What would a Native Hawaiian government look like?

No one knows. But as of Monday morning, federal officials are gathering public input on whether the United States should establish a government-to-government relationship with Hawaii’s indigenous community, starting with a hearing at the State Capitol.

It’s been more than a century since the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom, and many Native Hawaiians and their supporters say some kind of federal recognition is long overdue.

While some are holding out for outright sovereignty, others note there are millions of dollars in current federal funding at stake and perhaps millions more to be gained if the Native Hawaiian community gains a status similar to those of Native American tribes and Alaska Natives.

Supporters of OHA CEO Kamana'opono Crabbe outside the OHA boardroom

Supporters of Native Hawaiian sovereignty sing while keeping vigil at an OHA Board of Trustees meeting in May.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

How We Got to This Point

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been advocating for the Interior Department to consider acknowledging the Native Hawaiian community as a governing entity since 2011, after a decade of failed efforts by former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka to push the issue through Congress.

Akaka’s efforts coincided with a 2000 report by the Department of Interior and Department of Justice acknowledging Native Hawaiians as an aboriginal people whose government was overthrown without their consent.

In the report, the departments urged the creation of a government-to-government relationship, noting the federal government had acknowledged its wrongdoing in a 1993 Apology Resolution.

Many in the Native Hawaiian community reject the idea of federal recognition either through Congress or the Interior Department because they want more independence and see Hawaii as an occupied nation.

But Akaka’s attempts in Congress were derailed once conservatives latched onto the proposal as race-based and thus a civil rights issue, explained Hawaii political analyst Neal Milner. “They’re trying this because none of the other strategies worked,” he said of the Interior Department.

While it’s taken years to get the federal process off the ground, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been moving forward with its own nation-building process known as Kanaʻioluwalu.

Despite successfully gathering thousands of signatures in support of the movement, OHA’s process has highlighted continuing disagreement about what an indigenous government would look like and whether a top-down approach to creating a Native Hawaiian government strips the community of its sovereign rights.

Many in the Native Hawaiian community reject the idea of federal recognition either through Congress or the Interior Department because they want more independence and see Hawaii as an occupied nation.

Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian activist from Molokai, said seeking a similar status to Native American tribes makes no sense.

“They are not much better off than we are because they got federal recognition,” he said.

But for others, the Department of Interior’s announcement represents a momentous step forward.

“When we lost Akaka and we lost our senior members (in Congress) it looked like we were back to square one,” said Annelle Amaral, vice president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, who has spent years fighting for Native Hawaiian rights from the state Legislature. “This looks very exciting.”

What’s at Stake

In its announcement last week, the Department of Interior emphasized what it is not attempting to do at this point. It said that creating an administrative pathway to establish a Native Hawaiian government wouldn’t immediately alter the current relationship between the indigenous population and the U.S., affect the state program providing homesteads for native peoples or “authorize compensation for past wrongs.”

The department also said it was not seeking input on what form a Native Hawaiian government or constitution might take or what powers it could have.

Still, supporters are hopeful the process could eventually lead to lasting protection for millions of dollars in federal funding set aside for Native Hawaiian education, health care, workplace training and other programs.

Because Native Hawaiians aren’t federally recognized, many worry the race-based funding could be struck down in court.

Kelii Akina, head of a conservative advocacy organization called the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii that has been a vocal critic of race-based entitlements, says it’s tough to calculate how much money the federal government is spending on Native Hawaiians.

Back in 2000, the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s office estimated that Native Hawaiians had received more than $440 million worth of federal funding since 1989 through legislation that includes the Native Hawaiian Education Act and the Native Hawaiian Healthcare Act.

Because Native Hawaiians aren’t federally recognized, many worry the race-based funding could be struck down in court.

Although protecting the status quo is a big reason for supporting federal recognition, not everyone thinks that obtaining tribal status is necessary to protect the entitlements.

Jon Osorio, a professor at the University of Hawaii and a Hawaiian nationalist, said that the community should seek other avenues to protect its entitlements rather than a status similar to Native American tribes.

“I think we could ask the DOI to protect kanaka maoli from the U.S. without seeking to create another government-to-government relationship,” he said.

There are also many critics like Akina who say the race-based benefits are discriminatory and inefficient.

Last year, four members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him not to consider federal recognition of Native Hawaiians through an executive order.

“The efforts to create a tribe are in large part an effort to preserve unconstitutional race-based privileges for Native Hawaiians,” the letter said. It continued: “Conferring tribal status on a racial group is itself a violation of the equal protection guarantees of the Constitution.”

Advantages of Federal Recognition

Given how early it is in the process of nation-building, there are numerous unanswered questions about what could be gained from establishing a Native Hawaiian government.

State Sen. Clayton Hee, a former OHA trustee and current candidate for lieutenant governor, said federal recognition not only protects the ongoing federal entitlements for Native Hawaiians but also provides an important opportunity for the community to apply for economic development opportunities that other native peoples in the U.S. receive.

He emphasized that federal recognition would benefit the entire State of Hawaii, not just the native community. For example, more homes for Native Hawaiians could help ease the state’s homelessness burden.

“There’s a tendency to look at this issue as benefiting only Native Hawaiians and that conclusion is erroneous,” he said. “Every time you take care of a Native Hawaiian, you take care of a non-Hawaiian.”

Many in the community see the federal recognition process as a chance to reclaim access to land and resources that were taken away by the U.S. Clyde Namuo, former executive director of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, thinks the process is the Native Hawaiian community’s best bet for gaining control over ceded land, property that the U.S. seized from the Hawaiian monarchy after the overthrow.

“If Hawaiians had a greater say in terms of how the ceded lands were used, there would be an opportunity to raise money to further enhance Native Hawaiian programs,” he said. “That’s really what is at stake here. Without federal recognition, there is a question of whether the Native Hawaiians could ever get access to control those ceded lands and revenue that comes from them.”

Right now, the state controls about 1.4 million acres of ceded lands, about a fourth of all the land in the state, including some of the land beneath four of the state’s airports.

Right now, the state controls about 1.4 million acres of ceded lands, about a fourth of all the land in the state.

OHA receives just a portion of the revenue from that land, which was more than $15 million last year, according to the agency’s 2013 annual report.

The agency agreed to a $200 million settlement with Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2012 to recoup some of the value of the property, but questions remain about whether OHA got the short end of the deal because of legal limits on developing land on Kakaako Makai.

It’s unclear how Native Hawaiians would gain access to more ceded lands even as a federally recognized tribe. While local politicians often speak of helping Native Hawaiians, there’s a question of how much popular support there is for dedicating significantly more land and resources to them.

Still, Namuo said the Interior Department’s process gives him more hope than any other option.

“Federal recognition provides the opportunity for Native Hawaiians to control their destiny,” he said.

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