For the past decade, Kealiioluolu Gora has been appealing to state lawmakers to improve Hawaiian-language education in the state’s public schools.

As president of the cultural organization Ka Lei Papahio Kakuhihewa, he has been working to raise awareness of the pukas in the Department of Education’s Hawaiian-language programs and knocking on doors at the state Capitol asking lawmakers to compel the DOE to address them.

Now, Gora feels like all the work he has done is finally starting to pay off. Last week, the House passed House Bill 1551, which would create an Office of Hawaiian Studies in the Department of Education.

Gora thinks that over the past 10 years, legislators may have gained more appreciation for the importance of the Hawaiian language, which is one of the state’s official languages along with English. But he also credits his organization’s persistent efforts to lobby lawmakers with the bill’s progress thus far.

The success of HB 1551 appears to be one more sign of the growing of the effectiveness of Hawaiian activism and lobbying at the Legislature where a number of proposals this year have addressed Native Hawaiian culture and well-being.

The Bills

Faced with a key deadline this week, lawmakers in both chambers chose to advance many bills related to Native Hawaiian issues.

Both the House and the Senate passed a bill to allow the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to develop part of its land on Kakaako Makai. The office received the land from the state two years ago as part of a $200 million settlement to help solve the question of ceded land, 1.8 million acres that the federal government seized from the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Other proposals seek to give Native Hawaiians more input on state land boards. The Senate passed two bills last week that would require at least one member of the Board of Land and Natural Resources and of the Endangered Species Recovery Committee to have expertise in Hawaiian culture and traditions.

Legislators are also advancing measures that would help the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands provide more affordable housing; specify that the department should receive some revenue from geothermal resources; and require the state to work to get rid of health disparities affecting Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

On Tuesday, the House passed a bill that sets aside tax revenue to fund the rehabilitation of Kahoolawe, an island that was taken by the U.S. military and used as a bombing ground. The state of Hawaii only gained — or regained, depending on how you look at it — full control of the island in 2003.

Lawmakers lauded the importance of the island in Hawaiian history and identity. “For me, this symbolizes the rebirth of the Hawaiian culture,” said Rep. Calvin Say.

University of Hawaii political analyst Neal Milner suggested that the reason for some of the measures’ success might be that some Native Hawaiian organizations are becoming more established and influential in Hawaii’s political landscape.

“There just isn’t as much polarization around these issues,” Milner said. “The level of support is greater and the kind of rhetoric is somewhat dampened.”

Milner pointed out that 10 years ago, it was still unclear whether the state would return ceded land to OHA. Now the question is what OHA should do with that land.

Similarly, there’s not as much debate about the value of Hawaiian-language education as there has been in the past. Not only did HB 1551 sail through the House, but the legislative body also passed another proposal by Rep. Karen Awana on Tuesday to create a task force to study the possibility of establishing a Hawaiian immersion school in West Oahu.

From Milner’s perspective, the evolution of both issues reflects the “increasing intertwining between some of the Hawaiian institutions and broader civic life in the community.”

Niihau as a ‘Lightning Rod’

Some senators who identify as Native Hawaiian say that concerns about the loss of fish around Niihau have helped unify them this session and remind them of the importance of cultural traditions.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Niihau, also known as the Forbidden Island, is home to fewer than 200 people, the vast majority of whom speak Hawaiian. (The 2010 U.S. Census counted just nine Asian people, four white people and one black person living on the island.)

Advocates for protecting fisheries around the island see Niihau as a stronghold of Native Hawaiian practices that it is crucial to protect given spreading urbanism on other Hawaiian islands.

“It’s more than just fishing, it’s protecting a way of life,” said Annelle Amaral, a former lawmaker and current vice president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, who testified in favor of Sen. Clayton Hee’s bill to protect the island’s nearshore waters from overfishing.

Hee visited the secluded island last fall along with Sens. Gil Kahele, Brickwood Galuteria and Michelle Kidani.

“I think Niihau has served as a lighting rod for us, as a visual reminder of who we are,” Hee said. “It has caused us to be more mindful of who we are as Hawaiians and what our responsibility and kuleana is as Hawaiian policymakers.”

In addition to Hee’s bill, Galuteria introduced a proposal to make Niihau a separate county and another to give one Niihau elder konohiki rights to protect the island’s fisheries. Both measures passed the Senate, although lawmakers amended the first bill to simply study the idea of making Niihau its own county.

Compared with previous years, Hee noted that the Native Hawaiian members of the Senate have been spending more time together.

“What strikes me different is this particular group has made an effort to keep in constant communication with each other,” Hee said, adding that there is “a real sense of togetherness and that’s a nice dimension.”

A Long Way to Go

While measures related to Native Hawaiian issues may be more high-profile this year, University of Hawaii Professor Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua cautions that the legislative initiatives reflect current activism in the Native Hawaiian community, which ebbs and flows.

“There’s a lot of visible Hawaiian organizing,” she said of the current wave of legislation. “It’s not that there’s more this year than ever before.”

The Native Hawaiian revival began in the 1970s with struggles over land use.

The most recent wave of activism has been fueled by a number of issues, including concerns about the potential genetic modification of taro and the destruction of ancient Hawaiian iwi (bones) through development projects such as Honolulu rail.

Amaral from the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs said she’s pleased with how some bills have been moving through the Legislature this year but that they are small steps forward in a decades-long struggle.

“Maybe today it looks like we’re accomplishing a lot, but for those of us who started the battles back in the ’70s, it’s like, it’s about damn time,” Amarel said.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In some ways, this has been far from a perfect session for Native Hawaiian causes at the Legislature. Unlike previous years, the Hawaiian Caucus did not introduce a legislative package.

And although the House passed the bill to help clean up Kahoolawe, Rep. Marcus Oshiro, one of several lawmakers who recounted the state’s efforts to get the island back, commented on how the political climate has changed since the state took control of the island.

“Back then, we never imagined that we’d be fighting for a revenue source,” said Oshiro, who added that setting aside a source of revenue is the next step to continue that effort.

And then there are the recurring accusations of racism that plague Rep. Faye Hanohano, the staunchest advocate for Native Hawaiian issues in the House.

During Tuesday’s session, Hanohano spoke in Hawaiian on the House floor and refused to translate her comments, bringing the session to an awkward halt while House leadership grappled with a response. Many people disparaged Hanohano, but others saw the moment as a symbol of the continuing marginalization of Native Hawaiian language and culture. Hawaiian is, along with English, an official language in the islands.

And while Hawaiian immersion programs and ceded land issues might be less politically contentious than in the past, the core issue of Hawaiian sovereignty remains highly polarizing. It’s been three years since the Legislature established the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission to register indigenous people for a Native Hawaiian governing entity, but there’s still a long way to go.

Mililani Trask, who has advocated at the Legislature for 30 years on behalf of various issues and currently works as an indigenous consultant, said in her experience the Legislature’s receptiveness to Native Hawaiian causes this session is on par for an election year. Many lawmakers are smiling and making promises but it’s hard to tell what will come of it, she said.

“We’re only at the crossover date now,” she said. “When we see the product, then we’ll judge.”

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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