Few freedoms chart the course of global history like the right to engage in meaningful governance. For this right, people have died, waged war, and walked through deserts for hours. Governance brings out the best in humanity, and the very worst in it.

Kanaiolowalu and Na‘i Aupuni have brought out the very worst in modern Hawaiian governance. It realizes every fear of the Hawaiian community about a blind march towards federal recognition without meaningful or informed input from the larger Hawaiian community. It is an alarming political maneuver by a handful of Hawaiians committed to ignoring history and excluding the overwhelming majority of Hawaiians who remain alienated from this process.


Our beloved Queen Lili‘uokalani yielded a nation with these words:

Now, to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do, under this protest and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative, and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

She yielded so that we who stand today may live. Yet, she never surrendered and she never gave up fighting to restore her beloved Hawaiian Kingdom. She, in her words, “would give the last of my blood; it is for (my people) that I would spend, nay, am spending, everything belonging to me.”

From the beginning of the Kingdom of Hawaii, under Kamehameha I through the rule of Hawaii’s last monarch, Lili’uokalani, citizenship in the kingdom was never confined to one race.
From the beginning of the Kingdom of Hawaii, under Kamehameha I through the rule of Hawaii’s last monarch, Lili’uokalani, citizenship in the kingdom was never confined to one race. Via Flickr

Her descendants risked death by hanging. Our kūpuna raised the voices to the rafters in Hawaiian churches calling upon all kānaka to affix their names and signatures to the Kū‘ē Petitions in opposition to American annexation. Yet, Na‘i Aupuni ignores these important historical events instead dragging all Hawaiians down the aisle to a shotgun wedding with federal recognition.

A hallmark of good governance is fair and accurate representation. This holds particularly true in the formation stages of a new government when a people’s needs must be well understood. Na‘i Aupuni builds upon the failures of Kanaiolowalu, throwing good money after bad. This waste of Native Hawaiian trust resources needs to stop.

The Rise And Fall Of Kanaiolowalu

For all of this to make sense, a little history lesson is necessary.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Rice v. Cayetano that it was a violation of the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to have a state election exclusive for Native Hawaiians. At the time, only Native Hawaiians were allowed to vote for the Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In their decision, the Court essentially held Hawaiians did not enjoy the same political protection Native American tribes held, and hence the frantic race to secure Hawaiian federal recognition began.

For over a decade, this effort focused on the Akaka Bill. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs poured millions of dollars into it. Groups formed to advocate and lobby for it. A narrative built around two central arguments: 1) Hawaiians will lose all their programs if we didn’t secure federal recognition, and 2) if we didn’t secure federal recognition while Senator Inouye was alive, we would never get it. Fifteen years later, the Akaka Bill has never passed. Senator Inouye is no longer with us. Hawaiian programs are still standing and just fine.

Na’i Aupuni is an effort to seize away Hawaiian trust resources by people who have sadly proven themselves untrustworthy.

After the Akaka Bill route failed, advocates of federal recognition decided to attempt to bypass Congress by seeking state recognition first. This is Act 195 (2011) (known as Kanaiolowalu or the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission). The goal of this Act was to enroll Hawaiian voters for a future election. Act 195 failed rather miserably, turning out to be – as we say – a “political plum.”

Upon passage, the Roll Commission set a goal of enrolling 200,000 Hawaiians, a fair goal – and this goal was still less than half the global population of Hawaiians. Yet, within its first two years of implementation (between the signing of the Act in 2011 and September 2013), less than 19,000 Hawaiians enrolled, despite having a $4 million budget from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

To increase enrollment, the State Legislature passed a second bill with far less fanfare than Act 195. Act 77 (2013) took the OHA registries from Operation ‘Ohana, the Hawaiian Registry, and Kau Inoa and forcibly merged them into Kanaiolowalu. This in essence attempted to create the illusion of robust support for Kanaiolowalu where there was none. Many of the individuals on these registries signed up as scholarship or grant requirements – situations that had nothing to do with nation building.

The majority of people enrolled with Kanaiolowalu never actually signed up with the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission.

This created serious additional governance issues: the personal information in these registries was turned over without the individuals’ consent, individuals were not given the option to opt-in, removal of one’s name was burdensome and that burden was placed on the individual.

Worst of all, without consent from any of the individuals on the list, Kanaiolowalu would then turn the entire list indiscriminately over to a private entity, Na‘i Aupuni, without any assurances as to how the information is being safeguarded or used by a non-governmental agency.

Today, tens of thousands of Hawaiians are receiving election notices from Na‘i Aupuni – an entity they never agreed could have access to their personal information. Does Na‘i Aupuni have access to birth certificates? Or copies of other photo identification? How exactly was a state entity allowed to turn over personal information to a private non-governmental entity without the individuals’ approval?

The bottom line is that any claim of “huge numbers” of support for Kanaiolowalu or Na‘i Aupuni is a complete fiction.

What Is Na‘i Aupuni?

So by 2014 Kanaiolowalu was “mostly dead” and OHA Trustees put a stop on the blank check. Nonetheless, refusing to give up on that which they had wasted so much beneficiary funding, OHA still needed a way to move forward that was unattached to the State, for risk of violating the Rice decision.

They convened a group of Hawaiian organizations and attempted to get them to enter into a limited liability partnership (LLP) to convene an ‘aha. Nearly everyone balked. Largely because the agreement pitched by OHA staff placed all the legal liability on the organizations, which would have been impossible for these organizations to assume. Particularly it was known these actions would invite lawsuits. It just demonstrates that the disconnect between OHA and the community was no longer a simple disconnect, but a chasm.

Unable to make this latest scheme work, OHA Trustees turned to one of their long time friends and allies to single handedly form a non-profit, Na‘i Aupuni. Na‘i Aupuni was incorporated on December 23, 2014.

Concerned community member holds up sign during a Department of the Interior panel during a public meeting on whether the United States should establish a government-to-government relationship with Hawaii’s indigenous community held at the Hawaii State Capitol auditorium on June 23, 2014
Concerns are raised at Interior Department hearings on whether the U.S. should establish a government-to-government relationship with Hawaii’s indigenous community, June 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

As of October 24, 2015, the organization’s incorporator has yet to name a single director or officer with the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs. It does not make information about its meetings available to the public. There is no indication it has ever held a single meeting. According to their bylaws, they are only required to hold one meeting per year; therefore it is entirely possible the organization has yet to hold a single formal meeting.

It has no Hawai‘i State General Excise Tax License. It has not filed with the Hawai‘i Attorney General’s Office as a charity. It has not filed for tax-exemption status with the IRS – I have serious questions as to if they would qualify for tax-exempt status. Despite all of this, the organization filed for a multi-million dollar grant with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and was awarded $2,598,000 by the Office on April 27, 2015.

For the descendants of people who prided themselves on integrity and excellence, we must ask ourselves: is this the best we can do? The answer, sadly, is no. Not by a long shot.

There is no trust here, nor should there be.

There were serious ethnical questions as to the Kanaiolowalu spending. For example, according to public documents, Kanaiolowalu issued $673,285.75 to Makauila Inc. a nonprofit co-founded in 2010 by one of the Roll Commissioners. Makauila was the largest single recipient of funding from Kanaiolowalu.

While that Commissioner stepped off the organization’s board immediately prior to the organization receiving the funding, Makauila continued to work with his company, even sharing office space with his company, raising serious questions about the ethics of the Commission. This same Commissioner and others have now formed a slate to run as delegates in the upcoming ‘aha, potentially securing themselves tremendous influence over the future of the Hawaiian community and its vast resources.

The sad reality is that an alarming number of the candidates running as delegates for the Na‘i Aupuni ‘aha financially benefitted from the Roll Commission.

Many, myself included, feel Na‘i Aupuni is nothing but an elaborate attempt to coerce Hawaiians into handing over a powerful, reemerging national identity and force them into making a decision they do not fully understand. It is an effort to seize away Hawaiian trust resources by people who have sadly proven themselves untrustworthy.

Queen Liliuokalani's bronze statue at the Capitol.
Queen Liliuokalani’s bronze statue at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Make no mistake: I firmly believe it is the final nail in the Queen’s coffin.

Rather than herd and force Hawaiians into a process that is rushed and opaque, I choose instead to believe in my people. I choose instead to believe in a Hawai‘i that is free and empowered by knowledge. I believe the state and federal governments can be our partners and friends – I have no ill will towards them.

Yet, if they consider themselves a friend of the Hawaiian people, they should require OHA to truly be neutral and provide equity to all positions, including independence, which federal recognition excludes under the Department of Interior proposal. Participants need to be fully educated and informed. Resources should be distributed equitability. That has not happened throughout this process.

Further, the delegate distribution appears to be completely arbitrary. There are no election rules. There is no accountability to the Hawaiian people for this funding. There is no information on how the decision regarding this critical process was decided. It is entirely plausible it was decided by a single individual with a long history of advocacy for federal recognition.

The truth is that if a critical mass of Hawaiians got together and made fully informed decision to pick federal recognition, it wouldn’t bother me. But I believe to my core in real self-determination. I believe free and informed governance is a human right, and to see Hawaiians denying other Hawaiians that right is heart-breaking.

The illusion of fairness and opportunity Na‘i Aupuni pitches is not enough. It creates only a shell of governance, leaving people deprived of dignity and true freedom.

We deserve better. Hawai‘i deserves better.


If Hawaiians have not come together, it is only because we have given them no rallying point — no inspiration — no true leadership. I have no doubt, none at all, that if real leadership were to emerge, Hawaiians would come together as a people.

To my Hawaiian brothers and sisters, do what you feel in your hearts you must, but do so from a place of education, prayer, and strength as our kūpuna did. Know where you place your name and why, because it is not only your name, it carries the mana of all your ancestors who came before you and it binds all your descendants who will come after you. Place your name only with knowledge and a fulfillment of kuleana, because your name is something they can never take from you, you must hand it over to them freely — so care for that gift wisely.

I have decided after deep prayer, many hours of careful study, and now with certainty that this process is flawed and dangerous. If you were to ask me what you should do: remove your name from the registry. Turn your back on this process. Demand something that brings us together – an inclusive, informed process. It is easily achievable with better leadership. A better way is possible.

Demand better.

Is there any one of the 500,000 of who truly believes this is the best we are capable of? That this represents the best of us? Queen Kapi‘olani told us kūli‘a i ka nu‘u. Is this really our summit? Is this something we can be proud of? ‘A‘ole.

I have been told that I will be attacked for speaking out. I have been warned that speaking truth against the politically powerful will have consequences, and honestly, I’m scared of those consequences. Who wouldn’t be?

But I’ve decided I’m more afraid of what my silence would bring. I’m more afraid of what morally bankrupt future I’m condemning our children to if I don’t speak out. So know simply that every word herein in diligently researched and heartfelt truth.

Offer to you my truth, whatever the consequences, so that you may have opportunity to find yours.

I leave you with this: many of us were blessedly taught by our kūpuna. When we did something messy or sloppy, our kūpuna did not care how long we had been at it. They did not care if could try to fix it. What mattered is that we were doing it wrong — that our methods were sloppy or lazy. They knew when you short-changed the method your product always came out pōhō, wasteful. They always made us start again and do it correctly.

Na‘i Aupuni is pōhō.

It’s time to start again.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.