Have you noticed the recent spate of ads for Kanaʻiolowalu, the latest attempt to create a registry of Hawaiians who will then be eligible to participate in establishing a Hawaiian “governing entity?” In other words, a vehicle for Hawaiian sovereignty, however that is ultimately defined.

It’s a project of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, created by the legislature in 2011, that seeks to rekindle momentum for Hawaiian self-governance after the Akaka Bill stalled in Congress.

This latest push via the roll commission was originally seen as a one-year effort that was to have been wrapped up by now, but it has been extended through January 19, 2014.

Building the registry has been anything but easy. According to the Kana‘iolowalu website, only 17,225 people had registered as of Tuesday afternoon.

That’s out of a total of 527,077 Hawaiians in the United States, including 289,970 living in Hawaii, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census that was compiled by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Pretty meager pickings, indeed, and it is evidence that the whole process has gotten a less than enthusiastic reception.

This isn’t the first attempt to sign up Hawaiians. OHA conducted three previous programs aimed at creating a Hawaiian registry over the past decade. The most recent, Kau Inoa, eventually registered more than 100,000 people, but it took a number of years, and other groups have been urging their followers to rescind their registrations.

Just how those registration efforts are related to, or different from, the current registration project, and whether rights being gained or lost, is not at all clear.

In an apparent attempt to deal with that problem, Sen. Clayton Hee pulled another of those “gut and replace” moves during the 2013 legislative session. He deleted the contents of a bill on the service of process issued by another state, and substituted language requiring the roll commission to include on its books anyone OHA has already registered as Hawaiian or Native Hawaiian, or who meets the ancestry requirements of Kamehameha Schools.

There wasn’t much testimony, perhaps because the “gut and replace” ballet wasn’t widely expected. But in one sign of dissension, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands opposed a provision to automatically include its beneficiaries on the roll of eligible Hawaiians, arguing that they should have the choice of whether or not to associate with Kana‘iolowalu.

Others who oppose the bill criticized the project’s high cost and meager results, noting that the first $1.8 million that was spent resulted in registering fewer than 10,000 people.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to Kana‘iolowalu, but when a cousin emailed and urged that I register, I decided to take a closer look.

The law establishing the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission established just two eligibility criteria.

To be eligible, according to the statute, you must be “a descendant of the aboriginal peoples who, prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the Hawaiian islands,” and also have “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.”

That’s it. Sounds pretty straightforward. Bring as many Hawaiians as possible into the discussion, and let the process move forward.

But the roll commission has added its own wrinkle by requiring that people agree with an additional declaration that is not mentioned in the law.

On the registration form, you are now asked to declare: “I affirm the unrelinquished sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people, and my intent to participate in the process of self-governance.”

Frankly, I’m not sure what “unrelinquished sovereignty” means or why this is thrown into a registration process focused on “reunifying” Hawaiians.

Minutes of roll commission meetings might shed some light on the issue, but aren’t made available on its website.

I’m sure that there’s a bit of politics, a hidden litmus test perhaps, behind the nuanced choice of words. It makes me wary, and I doubt I’m alone.

I tend to be a realist. It seems to me that sovereignty, in the standard sense of having ultimate power over a body politic, was lost with the overthrow of the kingdom and the islands’ annexation as part of the United States. It may or may not have been legal. It may or may not have been right or just. You can argue about whether a sovereign entity should be restored or recreated, and what shape that governing entity should take. You can probably argue over whether sovereignty is best understood in spiritual, political, cultural, or economic terms. But Hawaii sovereignty in the traditional political sense was essentially relinquished when the Hawaiian government was extinguished.

And I don’t take it as a matter of faith that a sovereign Hawaiian governing entity will necessarily make things better. Possible, but I don’t take it on faith.

I am, in short, an agnostic on sovereignty.

Does that understanding of the world render me ineligible to register with Kana‘iolowalu, be placed on the roll, and participate in the future debates and decisions? Does the failure to register render one forever outside of the process? Answers aren’t readily apparent.

As a Hawaiian, that concerns me.

It may not seem like a big deal now, and obviously a lot of Hawaiians aren’t taking it seriously. But if and when the creation of a self-governing Hawaiian entity picks up steam and, more importantly, resources, whether or not you’re on the official rolls could become a very big deal indeed.

Just who is considered “in” and who is left out has become a hot issue in many parts of the U.S. mainland, where American Indian tribes have been expelling tribal members now deemed “inauthentic,” an ugly process known as “disenrollment” that has been tearing apart families and communities.

Care needs to be taken now to ensure similar problems will not happen here in the event that the move toward a “Native Hawaiian governing entity” is ultimately successful.

Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.