WASHINGTON — Native Hawaiian groups from across the country convened this past week to talk about some of the key issues facing their community. But rather than gather in the place of common ancestry, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs held its annual convention here in the nation’s capital, just steps from the seat of the government many Hawaiians still distrust as an illegal occupier.

The weeklong convention, hosted in numerous conference rooms at the J.W. Marriott hotel a few blocks from the White House, was a study in the dichotomy of Native Hawaiians’ participation in civic affairs, particularly government.

On one hand, an hour-long speech delivered by Kamanaopono Crabbe, the CEO of the state-government-attached Office of Hawaiian Affairs, was generally well-received by hundreds in attendance in the main ballroom Thursday. On the other hand, Civil Beat, which has the only full-time correspondent for a Hawaii news organization in Washington, D.C., on Friday was asked to leave a policy discussion about proposed gambling on Native Hawaiian land as well as the controversial Public Land Development Corporation created by the Hawaii Legislature last year.

Meanwhile, the president of the organization hosting the convention, Soulee Stroud from Utah, declined repeated requests for interviews, concerned how the event would be portrayed.

This much is clear from conversations with convention attendees and a review of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs website:

  • Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole founded the first Hawaiian Civic Club nearly a century ago as a way to encourage Native Hawaiians to actively participate in their own governance.
  • The clubs exist today not only to impact policy but also to share and pass down traditions from one generation to the next. Among those in attendance were school-age children and some three-generation families.
  • There are more than 60 individual Hawaiian Civic Clubs, including at least 20 based on the mainland in places like Texas, Colorado and Las Vegas.

“Even though they like to think they colonized Hawaii, we’re colonizing the continent with Hawaiians everywhere,” Mahealani Cypher, a leader of the Koolaupoko Civic Club on Oahu’s eastern shore, told Civil Beat outside of a committee meeting Friday. A day earlier, she’d accepted a nomination to be a vice president of the full association, and was awaiting a full vote later in the weekend.

The clubs are organized into five “councils” — one for each of the four counties in Hawaii and one for all the mainland clubs — but Cypher said each club is fully autonomous. They have diverse areas of focus, with some choosing to get involved directly in politics and others spending their energy on environmental issues, nation-building or cultural practices.

“I think people are seeing now that, collectively, as civic clubs and as councils and as the association, we can make a difference,” she said.

The gambling proposal was among the resolutions discussed Friday and Saturday. So too were a pair of resolutions dealing with the PLDC: one urging the Legislature to repeal the law that created the agency, and one urging the PLDC itself to enact administrative rules that would neutralize some of the more troubling components of the law that give the agency wide latitude to disregard some environmental laws in the interest of economic growth.

It’s not immediately clear how any of those resolutions fared. On Friday, some attendees of the Economic Development committee objected to allowing a Civil beat reporter in the room.

The most vocal was Pohai Ryan, who raised her hand in objection and said only that “This is Hawaiian Civic Club” and that the media didn’t belong. Ryan serves as one of 25 senators in the Hawaii Legislature, and was among those who voted in favor of creating the much-criticized PLDC. Ryan lost in the Democratic primary in August to former Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Laura Thielen and will no longer be in office if a repeal of the law is considered in 2013.

Stroud had originally agreed to a brief interview early Saturday morning, but called late Friday night to back out. Reached Sunday, he told Civil Beat he was in a meeting and unable to talk.

The Hawaiian Civic Clubs, and the association, are private organizations and not subject to the state’s Sunshine Law or any other rules pertaining to government transparency. But considering one of the overarching goals is public advocacy and participation in civic affairs, the organizational bashfulness with the media is an odd strategy.

“I think it’s important that they all learn the issues, be makaala, be alert to what’s happening in the nation and in their own communities,” Cypher said when asked what role the clubs should play. “Work with their communities, with the grassroots, to educate people about Hawaiian concerns, justice for Hawaiians, and try to persuade the communities around them to support Hawaiians’ pursuit of justice.”

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