To help the U.S. Department of the Interior understand how some Native Hawaiians view federal recognition, DeMont R. D. Conner offered this analogy:
Your car is stolen. The person who stole the car later apologizes and offers you a bicycle.
The only proper response to such an offer, said Connor, is to insist that the stolen property be returned to its rightful owner.
“Go back and tell your boss, ‘Give ’em back da car!'” he told a panel of Interior officials as the audience that packed the Hawaii State Capitol Monday morning erupted into laughter and hearty applause.
Connor’s point was that the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 was a theft.
For federal officials to offer recognition, a 121 years later, to Kanaka Maoli as an indigenous people entitled to government-to-government status with the United States is like giving them a bike. Not just any bike, either, said Conner: a Schwinn.
He was one of 143 people who testified — and shouted, cried, pleaded, prayed, chanted and sang — for more than three hours Monday before Interior officials. It was the first of 15 public meetings in the islands scheduled over the next two weeks.
The hearings are part of a “listening tour” being conducted by Interior to solicit comments and feedback on “whether and how” the process of reestablishing a government-to-government relationship should proceed.
The answer from nearly everyone who testified Monday was that it should not. In their view, Hawaii is still a nation and the Americans are occupiers — like the U.S. military — who should leave.
“Get out of our house!” several speakers told the Interior panel, which included Esther Kiaaina, a senior adviser to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “Go home!”
Many of the testifiers, some proudly identifying themselves as Hawaiian, said the U.S. government had no jurisdiction in the islands. They cited analyses of treaties, bills, acts, resolutions, petitions and law that led them to passionately believe that Hawaii is quite independent of the other 49 states.
They were the arguments cited by many of the same people who participated in a series of public meetings held this spring by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which worked with the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission to sign up Hawaiians for a future government.
As at the OHA meetings, opponents of federal recognition said Monday that self-determination was their business and not that of the federal or state government.
Despite the anger, there was also a lot of aloha in the room, which surpassed the 200-person capacity and spilled out into the hallway and upstairs into the Rotunda. Conner, for example, told Kiaaina, “Come home, Sista, come home!”
Before the Interior’s first hearing even began there was talk that it was a rigged affair.
Word circulated on the web that the public would be shut out of the process and that only government officials and those sympathetic to OHA and the roll commission, which have worked toward nationhood, would be permitted to speak.
That was not the case.
Only a handful of government officials, such as OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado and Naalehu Anthony, vice chairman of the Roll Commission — set up by the Hawaii Legislature in 2011 to create a Hawaiian registry — spoke Monday. And they were among only a handful of people who favored federal recognition.
Dan Akaka, the former U.S. senator who spent a decade unsuccessfully fighting for federal recognition through the U.S. Congress, gave an opening pule (prayer).
Next, Rhea Suh, an Interior assistant secretary, explained that the department was continuing a process that began with the 1993 apology to Hawaiians by President Bill Clinton.
Sam Hirsch, an acting attorney general with the Department of Justice, then began to explain the “listening process.”
But the public address system was muddied and people complained.
“It”s hard to hear the propaganda!” one audience member cracked.
Hirsch moved the podium microphone closer and explained that neither the state nor the Interior secretary would be involved in deciding the structure of a Native Hawaiian government.
Moderator Dawn Chang, an expert on land issues and regulatory requirements, then opened things up for questions before testimony was to start. Immediately the panel was challenged over its very legitimacy.
Protesters proclaimed support for the monarchy, insisted Hawaii was still sovereign, said they did not have to adhere to the laws of Congress and said they were insulted to be compared to American Indian tribes.
“I am not an American,” several people said.
In light of the hot remarks, Chang several times asked people to be respectful of others. Hirsch, meanwhile, did his best to provide answers, keeping his cool and saying things like, “Another wonderful question!”
Kiaaina also responded, telling “Uncle Joe” Tassel, a member of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, that federal recognition would not have an impact on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
“Let us figure out how to govern ourselves.” — Bumpy Kanahele
(Later, Tassel claimed that the entire Hawaiian archipelago should be returned to the indigenous population. “You need to pack your bag and leave,” he said to the Interior panel. “But before you leave, please pay the back rent and all the interest with that back rent.”)
At some point someone started singing “Hawaii Ponoi,” the state song and former Hawaiian national anthem, prompting most everyone else to rise from their seats and join along.
Not long after, Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele told the panel that the federal government could be held liable for genocide committed against Hawaiians.
“I am against this process,” said Kanahele, a Hawaiian nationalist. “We don’t need you folks to come here and tell us. Let us figure out how to govern ourselves.”
Kanahele closed by telling the panel — almost with a knowing wink — that he would see them again Monday night in his own neighborhood in Waimanalo, where Interior had scheduled its second public hearing.
The formal comment process had not even begun and already things were pretty intense. The third hearing is scheduled Tuesday night in Waianae, another Oahu town with lots of Hawaiians.
The first hearing illustrated what is already known to many: that there are strongly differing views within the Hawaii community.
That was obvious Monday when Machado testified — or tried to. She was booed by some in the audience, which led Machado, like Chang, to call for respect as well.
“Let’s not get into one pissing match, let’s have some aloha over here,” she said, urging that the government be allowed to move forward on a path toward recognition.
Anthony, of the roll commission, recalled that many of the things said in opposition to federal recognition Monday had been said 25 years ago.
“I’d like to move forward now,” he said.
But attorney Keoni Agard was one of many who said there was no pretext for such movement, arguing that it is unconstitutional even under American law.
“A massive fraud has been committed against our people and the Hawaiian Kingdom, and it is very upsetting to realize these facts,” said Agard.
Mililani Trask, a former OHA trustee who is seeking a seat again this year, said the roll commission had failed to sign up a sufficient number of Hawaiians to form a governing entity. The largest group to sign, she said, was 2,000 inmates in a federal penitentiary in Arizona.
“We are not Indians,” she said. “What was taken … was one nation, individual, under the Akua (God). We will never agree to accept bits and pieces of an Indian confederacy.”
Tempers were growing, and several people shouted profanities.
“This is all bullshit,” said Peter Kealoha, referring to the process.
At times the swearing made things more intense, but at other times it served as a valve release that helped people laugh and blow off steam.
Kalani Asam, for example, referred to “intercourse” between the Hawaiian nation and the United States, meaning formal dealings between people. But sometimes the U.S., he said, had been guilty of the “wrong kind of intercourse,” meaning rape.
All of it was caught live on the cameras of Olelo Community Media.
There were surprisingly tender moments, too.
For their testimony, Laulani Teal and Liko Martin sang a song about Queen Liliuokalani and her “red-ribbon document” opposition to the 1893 annexation.
Palani Vaughan, a professional musician recognizable by his mutton chops, joined them midway, holding aloft a reproduction of the document and softly singing along.
For his part, Maurice Crabbe, who works at the Moana Surfrider in Waikiki, brought visual aids that he said modeled the relationship between the U.S. and Hawaiians.
The first was a Snickers bar, which he equated to candy being given to children. The second was cookies, which Hawaiians have eaten since statehood in 1959 but today are just crumbs.
“GMO crumbs!” someone yelled.
The third item or model, said Crabbe, was a homemade chocolate macadamia pie from Ted’s Bakery at Sunset Beach. What Hawaiians want today, he said, is the whole pie: monetary damages, claims against the government and a renewed nationhood status.
Crabbe said he uses the same props to “educate tourists.”
After the hearings conclude, Interior will take its finding back to Washington. If Monday’s hearing is any indication of what’s to come in the next 14 meetings, the panel should have quite a lot to share with Secretary Jewell.