The U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday announced it’s moving forward on a rule-making process for re-establishing a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians.

The purpose is to solicit public comments on “whether and how” the department should take administrative action regarding Native Hawaiian government recognition. The first of many meetings is scheduled for Monday at the State Capitol.

The announcement was met with support from Hawaii’s political leaders and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but some in the Native Hawaiian community questioned the abruptness of the announcement and the value of the federal process.

Underscoring how significant the development is, Hawaii’s congressional delegation — Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, and Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard — issued a joint statement:

“We applaud the Administration’s commitment to an open dialogue, starting with listening sessions in Hawaii to provide ample opportunity for Native Hawaiians and the general public to contribute their comments and concerns. This notice represents an historic opportunity to address years of injustice and marks a positive step forward in the push for Native Hawaiian self-determination.”

Hawaiian flag at OHA  press conference

A Hawaiian flag is displayed at a May 12, 2014, press conference in support of Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Gov. Neil Abercrombie also applauded.

“We look forward to welcoming representatives of the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Justice to discuss ideas for updating federal policy on Native Hawaiian self-determination,” he said in a statement. “I commend the Obama Administration for recognizing and supporting Native Hawaiians as it works to reconcile its relationship with Native Hawaiians at the federal level.”

The news comes not long after the Office of Hawaiian Affairs held a series of public meetings on nation-building in which it became clear that there are sharply mixed views on what Hawaiian sovereignty would entail. At a meeting last month, the agency’s chief executive officer, Kamana’opono Crabbe, urged the Board of Trustees to delay its plan to hold a constitutional convention for a new Hawaiian nation this fall, based on feedback from community members who want more time for education.

Soon after the Department of Interior announced its plans, OHA officials issued statements commending the move.

This effort is an important step toward ensuring that millions of dollars for Native Hawaiian education, health and other programs will continue to flow to our people and that our Hawaiian trusts and programs will be protected from further legal challenges,” said Colette Machado, chairwoman of the OHA Board of Trustees. “We ask all Hawaiians to make their voices heard at the public meetings, and we also urge that we respect and aloha each other as we engage with the United States government on this complex but urgent question.”

Crabbe also said in a press release that he supports the Department of Interior’s decision to listen to Native Hawaiians.

“We appreciate the Obama Administration’s historic affirmation that Congress has long recognized our community’s special political status as Kanaka Maoli, the aboriginal indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands,” he said.

Others within the Native Hawaiian community were less supportive.

Mililani Trask, a Hawaiian sovereignty activist and candidate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs this year, said that there is too little notice before the hearings and suggested that local politicians will use Monday’s meeting at the State Capital to woo native voters.

Others said the federal process would counteract efforts to obtain sovereignty. Jon Osorio, a professor at the University of Hawaii who wants to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom, called the Interior Department’s plan “an attempt to continue to deny the lawful existence of our own government.”

“There is no need to create another government for kanaka maoli because one already exists,” he said.

The Interior Department said in a press release Wednesday that the Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making announcement is in response to requests from the Native Hawaiian community, Hawaii’s congressional delegation and state leaders.

“When I met with members of the Native Hawaiian community last year during my visit to the state, I learned first-hand about Hawaii’s unique history and the importance of the special trust relationship that exists between the Federal government and the Native Hawaiian community,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in the release.

She continued: “Through the Advanced Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the Department is responding to requests from not only the Native Hawaiian community but also state and local leaders and interested parties who recognize that we need to begin a conversation of diverse voices to help determine the best path forward for honoring the trust relationship that Congress has created specifically to benefit Native Hawaiians.”

In 2000, the departments of Interior and Justice issued a report on the reconciliation process that identified self-determination for Native Hawaiians under federal law. 

There are five “threshold questions” that will be the subject of forthcoming public meetings June 23 through July 8:

• Should the Secretary propose an administrative rule that would facilitate the reestablishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community?

• Should the Secretary assist the Native Hawaiian community in reorganizing its government, with which the United States could reestablish a government-to-government relationship?

• If so, what process should be established for drafting and ratifying a reorganized Native Hawaiian government’s constitution or other governing document?

• Should the Secretary instead rely on the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian government through a process established by the Native Hawaiian community and facilitated by the State of Hawaii, to the extent such a process is consistent with Federal law?

• If so, what conditions should the Secretary establish as prerequisites to Federal acknowledgment of a government-to-government relationship with the reorganized Native Hawaiian government?

The public will have 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register — it is expected to come out Thursday — to provide comments on the action.

The Oahu meetings are as follows:

• Monday, June 23 — Honolulu— 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Hawaii State Capitol Auditorium

•  Monday, June 23 — Waimanalo — 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School

 • Tuesday, June 24 — Waianae Coast — 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Nanaikapono Elementary School

•  Wednesday, June 25 — Kaneohe — 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Heeia Elementary School

• Thursday, June 26 — Kapolei – 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., Makakilo Elementary School

Public meetings are also scheduled on Lanai, Molokai, Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. Click here for the full schedule.

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