Robin Puanani Danner was just 10 years old the last time a U.S. secretary of the Interior visited Hawaii.
So on Wednesday, Danner, who recently retired from the presidency of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, presented four lei to Secretary Sally Jewell — one for each decade since the last Interior secretary visited — and another nine lei for each of the U.S. presidencies during that time.
Danner was so passionate in welcoming Jewell to keynote the CNHA convention in Waikiki that, tears running down her face, she called her “the Stewart Udall of the Pacific.” Udall, the last interior secretary to visit the islands, served in the Kennedy and Johnson administration in the 1960s.
Jewell’s pile of lei was so high that she had to remove most of them so she could read her prepared remarks.
The secretary told the council that she has heard and understands the issues important to many Native Hawaiians, especially achieving federal recognition and improving the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Despite the warm reception and widespread hopes, she didn’t say how she would do that.
Jewell has been on the job just five months, and as she told the council, it’s “a pretty big job.” It involves protecting the nation’s natural resources and heritage, honoring cultures and tribal communities, and oversight of renewable energy development on public lands.
As such, a big part of Jewell’s job is to visit the interior itself. She was in Alaska before coming to Hawaii, and she is heading to the Marshall Islands later this week to attend a conference on how to address the threats that global warming present to low-lying islands. As Jewell noted, climate change also presents serious threats to the 49th and 50th states.
While in Honolulu, the secretary also met with Gov. Neil Abercrombie and members of his Cabinet to learn more about the state’s priorities on energy, land and natural resources.
Jewell seemed to hit the right notes with the CNHA crowd, demonstrating that she not only understands the issues but genuinely cares about them. The CNHA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the well-being of Hawaiians through cultural, economic and community development.
On federal recognition, which has never made it through the U.S. Senate despite the decade-long effort of Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka, Jewel said the Obama administration was “looking at different options to move on a path forward.”
Sec. Jewell and Gov. Abercrombie
Though she did not elaborate, one of those options could be recognition of Hawaiians through the Interior Department, the path taken by many Native American tribes. Given Barack Obama’s many frustrations with the Republicans in Congress who have thwarted much of his agenda, the first Hawaii-born president might feel great satisfaction were he to secure federal recognition, regardless of whether Congress signs off on it or not.
Jewell also touched lightly on the management problems with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, saying she was aware of a series of recent articles in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
The secretary said her office is “mindful of the balance” required between the state and Congress, which in 1921 established the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act when Hawaii was a territory. She hoped that significant progress would be made by the act’s centennial in 2021, including incorporating recommendations made by the Hawaiian Home Lands Commission 30 years ago.
But waiting eight more years may not play well with Hawaiians who have been waiting decades for a homeland to call their own, especially under a president born here.
But Jewell acknowledged that the Star-Advertiser articles call for greater oversight of DHHL by the Interior, and she said her department was “moving forward with the rule-making process” while listening to concerns of “the broader Native Hawaiian community.” She appeared sensitive to the fact that there are an array of opinions about the homelands program within that community.
The secretary also spoke of financial challenges in Washington. Because of budget cuts from sequestration, her department has far fewer resources; that might mean fewer visits from Interior officials and slower reactivity on their part. She also described the federal bureaucracy as “quite a giant hairball,” which only adds to the challenges Jewell faces.
Her remarks were received by a standing ovation. Danner gave her a carved wooden shark, telling her to take the aumakua — the Hawaiian word for a family god — back to D.C. to give her a little mana.
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