Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, known for his acerbic tongue and no-holds-barred public comments, has some blunt advice for supporters of Native Hawaiian sovereignty:

“Time is running out,” the long-time island politician told a small private gathering last week. I was able to speak at length with Abercrombie on Monday about his critical viewpoint.

“From a political standpoint, they’ve got to do it now,” he said, referring to negotiating terms of a realistic and practical form of sovereignty.

The alternative, which he sees as increasingly likely, will be to see sovereignty proponents simply “drifting into oblivion.”

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie said that sovereignty advocates have missed good opportunities.
Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie said that sovereignty advocates have missed good opportunities. ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In his view, certain sovereignty activists are largely to blame for missing, or actively rejecting, repeated opportunities over the years.

“Someone steps forward to throw sand in the gears every time,”  Abercrombie said of some of the vocal activists. “The last thing they seem to want is to actually reach a real political solution.”

Gaining perspective

Abercrombie certainly has a broad perspective that draws on his long involvement in politics.

The former governor said he’s been dealing with Hawaiian issues through his political career, which dates back to the early 1970s, when he first ran for office. Since then, he served in both the state House and Senate, was elected to a term on the Honolulu City Council in the late 1980s, and was elected to Congress 10 times before returning to successfully run for governor in 2010. He was defeated by David Ige in 2014 and left office after a single term.

Hawaiians, he argued, have benefited from a series of public policies over the decades. In the 1970s, after years of protests and marches against the growing waiting list for homestead leases, activist Hawaiians finally were able to get their choice named as director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, under the administration of Gov. George Ariyoshi. At the time, it was seen as a significant step in the political empowerment of Hawaiians.

Then came the 1978 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and new constitutional protections for the exercise of traditional and customary Hawaiian rights.

In 1980, the Legislature determined that 20 percent of revenues from ceded lands controlled by the state would go to fund the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; and in 1993, the state agreed to pay $135 million to OHA in a partial settlement of past claims to ceded land revenues.

After taking office as governor, Abercrombie’s administration negotiated the transfer of 30 acres of state land in Kakaako Makai to OHA, to settle additional monetary claims stemming from the period from 1978 to 2012.  The land deal was valued at $200 million.

Abercrombie also points to his success in advocating for the so-called “Akaka Bill” in Congress. 

“I got it through the Republican-controlled House three times,” the former congressman said. “Over in the Senate, even with Sen. Inouye’s backing, they couldn’t get it out of committee.”

And in 2014, the Obama administration’s Interior Department held hearings on a proposed rule that would create a path to a potential government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and the Hawaiian Community.

A self-defeating movement

But a significant segment of the sovereignty movement now openly rejects the progress these policies represented.

“Political romanticists are occupying the psychological space out there,” Abercrombie said. “Nothing is ever good enough for them. Everything tried is denounced.”

He concedes that the sovereignty issue has gained additional public traction in the past several years, as reflected in the movement against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

“But every wave dissipates into the sand eventually, even tidal waves,” Abercrombie said. “Political waves are no different.”

He said he believes public support has to be translated into creating institutions in order to have lasting effect.

“Either you establish something, or you don’t,” he said.

And Abercrombie blamed “a small, self-serving coterie of activists” for scuttling repeated opportunities for real, practical progress.

DLNR law enforcement officer lifts a demonstrator with his hand after announcing to the protestors that they were blocking the road. Mauna Kea. Hawaii 24 june 2015. photo Cory Lum?Civil Beat
DLNR law enforcement officer lifts a demonstrator with his hand after announcing to the protestors that they were blocking the road to Mauna Kea on June 24, 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Take federal recognition.

“You’re looking at a way to be recognized by the very entity you need to be recognized by, the United States government,” Abercrombie said.

But, in his view, “there are those who believe that whatever opportunity comes our way has got to be a trick.”

“Look,” the former governor said. “They say OHA is a tool of the state. Who cares? Sure, it’s a tool of the state. But can you use it? Can you make something out of it?”

His answer, of course, would be a resounding, “yes!”

But what about the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which the Apology Resolution acknowledged was illegal?

Abercrombie’s response: “What am I supposed to do about that?”

“There are certain realities you have to come to grips with if you’re serious,” he said. “And you’ve got to have some goals that have practical, tangible reality.”

“The public as a whole, the broader public, is becoming utterly indifferent. Here comes another protest, the same cast of characters.” — former Gov. Neil Abercrombie

In the meantime, the clock is ticking.

“The public as a whole, the broader public, is becoming utterly indifferent. Here comes another protest, the same cast of characters,” he said.

Referring to the theatrics of demonstrators on the slopes of Mauna Kea, including malo-clad men in winter at 12,000 feet, Abercrombie said: “This is a sideshow of no practical consequence whatsoever.”

“But from the 5,000-yard view, there is a time factor here,” Abercrombie said.

After public protests against the Interior Department’s attempt at creating a path to federal recognition by rule, the Obama administration appears to have backed off.

Similarly, Abercrombie characterized the Ige administration and Hawaii’s Congressional delegation as “disappearing into the ether” when it comes to sovereignty.

He then quoted the Sylvester Stallone character, Rocky Balboa, in the 2015 movie, Creed: “Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated.”

And the time for realistic action on sovereignty is quickly running out.

“If they don’t get this settled before Obama leaves office, it’s over.”

“I’m not cheering it. I’m not lamenting it. I’m past all that stuff,” he said.

“I’m just stating it.”

Disclosure: Ian Lind served as “senior advisor” in Neil Abercrombie’s City Council office during the period 1988-1990.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.