Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.

The following came from Mahealani Wendt, a candidate for the Maui seat on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees. Also running is Carmen Lindsey.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Name: Mahealani Wendt

Office: OHA Trustee – Maui

Profession: Executive Director, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, 1978-2009

Education: Kamehameha Schools, 1965; BA Political Science, UH-Manoa, 1972; Wm. S. Richardson School of Law, 1976-78; Grad. Certificate, Public Administration, UH-Manoa, 1985

Age: 67

Community organizationsState of Hawaii Judiciary – Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Board and Commission on Access to Justice; board member, Native American Rights Fund; board member, Alu Like, Inc.; founding board member, Waimanalo Health Center; Advisory Council Member, Queen Lili`uokalani Trust Children’s Center; founding board member, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement; board member, Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu; Government Relations Committee Chair, Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs; board member, Na Moku Aupuni o Ko`olau Hui (Ke`anae-Wailuanui, East Maui)

Sovereignty & Self-Determination: Hui Na`auao Sovereignty & Self-Determination Community Education Project, 1993-96; Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council, 1996; delegate, `Aha `Oiwi Hawai`i, The Native Hawaiian Convention; commissioner, Maui Nui, Native Hawaiian Roll Commission

Mahealani Wendt

Mahealani Wendt

1. Why are you running for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs?  

Native Hawaiian people are at a crossroads with respect to our political status, our establishment of a government of our  own choosing. I believe good leadership at this time in our history is critical. The decisions made today by Hawaiian leaders will impact many generations to come. The very existence of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is at issue, for it has been a long-held vision of our Hawaiian community that OHA will be replaced by the Native Hawaiian government. I am running for an OHA Trustee seat because I want to make sure the transition to a Native Hawaiian government is orderly; that in the process we do not lose sight of the need to continue advocacy and assertions of rights to land, natural resources and customary and traditional practices, the exercise of which enable Hawaiians to be Hawaiian in their homeland. I also believe it critical to prudently manage the trust assets that are currently held by OHA, foundational to future prosperity for our people.

2. What is your view regarding OHA’s efforts to build a Hawaiian nation?

I was one of many participants at a series of meetings convened by OHA, “Ka Mau a Ea Summits,” where the consensus of attendees was that OHA should support, but not interfere with, the process of nation-building, a position with which I am in full agreement. The preferred approach is for a coalition of representatives of Hawaiian organizations to oversee the process, including a possible political status referendum, election of delegates, gathering to draft an organic governance document (constitutional convention), and ratification of that document.

3. What is your view on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s proposed rule-making on a government-to-government relationship?

I believe Native Hawaiians need to establish a formal political relationship with the U.S. government. I have attended the Department of Interior hearings held so far; the strongest opposition voices come from Native Hawaiians who feel the U.S. should withdraw from Hawai`i, return its sovereignty and national lands to descendants of those who were citizens of the Kingdom of Hawai`i. There is also opposition from those who believe the Hawaiian sovereignty movement is separatist, racist, and inimical to the U.S. Constitution. My perspective comes from being one of seven children raised by a single mother in poverty, a lifelong grassroots community organizer and legal advocate. There is great suffering in our communities — ongoing displacement from ancestral lands  through adverse possession by large corporations; desecration of sacred places, including burial sites by developers; inability to access traditional places of subsistence gathering and cultural significance; wholesale appropriation and diversion of public trust resources, including water needed for taro farming, gathering and replenishing near-shore reef fish; economic, social, educational, and health disparities. A greater measure of political influence at the policy-making level would help secure redress for some of these disparities and having a government of our own would represent a quantum leap in that direction. Our Hawaiian people will remain divided until the U.S. government admits the truth of its illegal theft of our sovereignty and national lands by not just apologizing, not just by relegating Hawaii’s indigenous people to an “interior” people over which it claims legal jurisdiction, but by recognizing our status as Hawaii’s first people, which is the truth. The reality of Hawaii’s multi-ethnic society is that a future independent political status would have to be approved by all its citizens. This is unlikely to occur anytime in the near future, and we cannot continue to allow the suffering in our communities without taking the steps necessary to organize ourselves politically to alleviate that suffering. A Native Hawaiian government should welcome political recognition by all governments, including the U.S. government. If a Native Hawaiian government rejected U.S. political recognition, at least that view would be representative of those who choose to participate in a government. I support inclusion with respect to those who form the government, and would be open to approaches in addition to and beyond the Kanaiolowalu registry, as long as these approaches are consistent with international law.

4. OHA has focused on developing land holdings in order to raise revenue to help beneficiaries. Is this an appropriate avenue for OHA to pursue?

Yes.  Article 12 of Hawaii’s constitution states, “The Office of Hawaiian Affairs shall hold title to all the real and personal property now or hereafter set aside or conveyed to it which shall be held in trust for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians.” This provision was expressly included so that OHA could acquire and hold property for the betterment of its beneficiaries. OHA needs to maximize revenues in order to fulfill its trust responsibility to better the conditions of Hawaiians and native Hawaiians.

5. OHA’s stated purpose is to provide “opportunity for a better life and future” for all Native Hawaiians. Is it doing that? And if not, what would you do about that?

OHA has been fulfilling its mission, albeit imperfectly, in a number of ways — by pursuing a higher level of political autonomy through formal political recognition by the U.S. government while undertaking a parallel course of direct service in administering progressive grants programs whose strategic objectives result from a community consultative process. In recent years, its advocacy at the Legislature and on behalf of communities has been very visible, responsive to and in concert with community.  One of its shortcomings, in regard to the foregoing, is failure to engage in ongoing consultations with community, especially with regard to federal recognition legislation.  Many compromises and amendments regarded as unacceptable by the Hawaiian community were made without its foreknowledge or input. These compromises were made as a political expedient, compromises at any cost, in order to get the legislation passed. I believe very strongly that OHA consultation with its beneficiaries needs to be ongoing and regular, especially in matters that impact political status. Meeting and fulfilling the expectations of a 500,000-member constituency is not easy, but regular engagement can help OHA improve its response to community needs. OHA cannot be all things to all Hawaiians, but it can do a better job of addressing basic needs by aligning its grants program objectives and political status initiatives more closely with that of community. 

6. Is OHA doing enough to protect the environment, improve the health of Native Hawaiians and perpetuate the culture? What ideas would you bring to OHA?

• Review and revise its existing strategic plan with respect to land acquisitions to ensure cultural and natural resources situated on public lands are included. Many rural communities regard OHA as the land trust repository and steward for the future Hawaiian nation, and have approached it to consider acquisition in order to ensure protection from overdevelopment;

• Work with the Department of Hawaiian Homelands to underwrite infrastructure costs and encourage settlement through an aggressive program of self-help housing;

• Continue its advocacy on behalf of prison reform, including revisiting mandatory sentencing, ensuring effective counsel, bringing Hawaiian prisoners home to Hawaii, and supporting culture-based rehabilitation programs as an alternative to incarceration;

• Operationalizing a traditional peacemaking (ho`oponopono) program to assist our families and communities with resolving disputes;

• Continue health initiatives that encourage lifestyle changes with respect to diet and exercise. The traditional diet is very healthy so it is important to make traditional food accessible to our families. Backyard aquaponics programs, for example, have proven successful in providing families fish, taro and extra income.  

• More proactive with the Hawaiian-focus charter school movement by providing increased contributions per student.

• Establishing a separate endowment for higher education scholarships, so that the awards are not subject to the year-to-year political whims of trustees;

• Reforming the OHA election process so that island trustees are elected by their respective islands and not trumped by the O`ahu electorate, as has consistently been the case;

• Continuing its support of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, which has litigated some of the most important, landmark and precedent-setting cases on behalf of OHA’s beneficiaries.

7. Are you satisfied with the way OHA has negotiated with the state over ceded-land revenues?

There is a lot of dissatisfaction and second-guessing as to why OHA trustees settled for lands they could not develop.  I am still studying this issue but remain confident that a solution that is lawful and satisfactory to all concerned is possible, especially if agreements and accommodations are worked out between the various affected Kaka`ako landowners.

8. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

None at this time.