Reps urge greater respect for Kamehameha statue

Hawaii Reps. Ed Case and Neil Abercrombie today called for an end to “disrespectful characterizations” of a statue of King Kamehameha located in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. In a letter to Alan Hantman, who was appointed Architect of the Capitol in 1997, Case and Abercrombie also asked if the statue could be moved from a back corner to “a more prominent, frontline location.”


The Kamehameha statue in Statuary Hall — a replica of a pair of statues located in Kapa`au on the Big Island and in front of the Hawai`i Supreme Court building in Honolulu — has apparently been the subject of jokes made by Capitol guides and building staff.

Last Friday, during a tour of the Capitol Complex, a guide was videotaped by a Hawaii reporter as saying: “…Congress wasn’t happy because he wasn’t that decently dressed, he’s not really covered, and so they decided to put him back here as punishment. They stuck him back here in this corner where nobody would notice him.”

The Representatives wrote that it could have been an isolated incident, but said today that members of their staff overheard similar comments on a subsequent visit to the statue yesterday, including remarks that the statue was “sent back three times because he was morally indecent” and he was “put in the back because he was naked.”

“The statements made are factually inaccurate,” they wrote. “Regardless of motive, they are highly insulting.”

The statue was donated to the Capitol by the state in 1969, and is today one of 97 statues of prominent people selected to represent the various states. Hawaii’s other statue depicts Father Damien, which is located in the House connecting corridor on the Capitol’s first floor.

“The Kamehameha statue has always been located in the most remote, inaccessible and nonvisible portion of Statuary Hall,” the letter notes. “Kamehameha’s location has been the source of endless questions and concern from Hawai’i residents and others.”

Case and Abercrombie write that the reason the statue was placed there, at least anecdotally, was because it was so heavy, and for structural reasons, could be placed nowhere else. Given the story being told by Capitol staff, however, they aren’t so sure.

“Kamehameha has essentially been isolated for 34 years,” they wrote. “It is appropriate that we now ask you whether, in fact, Kamehameha’s location is exclusively structural.”

The letter included a great deal of background on the important role King Kamehameha played in Hawaii’s history, and how much the Capitol statue means to Hawaiians and people from Hawai`i who visit it year-round — especially on Kamehameha Day, when a lei-placing ceremony is held.

“A visit to the Kamehameha statue by those of us who call Hawai’i our physical or spiritual home is akin to a pilgrimage,” they wrote. “Please understand that any slight to the statue, however innocent, can easily be perceived as a slight upon Kamehameha, Native Hawaiians, Hawai’i, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and minorities everywhere.”

The full text of the letter to Hantman follows:

This letter addresses two important matters relating to our State of Hawai’i’s statue of King Kamehameha the Great located in Statuary Hall. The first is to express our concerns with what appear to be frequent mischaracterizations of King Kamehameha by Congressional staff providing tours of the Capitol and to ask your assistance with corrective action. The second is to request that you evaluate the positioning of the Kamehameha statue, which has been placed in an isolated corner of Statuary Hall since its location to the Capitol in 1969, and, if structurally possible, relocate it to a position of prominence in the Hall.

Background. King Kamehameha I (Kamehameha the Great) is by far the most prominent figure in the history of Hawai’i. Historically, in the late 1700s and early 1800s Kamehameha unified the islands of Hawai’i under one government and led the difficult transition from pre-Western contact to integration with the external world with extraordinary foresight and wisdom. Today, Kamehameha embodies the strength and vitality of the Native Hawaiian people and their culture and the rich history of all of Hawai’i’s peoples.

For all of this, Kamehameha is revered to this day not only by Native Hawaiians, but by all who call Hawai’i their home. He also is respected and acknowledged as among the great leaders of the cultures of both Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

After Hawai’i achieved statehood and was entitled to place two statues in Statuary Hall, the selection of Kamehameha was a foregone conclusion. The statue was dedicated in April 1969 and was located to its present location in the back corner of Statuary Hall. (Hawai’i’s other statue is of the famed and soon-to-be-sanctified Belgian priest, Father Damien, who gave his life to the service of Hansen’s Disease patients at Kalaupapa, Moloka’i; Father Damien’s statue is located in the House connecting corridor on the Capitol’s First Floor.)

The Kamehameha statue is a replica of two statues of Kamehameha located in Hawai’i. The first stands outside the current Supreme Court of Hawai’i building in downtown Honolulu, while the second stands near Kamehameha’s birthplace at Kapa’au on the Island of Hawai’i.

To people who are not familiar with Hawai’i, the Kamehameha statue may appear “different” from most if not all of the remainder of the Statuary Hall collection. First, of course, Kamehameha was a full-blooded Native Hawaiian, and to this day he represents but one of only a few statues in the collection who are not Caucasian males. Additionally, he is garbed in non-Western attire; this was the traditional attire not only of the Native Hawaiians of his time, but of the “ali’i nui”, or high chiefs, of ancient Hawai’i. For these reasons, even the Hall’s own guidebook describes the statue as “easily the most striking.”

For all of these reasons, a visit to the Kamehameha statue by those of us who call Hawai’i our physical or spiritual home is akin to a pilgrimage. This is especially true for Native Hawaiians, who each year since 1969 have conducted a moving ceremony in honor of Kamehameha in Statuary Hall on Kamehameha Day, including the placing of lei on the statue. For the same reasons, please understand that any slight to the statue, however innocent, can easily be perceived as a slight upon Kamehameha, Native Hawaiians, Hawai’i, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and minorities everywhere.

Tour Mischaracterizations. Last Friday, one of our staff members was conducting a tour of the Capitol with a constituent who is also a Hawai’i television reporter. She observed, and the reporter videotaped, a staff member from another Congressional office (not an official Capitol Tour Guide) make the following statements to a group about Kamehameha’s statue:

“King Kamehameha is kinda an interesting statue. I’ll just tell you the story behind it. He was the first king to unite all the Hawaiian Islands under a peaceable kingdom. And of course, King Kamehameha was honored by the Hawaiian people by being placed in Statuary Hall. But when they first sent the statue over they discovered that it wasn’t wearing any clothing. Congress was very upset and sent the statue back and said put some clothes on it. So Hawaii took it back and they dressed it as you see here. But even then Congress wasn’t happy because he wasn’t that decently dressed, he’s not really covered and so they decided to put him back here as punishment. They stuck him back here in this corner where nobody would notice him.”

This was reported throughout Hawai’i on the evening news last Tuesday, July 15th.

If this were possibly an isolated occurrence, we may simply have taken the matter up with the member to caution his staff. However, yesterday one of our staff observed two other staff members of other offices making comparable remarks to the effect that the Kamehameha statue was “sent back three times because he was morally indecent” and he was “put in the back because he was naked.”

First, the statements made are factually inaccurate. Second, regardless of motive, they are highly insulting.

We would greatly appreciate your immediate assistance, especially in this summer visitor peak, in taking whatever action is necessary to assure that Congressional staff, whether official guides or member office staff, are knowledgeable of the facts on the Kamehameha statue and sensitive to the concerns of those who care deeply about these matters. It may also be an appropriate time to provide a broader review of the accuracy and sensitivity of information provided about all statuary in the Capitol, as it may be that comparable situations exist with other statues of our fellow states’ revered citizens.

Location. As noted, the Kamehameha statue has always been located in the most remote, inaccessible and nonvisible portion of Statuary Hall. From the time of his original placement in 1969, long before these staff mischaracterizations, Kamehameha’s location has been the source of endless questions and concern from Hawai’i residents and others.

Anecdotally, at least, the official position has been that Kamehameha was located there for structural reasons; that, as what has been represented to be the heaviest statue in the collection, it was necessary to place him there and that no other location in the Hall would suffice. However, given the above and the fact that Kamehameha has essentially been isolated for 34 years, it is appropriate that we now ask you whether, in fact, Kamehameha’s location is exclusively structural. If not, we believe it is fair that Kamehameha have his turn at a position of prominence in the front lines of the statues in Statuary Hall.

We greatly appreciate you prompt attention to this matter of great importance to us personally and to those we represent. We stand ready to assist you in whatever way you feel appropriate, and look forward to your prompt response and action.

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