The U.S. Department of the Interior has taken a major step toward federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.

The agency has moved forward regarding procedures to re-establish a government-to-government relationship with a native governing entity by submitting a draft rule for regulatory review.

The governing entity is in the process of being formed through the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, which late last month sent notices to qualified voters on how to participate in a constitutional convention for self-governance.

Assistant Director for Insular Affairs at the Department of Interior, Esther Kiaaina speaks with former Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter after a public meeting on whether the United States should establish a government-to-government relationship with HawaiiÕs indigenous community held at the Hawaii State Capitol auditorium on June 23, 2014

Esther Kiaaina, assistant director for insular affairs at the Department of Interior, speaks with former Democratic Party Chairman Dante Carpenter after a public meeting on whether the United States should establish a government-to-government relationship with Hawaii’s indigenous people. The hearing was held at the Hawaii State Capitol auditorium on June 23, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Jessica Kershaw, press secretary for the Interior Department, confirmed to Civil Beat Friday that a draft rule will be proposed:

“I will confirm for you that in response to an extensive public comment period with public meetings, as you are aware, in Hawaii and also Indian country in the continental United States and requests from congressional states and Native Hawaiian community leaders, the Department of Interior will propose a rule that establishes an administrative procedure that the secretary would use if the Native Hawaiian community forms a unified government that seeks a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

The status of the rule review, which was filed Thursday, is pending and there is no timeline indicated. No text of the rule is yet posted, but it will eventually be available online.

The new development will likely boost the efforts of the commission and its supporters to have qualified Hawaiians participate in an election process.

But it will also upset many others who oppose federal recognition and argue that Hawaii was illegally annexed by the United States in 1898 and in fact remains a sovereign state.

Former US Senator Daniel Akaka Department of Interior Hawaii State Capitol auditorium

Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka listens to testimony in the Capitol auditorium last summer.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Increased Activism

At a series of “listening tours” held last year to get feedback on whether and how the process of reestablishing a government-to-government relationship should proceed, the  Interior Department heard from many islanders who claimed that Hawaii is still a nation and that Americans are occupiers who should leave.

At the same time, advocates for federal recognition believe that there is a unique opportunity to act on federal recognition while locally born Barack Obama is still in the White House. Action through the Interior is seen as the best hope for recognition after the decade-long effort to pass what is known as the Akaka Bill failed in the U.S. Senate.

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, as it is formally called, is informally named after its chief sponsor, former U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka of Hawaii.

The latest federal action comes in the same week that a lawsuit was filed alleging that the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission election is racially exclusive and thus in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Meanwhile, activism among many Native Hawaiians has increased in the wake of blockage of construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. The stand-off pits those who say the mountain, which is a sacred site, has been desecrated and those who say the TMT is essential to understanding the origins of the universe.

On Aug. 9, thousands of Native Hawaiians and other residents marched in Waikiki for the “Aloha Aina Unity March,” by far the largest demonstration in Hawaii since protests erupted last spring over telescope construction.

Demonstrators line the access road with clouds and rain chanting against the DLNR motorcade that was making their move up Maunakea. 24 june 2015. photgraph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On June 24, demonstrators lined the access road running up Mauna Kea, chanting against the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Constitutional Convention for Hawaiians

The Roll Commission operates separately from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a quasi-state agency tasked with the care and perpetuation of the indigenous population and its culture. But Hawaiians can register through an OHA website registry.

It’s estimated by Na‘i Aupuni, the vendor hired by OHA, that 95,690 Native Hawaiians have been certified by the Roll Commission to participate in the elections.

Registrants must be descendants of the aboriginal peoples who lived in the Hawaiian islands prior to Western contact in 1778, and must declare their allegiance to Hawaii sovereignty and community.

The filing deadline for Hawaiians to run for the “constitutional convention” is Sept. 15. Those who have not registered but want to vote in the elections have until Oct. 15 to register

Groups like Judicial Watch and the local think-tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii say that the Kana‘iolowalu — the name given to the commission’s campaign to enroll Hawaiians — is race-based and therefore unconstitutional.

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