The generations-old push to re-establish U.S. recognition of the sovereignty and government of the Native Hawaiian people reached a milestone last week when the Department of the Interior announced it will soon publish a draft rule that would allow Native Hawaiians to leverage that recognition.

As Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw told Civil Beat’s Chad Blair last week, Interior “will propose a rule that establishes an administrative procedure that the secretary would use if the Native Hawaiian community forms a unified government that seeks a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

The rule language hasn’t yet been made public, but its title has: “Procedures for Reestablishing a Government-to-Government Relationship With the Native Hawaiian Community.”

Once the proposed rule is published, it will be open for a period of public comment — typically 30 to 60 days. As with any federal agency rule, President Obama will have the opportunity to review the draft before it is published and any revisions made to the rule subsequent to the public comment period — significant, given the president’s personal history and familiarity with Hawaii. Generally, such rules become active within 30 days of the final version’s publication in the Federal Register.

2014 dec. President Barack Obama speaks to military dependents. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

President Barack Obama speaks to troops at Marine Corps Base Hawaii last December. Only 15 months remain in the tenure of the man with the closest ties to Hawaii of any U.S. president in history, and Native Hawaiians should take advantage of that time.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This news comes on the heels of notices sent by the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission earlier this month to thousands of voters certified to take part in elections this fall for delegates to a Native Hawaiian constitutional convention for self-governance. The filing deadline to run as a potential delegate for the convention is a month away, with election results to be released Dec. 1. Convention dates haven’t been set.

The bottom line is that by year’s end, delegates will have been elected to a constitutional convention that could create a Native Hawaiian government that stands to be recognized by the federal government, according to a rule that by that point may be in draft or possibly pending enactment.

A moment for which a great many have been advocating for decades, then, could be here in relatively short order, arriving in a cultural context that may provide a significant tailwind. Thousands of Native Hawaiians and their supporters continue to rally against construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on their sacred Mauna Kea. Though the TMT is an international venture, the battle over its construction has become symbolic in some quarters of more than 130 years of U.S. disregard for Native Hawaiian culture and injustices to the Hawaiian people.

A Native Hawaiian government would have the standing not only to relate to the U.S. government, but to address for Native Hawaiians such issues as TMT, “ceded lands, Hawaiian Home Lands, water rights, gathering rights … even OHA and the Hawaiian Roll Commission,” according to  Na‘i Aupuni, the independent nonprofit guiding the elections process for the convention.

Even so, this is a path that, understandably, doesn’t interest some. For some Native Hawaiians, the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893 made every action between the United States and Hawaii in the ensuring century-plus – including the 1959 referendum conferring statehood – illegal anathemas. For such Hawaiians, nothing short of revocation of statehood and a U.S. withdrawal from Hawaii is acceptable.

We welcome Interior’s incremental step toward creating the environment in which a Native Hawaiian government created by Native Hawaiians has the authority to negotiate a future that would be acceptable for the descendants of those from whom these islands were taken so many years ago.

But it’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which Hawaii separates from the United States, and perhaps harder still to imagine a scenario in which such a separation would be desirable for the current inhabitants of these islands, given the evolution of Hawaii over the past century.

And so we welcome Interior’s important, incremental step toward creating the environment in which a Native Hawaiian government created by Native Hawaiians has the legal standing and authority to negotiate a future that would be acceptable for the descendants of those from whom these islands were taken so many years ago.

To take full advantage of the possibilities inherent in all this, it’s critical that delegate elections for the convention take place as scheduled and that the convention itself is convened quickly thereafter.

Why? In part, because the clock is ticking down on the 15 months remaining until the next presidential election. There is no guarantee that the next administration will be one that shares President Obama’s interest in moving the idea of Native Hawaiian self governance forward; maybe more importantly, it’s highly unlikely that the next president will have a personal understanding of and affinity for Hawaii anything like that of Obama, who has relatives here and continues to bring his own family to Oahu for the winter holidays each year.

Given the president’s potential involvement in the rule-making process, this asset is too important to waste.

If embraced, then, the confluence of multiple dynamics stand to create an environment more favorable toward the cause of Native Hawaiian self determination than has been seen, well, ever in the history of Hawaii’s relationship to the United States.

What would a Native Hawaiian government look like? How might it change the status quo in Hawaii? It’s far too early to tell, and the question is better directed toward those whom the U.S. Interior Department may soon, at long last, finally recognize as best qualified to provide a legitimate answer.

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