Frustrated with a 10-year congressional fight to obtain federal recognition and form a nation-within-a-nation government, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has decided to follow a path that has led several American Indian tribes to success.

OHA is not giving up on the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, known as the Akaka bill.

But faced with the reality that U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, for whom the bill is named, is retiring after this year and that the political environment in Washington, D.C., is as polarized as it has ever been, OHA and Hawaii’s delegation having been exploring other routes.

One of those would bypass Congress altogether and seek recognition from the U.S. Department of the Interior, a process used by Native American tribes.

“It is possible that Hawaiians could achieve recognition through an alternate route — alternate from the legislative route,” said Clyde Namuo, OHA’s longtime CEO until he retired Dec. 30. “It would not require congressional approval, but you would need to convince the Secretary of the Interior that they have the authority to do it. And we believe that there is adequate precedence to establish that you can do it.”

Tribal Path

Native American tribes can be recognized through a federal acknowledgment process. The problem, according to Namuo, is that the process applies only to Alaska and the Lower 48 states.

“The rules never changed to include Hawaii,” he said. “So we are not permitted to apply under that law.”

But OHA has learned through its research consultants that there have been four separate incidents where the Interior Department did recognize tribes outside the acknowledgment process.

The key, said Namuo, is having an Interior secretary and U.S. president who are sympathetic toward Hawaiian recognition — something OHA believes is the case with Secretary Ken Salazar and President Barack Obama.

“You need the stars to align,” said Namuo, who explained that Interior recognition may have to wait until after the elections this year. “Even if they acknowledge that they have the authority, they are still going to want to go through a process. And that’s why the state roll commission is critical.”

Namuo is referring to the state legislation, signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in July, that recognizes Hawaiians as the state’s indigenous population and establishes a Native Hawaiian Roll Commission to begin a process of counting qualified Hawaiians who will form a new government.

“The Native Hawaiian governing entity is the entity that would apply to the Secretary of the Interior for recognition,” said Namuo. “Without the entity, you wouldn’t have that happen.”

“The governing entity process can be done without any federal law,” he said. “Sen. Inouye has said numerous times that you don’t need a federal law to organize a Native Hawaiian community.”

Unlike Native Americans, whose tribal structure and leadership have been intact for centuries, Hawaiians don’t have a comparable leadership group in place that speaks for the Native Hawaiian community.

Kau Inoa

Namuo is careful to stress that OHA is a state agency that would be separate from a governing entity.

Though the roll commission, headed by former Gov. John Waihee, is administratively attached to OHA — OHA will fund its operations — it cannot affect policy.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t ties between OHA and the commission.

For example, Namuo said the names of 110,000 Hawaiians collected by OHA beginning in 2004 through a program called Kau Inoa — it means, roughly, to sign up or place names — could become the basis for a roll. Those registered for Kau Inoa would have to agree to let their names be used and to meet qualifying criteria set by the roll commission.

There are other connections between OHA and the roll commission: John Waihee IV, the former governor’s son, is a current OHA trustee.

And, Namuo was named executive director of the commission, it was announced Thursday, on a volunteer basis. State law prohibits “retirees” from working for the state for one year after leaving their position.

“Gov. Waihee asked me, and I could not tell him no,” said Namuo. “After all, Chair (Colette) Machado and I both urged Gov. Abercrombie to pick him as chair of the commission.”

Half a Million Strong?

Machado said she is not giving up on the Akaka bill. But she describes the last decade as “10 years of yo-yos, up and down.”

“I am hopeful, but if you look at the roll commission, it could potentially help shape a Hawaiian constitution,” she said. “Excuse me if I’m pushy, but, you know the song ‘Sonny’s Been Waiting’?”

Machado is referring to a Henry Kapono song called “Broken Promise” about Sonny Alohalani Kaniho, who fought to get Hawaiians on Hawaiian home lands. It includes this refrain:

Sonny’s been waiting / Sonny’s been waiting his turn in line / Sonny’s been waiting / Why should he wait until he dies?

Machado said the timeline for the Interior recognition is 18 months to two years. She gave Civil Beat sample copies of several Native American constitutions and bylaws, including Arizona’s Hopi Tribe, which was recognized by Henry Ickes, the Interior Secretary in 1936.

“This is parallel,” Machado said of the Interior plan. “If the Akaka bill fails, we can still move forward at the state level. When you read this (she points to the constitutions and bylaws) you can see how hopeful it can be for Native Hawaiians, even if we are doing this with the state first rather than from the federal government down.”

Machado pointed to another Indian tribe as a model.

“The Navajo is the largest on the continent,” she said. “We have over 500,000 Hawaiians here and on the continent. We don’t want to say this too loud, but we are larger than the Navajo.”

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