When a big daily newspaper I worked for years ago offered a plum reporting job to my best friend, we were both excited.

But it didn’t take long for her to take me aside to share a heavy concern — namely, her suspicion that the newspaper was interested in her chiefly because of her race, and she had no interest in being the newsroom’s token African-American.

It was a reasonable suspicion. Though she was (and is) smart and accomplished, the newspaper’s ownership and management was (and is) sharply conservative and had a well-earned reputation for bigotry in multiple areas. But the job opportunity was nevertheless a solid one, and my advice to her boiled down to a single idea:

Even if they want you to be their token, that doesn’t mean it’s the role you have to play. You can make of the opportunity whatever you want — that part’s up to you.

She took the advice and the job, and in her all-too-brief tenure, won acclaim for her exceptional work there before moving into even greater success in statewide and national politics and advocacy.

I thought of her many times this past week as the number and volume of voices weighing in on the potential creation of a Native Hawaiian government grew louder and more conflicted.

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) face a decision this fall similar in many ways to the choice my friend had years ago: whether to accept an invitation that is quite possibly flawed and being extended by some whose motives may be suspect, but that may well be exactly the right opportunity.

Upcoming elections will yield 40 delegates to represent Native Hawaiian interests at the upcoming convention. The last Kingdom of Hawaii government was deposed in a United States-led coup at Iolani Palace in 1893.

Upcoming elections will yield 40 delegates to represent Native Hawaiian interests at the upcoming convention.

The invitation in this case comes in the form of the chance to participate in the election of delegates to an upcoming ‘aha, or convention. The election is being conducted by the relatively new and little-known organization Na‘i Aupuni ahead of a longer-term goal: forming a Native Hawaiian government.

If you’re looking for criticism and critics of Na‘i Aupuni and this process, you don’t have to look far. The group’s efforts to build a valid roll of Native Hawaiian potential voters draws from previous failed and maligned efforts to do the same thing. Its definition of who can or can’t be such a voter has been legally challenged as improperly race-based and in conflict with traditional Hawaiian values of inclusion.

And a bitter mix of mythology, suspicion and accusation, driven by a long history of spectacular U.S. larceny and shameless broken local promises, has caused a great many Kanaka Maoli to give the process an enormous collective side eye.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, ballots will begin going to about 95,000 registered voters, who will be asked to choose 40 convention delegates, which have been apportioned based on the population of the seven inhabited Hawaiian islands and Hawaiians living out of state. Voting will end Nov. 30, and results are scheduled to be announced the following day.

To some, it’s a process that can only rightfully be rejected or ignored — the flaws are simply insurmountable. But is that really the most self-beneficial way for Native Hawaiians to judge this process?

To some, it’s a process that can only rightfully be rejected or ignored — the flaws are simply insurmountable. But is that really the most self-beneficial way for Native Hawaiians to judge this process?

Consider: In U.S. federal elections, a chorus of voices reminds us every four years that the Electoral College is a dated and problematic way to choose a president that can skew the expressed will of the electorate. And this: In the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed virtually unlimited corporate giving to political campaigns, facilitating unprecedented money wars to purchase elections.

But is either of the above a legitimate reason not to participate in our elections? Should we voters sit out the 2016 cycle, and instead point piously at these flaws and perhaps others as justification? Or are our collective interests better served by engaging, even if that engagement primarily means pointing out structural or process issues that should be addressed?

I certainly don’t mean to be disrespectful of points of view articulated most audibly this week by longtime activist Water Ritte, who dropped his bid to be elected a delegate and publicly urged Native Hawaiians to reject the election, and Trisha Kehaulani Watson, whose impassioned, eloquent case against the Na‘i Aupuni-led process was published by Civil Beat earlier this week.

Walter Ritte speaks to demontrators outside Governor Ige’s office at the Capitol. 21 april 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Activist Walter Ritte, seen here demonstrating outside the governor office in April, earlier this week dropped his bid to be an ‘aha delegate and is urging Native Hawaiians not to participate in the elections.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But it strikes me that refusing to participate leaves those most interested in Native Hawaiian self determination in no different a place than they are in now — inadequately represented with no governing body dedicated to their interests.

The ‘aha being organized is not bound by any requirements regarding its outcome or lack thereof. Delegates, ostensibly guided by community input, would only be empowered to come up with ideas, plans or documents that could then be put in front of voters for possible approval or rejection.

And there are many worthy ideas that would be entirely appropriate for consideration at this stage. Refining the rules regarding who can qualify as a voter in the Native Hawaiian government formation process, for instance. Creating at least the framework for a plan that would draw more people and organizations into government-building might be another.

How about opening a public dialogue on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s proposed rules for engaging a government-to-government relationship with a Native Hawaiian government with regard to what changes might be desirable or necessary? (If you haven’t yet read this document, its eight pages deserve your attention.)

The point is this: The election of delegates is simply the first step toward these and other legitimate questions being given voice in a forum that — regardless of your thoughts about its formation — counts. Who represents the community in that forum, what information goes into it and what outcomes come from it will be determined solely by Native Hawaiians who vote.

If you’re such a potential voter, and you care about any of those things, you do yourself and your community a disservice by not participating. Make of the opportunity what you want — it’s up to you.

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