The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is often seen as the political go-to institution in dealing with Native Hawaiians. So it is easy to forget that the primary responsibility for the governance and management of the special trust relationship established by the Congress between Native Hawaiians and the federal and state governments continues to lie with the government of the United States, and by extension, authorities in Hawaii.

For all the apparent confusion, OHA is a state instrument of that trust responsibility, but empowered with unique state constitutional authority to function as a semi-autonomous political body. OHA exercises its authority on behalf of its approximately 250,000 Hawaiian beneficiaries living in Hawaii and, to a somewhat nebulous degree, another 250,000 living on the mainland.

Hawaii state flag at the Hawaii Capitol Building.

Hawaiian identity is based on a rich, complicated history.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

OHA’s role as a state agency puzzles many people and more than a few wonder why it exists at all.

Here are some other relevant questions. If OHA is a state agency, why isn’t it directly accountable to the governor or the Legislature? How can OHA’s land holdings be considered private lands if they are owned and held by a state agency? How did the state end up owing OHA so much money it had to give the agency Kakaako Makai to reimburse the debt? Then there is an overarching question: what do Native Hawaiians mean when they speak of restoring a Hawaiian nation?

OHA is, without question, a state agency. But, it is semi-autonomous and governed by a nine-member elected board of trustees that includes myself. One each from Molokai, Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island, and four at-large. Originally, only Hawaiians were eligible to vote or become a candidate. But, a constitutional challenge, referred to as the Rice-Cayetano decision, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court opening the voting and candidate pool to all of Hawaii’s electorate.

Hawaiians shuttered themselves in their homes and joined their queen in mourning as the Hawaiian flag was lowered at Iolani Palace and Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States.

OHA has substantial resources. It manages a group of trust assets with a net worth of $550 million, which includes a Wall Street investment portfolio of $350 million. OHA’s annual operating budget hovers around $40 million, which includes an annual payroll for 170 employees of $14 million.

OHA’s broad range of activity includes millions in grants to community non-profit organizations, education scholarships, business and home ownership loans, commercial and cultural property management, aggressive research programs, shaping state public policy development, leveraging resources in joint funded projects, creating strategic alliances with other Native Hawaiian institutions, environmental stewardship, health and social service initiatives, and native rights advocacy. One of OHA’s highest program priorities is to vigorously pursue Native Hawaiian self-determination initiatives by intensifying its political advocacy at the highest levels of the state and federal governments.

The Origins of OHA

The concept of OHA grew out of a century-long political process. OHA’s political ancestry began in 1893 when Queen Liliuokalani refused to relinquish her throne and was imprisoned during a coup d’état led by a group of American sugar planters.

The colonizing forces formed a provisional government and submitted a petition of annexation to the United States. President Grover Cleveland decried the coup-d’état, as well as the provisional government, and the annexation attempt failed. The colonizers then converted the provisional government to the Republic of Hawaii. Then, President Cleveland lost his re-election bid against William McKinley. The new president sympathized with the colonizers, and triggered a second annexation attempt.

In mid-1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Newlands Resolution authorizing the annexation of The Republic of Hawaii to the United States. The next day President McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution into law. Six weeks later, Hawaiians shuttered themselves in their homes and joined their queen in mourning as the Hawaiian flag was lowered at Iolani Palace and Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States.

Then in 1900, President Cleveland signed the Organic Act, which provided for the structuring of a Territorial Government of Hawaii. The Organic Act gave “possession, use, and control” of 1,800,000 acres of land to the government of the territory.

The fall of the Hawaiian Nation resulted in an abiding tension between the Native Hawaiian community and those who dominated the political, economic, and societal growth of Hawaii. The political discomfort and a nagging, often irritating, sense of responsibility at both state and federal levels generated a trail of somewhat random government initiatives that seemed aimed at achieving some measure of emotional, if not political, reconciliation.

The genesis of such initiatives was the Hawaiian Homestead Act of 1920, which created the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to repatriate Hawaiian lands to Hawaiians. The stated purpose of this congressional act was “for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.”

More important, it provided congressional acknowledgement of Native Hawaiians as a separate class of people and flashed a green light for other Native Hawaiian initiatives. This act also made clear the existence of a trust relationship between Native Hawaiians and the federal government.

Another substantial reconciliation initiative came with the 1959 Hawaii Statehood Admissions Act. The Admissions Act is essentially a trust document and its provisions are mandates to state government that spell out the terms of the trust. A fundamental provision of the act deals with the transfer of “possession, use, and control” of 1,800,000 acres of land. These lands have been historically transferred — or ceded —from the Kingdom of Hawaii to the Provisional Government to the Republic of Hawaii, and on to the United States government, the Territory of Hawaii, and finally to the state of Hawaii. They are referred to as the “ceded land trust.”

One of the five purposes for the use of such public lands, and the revenues derived from them is “for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians as defined in the Hawaiian Homestead Act of 1920.” Here the state, as a condition of statehood assumes the trust responsibility with Native Hawaiians.

A third important reconciliation initiative came in 1975 in the form of congressional legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. Out of that came the Alu Like organization, which is charged with providing social and economic self-sufficiency programs for Native Hawaiians.

Alu Like served as a model of a specially funded entitlement program for the “betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.” By the turn of the century over 130 programs in education, health, employment and others were enacted by the U.S. Congress for Native Hawaiians.

There is a whole universe of political, economic, social and cultural issues that swirl around OHA and its 170 employees. They sail a sea that has never been crossed.

The 1970s saw a dramatic rise in emotional intensity and Hawaiian activism in the form of street-level protests and civil disobedience encounters with law enforcement. Flashpoints of the activism include confrontations over the bombing of Kahoolawe, the Sand Island evictions, the Hilo Airport runway protests, and the occupation of Makua Valley by the U.S. Army. Other protest themes congruently pursued included native rights, access to public lands and beaches, and environmental stewardship (aloha aina).

From the cauldron of Hawaiian protestation came a significantly heightened call for self-determination. Hawaiians began to insist on being able to directly access resources to which they were entitled, but the state still managed and held them “in trust.”

The public mood of the day was clearly sympathetic and supportive of the Hawaiians’ call for self-determination. The 1978 Constitutional Convention provided a pivotal opportunity to realize political self-determination. Convention delegates envisioned an agency that would provide a form of self-determination for Native Hawaiians that would directly tap into resources and be the primary political advocate for the overall well-being of Native Hawaiians. And so OHA was born.

In crafting legislation that activated OHA, and to provide it with funds, the Legislature referenced the Admissions Act with its five purposes: support of public schools; farm and home ownership; making public improvements; land for public use, and; for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.

The Legislature then came up with a plan that gives 20 percent shares of the revenues derived from the ceded lands, by dividing the five purposes into 100 percent, and then assigned 20 percent of the proceeds derived from the use of those public lands to OHA. While it took a number of years for OHA to actually access those ceded lands revenues, funds eventually began to flow and OHA was launched on its journey.

There is a whole universe of political, economic, social and cultural issues that swirl around OHA and its 170 employees. They sail a sea that has never been crossed.

OHA’s critics can be brutal and relentless. Can OHA do better? Yes, of course. How, is a subject for another time. The one constant is OHA’s self-declared vision to “raise a beloved nation.”

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.