put into port. To avoid trouble, they decided to combine the two flags into one." You have to admit that's pretty good politics if nothing else.

Not surprisingly, the resulting design is one of the ugliest flags in the states. It reminds me of a golfer wearing unmatching patterns of stripes and plaid. A very patriotic, fashionably inept golfer. To make matters worse, it's a much longer (wider) flag than most. So now we have a gangly, patriotic, fashionably inept golfer.

The Current Hawaii State Flag:

What's sad is that this flags represents nothing of the Hawaii's history before the Colonial era. So not only is it ugly, it's a shame. The Hawaiian people have lost much of their unique character and culture, and there's a British flag flying over their state. We're going to rectify this for once and for all.

Now, there are some Hawaiians, The Kanaka Maoli (true people in the Hawaiin language,) who talk about an early flag of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. They say the current flag is a symbol of colonialism which is hard to argue against. They also say their flag is the original Hawai'ian flag and the personal flag of Kamehameha. It featured a red, gren and yellow color scheme. Nine alternating stripes in the background with a shield of the original Hawaiian royal standard in the middle. The two paddles represent the original settlers of the islands mentioned at the top of this article.

According to the Honolulu Advertiser, Gene Simeona says he ran into a descendant of Lord Paulet on the grounds of 'lolani Palace in 1999 who told him the present Hawaiian flag is not the original. "That provoked Simeona to scour the Hawai‘i State Archives, where he found the design, then reproduced it. Since then, he and his business partner Stan Fonseca have been churning the emblem out in hopes that it’ll catch on as a fresh, noncolonial symbol of the restored Hawaiian kingdom.

The Kanaka Maoli Hawaiian Flag:

Not only is this flag a bit too raggea for my tastes, it's also considerably ugly. Scholars even debate the authenticty of this flag and have yet to find any real proof that Simeona is right. What is right is that the state deserves a flag without Colonialism and it should have been designed when it became a territory of the United States.

There are three current Hawaii independence movements that have their own flags. Although I'm not pushing for Hawaii to revert back to their own nation with this project, I think acknowledging the flag designs makes perfect sense.

  1. The Nation of Hawai'i is a pro-independence group of people who are the direct descendants of the original inhabitants of the islands. Their flag features a tricolored flags with a Kahili symbol in the middle yellow stripe.
  2. The Polynesian Sovereignty movement is a group that wants some level of self-determination for Hawai'i as it's own nation or at least to be ruled much like the Native Tribes on the contigious United States. (According to Wikepedia there is also a counter-sovereignty movement that exists in Hawaiʻi, which views the historical and legal basis for these claims as invalid and discriminatory.) Their flag is a blue field with a constellation of white stars representing nine islands.
  3. Loeser.us describes the third group calling themselves Hawai'i Ko Aloha. "They claim to represent all the lineal descendants of Hawaiians from Maka'ainana to Alii. The colors of the background of their Flag represent the Nine islands of the inhabited Hawaiian chain prior to the arrival of the western exploiters. The saying Hawaii ko Aloha means "Love of our land of Hawaii."

Three Hawaii Indepedence Flags:


First, some fun:

What everyone thinks of Hawaii centers around their tourism efforts. It is paradise and a great place to get married or have a vacation. Visually that gives us a lot to work with, some silly and some pretty cool. If we just wanted to develop a unique state flag that everyone would recognize immediately, we could do worse than select an hibiscus pattern commonly seen in most Hawaiian shirts. It does make me laugh, so that's good. We could also feature the kitschy dashboard hula girl, that would work too. But neither really connect to the historical and cultural problems discussed above and we don't want a joke as a flag. This is serious business, folks.

The Hawaiian Shirt & Dashboard Hula Girl Flags:

So what I think I'm going to do is focus on the boat people that first came to the area, before all the chaos broke out in the late 1770s. Bring that heritage forward as a reminder and drop the focus on Colonialism. Seems like the right thing to do. I'd also like to reference The Kanaka Maoli Hawaiian Flag or at least the symbols found in it. 

One of my readers developed a similar concept and sent me this Hawaii flag design.

"I see on your blog that you are working on a flag design for Hawaii. I have been working on an icon design for Hawaii as a personal project, and I thought you might find the following useful for your work:"I was thinking that, for a state flag, my design should be modified slightly. Since there is legally no noble class in the U.S., the kahili would be made white rather than gold, representing the concept of nobility rather than the institution. The sea-blue border would be extended to form the field of the flag, making a green island in a blue sea. These changes also incorporate red, white and blue, thus associating the flag with the U.S. national flag. Thanks, E. W. Jones."  I always appreciate enthusiasm from my readers, so here's a flag made from the icon sent by E.W. Thanks!

A Reader Submission from E.W. Jones:

So E.W. is going back to the same reference I intended to. My result is a little different however, which is part of the fun of all of this. First, I developed a pattern using traditional paddles, added a bit of polynesian design to them, and then wrapped the paddles in colored ribbons each reflecting the influence of the nations who have exerted influence of the state. The red, white and blue of The U.S., Great Britain and Russia. The green, red and yellow of the original Hawaiian flag (reportedly), and a color scheme to represent the original polynesian 'Paddle People'. Yes, we could have taken the Kanaka Maoli and simply made a better rendered version, but it really is too ugly for our purposes here. And the Kahili symbol, while known in Hawaii, is a tough item to turn into a flag graphic. We're going to attempt to add meaning, recognzie, modernize and beautify all at the same.

A Replica Paddle for Reference:

The only thing left to do was to work on the background, which I wanted to keep as bright as possible. So bright that I ended up leaving it white. I think it's a handsome flag that will do well for Hawaii, as well as fit in with the rest of the redesigns so far. If I were to make one of these flags, I would do so out of sturdy, bright linen. Another point, is that yes there is a lot of detail in this flag, but as a whole it still works from afar on a more graphic level. The paddles generate a unique icon on a macro level even if you can't appreciate the micro aspects of the design. At least that's my story.

The New State of Hawaii Flag (with detail shots):

Paddle Detail:

Center Detail, Hawaii Ko Aloha (Love of our land of Hawaii):

So now we move on to Idaho's flag (see it below via the Fifty Flags link), which is an example of everything that is wrong with a majority of our state flags. A poorly rendered state seal on a blue background. There are a lot more of these to come, so we should be able to at least improve upon them. Stay tuned, the next one will come much more quickly than Hawaii's. I promise. Thanks for following along.

Article originally appeared on Graphicology (http://www.graphicology.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.