President Obama’s nomination of Derrick Kahala Watson to the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii softens a long-standing cross-town rivalry in its endorsement of a Kamehameha alumnus by a Punahou graduate.

Presumably, Watson’s appointment should be a feather in the cap of the Hawaiian people as well as a source of pride to all who identify themselves with the Aloha State. As of the most recent Hawaii legislative Session, however, Watson will be subject to a racial litmus test should he desire, even as a recognized Native Hawaiian, to be part of a State-authorized “Hawaiian nation.”

Thanks to Act 195 (the Native Hawaiian Role Commission Act), not only are all non-Hawaiians barred from citizenship in the nation being enrolled by the newly formed Roll Commission, those Native Hawaiians who do not meet certain additional standards are also barred. A five-person panel within the Roll Commission, appointed by the governor, is charged with disqualifying any Native Hawaiians, even those with proof of Hawaiian blood ancestry, who do not pass a specified test. That test is whether, in the eyes of the panel, the Native Hawaiian has “maintained a significant cultural, social, or civic connection to the Native Hawaiian community and wishes to participate in the organization of the Native Hawaiian governing entity.”

I wonder whether Derrick Watson “wishes to participate in the organization of the Native Hawaiian
governing entity.”

I also wonder whether his Western education and long absences from Hawaii while studying at Harvard University, serving in the U.S. military and working in California, might raise doubts over his “cultural, social, or civic connection to the Native Hawaiian community.” By law, that’s now a question for the panel to decide, not for Watson, and not for his ancestors.

In the upcoming session of the Hawaii Legislature, a move to repeal the Native Hawaiian Roll
Commission Act would be a significant opportunity for government leaders to affirm our American civil
rights and correct a hastily enacted mistake. It would also be an opportunity for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which endorses and administratively supports the Native Hawaiian Role Commission, to take a stand for civil rights by fulfilling its two-fold duty as both an agency of the State and an advocate for the betterment of Native Hawaiians.

The defense of a Native Hawaiian’s identity and status as a descendent of one of our nation’s indigenous peoples should be a priority for OHA trustees working together with state lawmakers and not jeopardized by a racially discriminatory law.

About the author: Dr. Keli’i Akina is a philosopher who lectures on human rights and business ethics in Chinese and American universities.

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