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As night fell on the frozen Cannonball River and fireworks lit up the crisp North Dakota air, Leomana Turalde of Waimanalo worked to build a fire inside a teepee using damp wood and Kleenex for kindling.
It was Dec. 4, and the Standing Rock Sioux had just scored a major victory in their protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline when the federal government announced it was blocking construction to study alternative routes.
Turalde, 29, wanted to celebrate. He had shared in the struggles of the tribe to protect its land, water and cultural resources, and was one of many Native Hawaiians who traveled more than 3,600 miles to North Dakota as a show of solidarity among indigenous groups.
He paused to reflect on the standoff and what it might mean for Native Hawaiians moving forward.
He said he had been approached by many Native Americans at the Standing Rock campsite who told him they were inspired by the Native Hawaiian protests on Mauna Kea to block — so far — construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, protests that Turalde had taken part in.
He wondered whether having a singular voice, organized under a unified government such as a tribe, would help in the islands. It’s a question that many Native Hawaiians are asking as some move down a path toward federal recognition that others oppose.
Native Hawaiian views on federal recognition can be as scattered as its population — more than half a million people living in the U.S. who describe themselves as indigenous descendants of the islands. Some want it. Some don’t.
“I think the battle to be fought in Hawaii is figuring out how to unite the people and start getting us to fight together,” Turalde said. “How can we fight for what we believe in and our cultural history and our land when we’re fighting against each other?”
In September, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a process for the Native Hawaiian community to establish a government-to-government relationship that would be similar to the Standing Rock Sioux and hundreds of other American Indian tribes. According to the feds, such a relationship has not existed since the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
But forming a new Hawaiian government is complex, and the process to date has been fraught with infighting over what a sovereign nation under U.S. rule should look like.
Not surprising, then, that there are disagreements about whether the Standing Rock experience illustrates the value of federal recognition — or its futility.
There are questions about how much power and influence a Native Hawaiian government might have. And it’s fair to question how much federal recognition helped the Standing Rock Sioux, considering the Dakota Access Pipeline was permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers despite the tribe’s protests.
Native Hawaiians have fought what they see as threats to sacred sites and precious natural resources, and not just atop Mauna Kea. Some say Honolulu’s 20-mile commuter rail line project didn’t fully consider Native Hawaiian burial grounds. And there’s the battle over water rights on Maui, where legislators have repeatedly bent to the will of big business interests.
Jonathan Osorio, a professor at the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, is skeptical that federal recognition under Department of the Interior rules would amplify Native Hawaiian voices, particularly when it comes to protecting cultural sites and the environment.
Osorio, a Native Hawaiian who wants complete independence from the U.S., worries that conceding to a government-to-government relationship in the same vein as Native Americans is just another way Native Hawaiians can be co-opted. He doesn’t see the benefits, especially given the federal government’s history of reneging on its promises.
“It would reduce us to the kind of status and power that many American Indian nations have today, and that is being relatively powerless.” — Jonathan Osorio
“What it would do is it would reduce our options and it would reduce us to the kind of status and power that many American Indian nations have today, and that is being relatively powerless,” Osorio said. “When we look at how these Native American nations really struggled to survive, how they have been marginalized by being placed on smaller and smaller reservations, how even their reservations are not protected if gold or oil is discovered on them, and the continual degradations of their land, I don’t know why the Kanaka Maoli would consent to putting ourselves in that position.”
Honolulu attorney Eric Seitz tends to agree. He said Native Hawaiians have every right to be leery of forming a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. given its track record with Native Americans who were subjected to theft, lies and murder for the sake of westward expansion.
Seitz has spent much of his career fighting the federal government and other bureaucracies, particularly law enforcement. He worked to free Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist convicted of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in the 1970s.
Seitz was also successful in defending several Native Hawaiian activists who occupied Kahoolawe in an attempt to stop the military from shelling the island for practice.
“I don’t think there’s any real positive history of tribes being able to negotiate with the United States government that suggest tribes today ought to go down that road,” Seitz said. “They need to have a degree of sovereignty and a power base of some sort, economic or otherwise, that’s going to enable them to protect themselves, much more so than the Indian tribes did historically.”
In his nearly 40 years working as an attorney, Seitz has watched as local, state and federal governments have followed the “custom of giving lip service” to Native Hawaiian concerns, but he said it rarely impedes major developments from moving forward.
Seitz said what happened near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota should serve as a “major education” to anyone who was there or who watched the protests unfold over the course of several months as demonstrators clashed with police and camped out in freezing temperatures.
It proved just how difficult it can be to stake out ground against powerful interests. The oil pipeline, after all, was on the verge of being completed before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course to require further environmental review.
“The bottom line is that the dominant society and its economic interests are most of the time going to push aside the assertions of any indigenous group or native people,” Seitz said. “That’s been the history in this country everywhere, whether it’s the mainland, Puerto Rico or here.”
“When there’s some sort of oppression going on you have to go there and put your body on the line to stand there and oppose it toe-to-toe,” he said. “You can’t rely on other people to fight those battles for you. You have to go yourself. Whether you win or lose, fighting for what you believe in is something that requires dedication and risk. People have to take risks, otherwise they’re not going to be heard.”
Camille Kalama of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation traveled to North Dakota in October along with her partner, Andre Perez, a Native Hawaiian activist, after hearing stories about protesters being attacked by security dogs and arrested.
She too is skeptical of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and worries that it could limit their abilities to stand up for themselves.
She also doesn’t trust that the federal government will make the right decision when the time comes, pointing to the fact that the Army Corps only made its decision after thousands of veterans showed up in North Dakota to protect demonstrators who had been threatened with a Dec. 5 evacuation notice.
“How did that decision get so far down that line?” Kalama asked. “We can all see that this is a short-term diffusement of the situation. It’s really a big concern for me that we would be put under the Department of Interior that has a terrible track record when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans.”
Having a direct relationship with the federal government won’t reduce conflicts, she said. There will still be disagreements over issues such as military training at Pohakuloa on the Big Island or water rights on Maui.
“It’s an ongoing and uphill battle,” Kalama said. “We’ll be fighting just like at Standing Rock whether we have federal recognition or not. The only thing we can do is to keep showing up.”
It’s not as if Native Hawaiians have been muted. There are a number of laws on the books that require local, state and federal agencies to consult with the Hawaiian community when there’s the potential to unearth remains or infringe upon traditional cultural practices.
And not everyone is sour on the idea of creating another sovereign nation within a nation, particularly if it means guaranteeing a seat at the table when the federal government — or any other entity — is making a decision that could adversely affect Native Hawaiians.
Richard Monette, who heads the Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said this was one of the greatest takeaways from the Standing Rock protest. It showed the world that sovereign nations will not be silently trampled upon, and that government-to-government relationships should be taken seriously.
“(Native Hawaiians) are missing out on a lot of opportunity by not getting themselves politically recognized by the United States.” — Richard Monette
“If you’re not federally recognized then there’s no obligation whatsoever, moral, legal or otherwise, to do communication or consulting,” Monette said. “It was federal recognition that carried the obligation to have a meaningful consultation with them. If they did not have that recognition that obligation would not be there and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion about Standing Rock.”
Monette is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a federally recognized tribe of about 30,000 members whose reservation is located in North Dakota. He said Native Hawaiians should take a cue from the hundreds of tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. so that they can reclaim their identity.
It’s easier to protect your culture when you have a cohesive voice that advocates for Native Hawaiians rather than a fractured band of individuals who might have competing interests, Monette said. Those divisions make it easier for government officials to trivialize indigenous concerns or pick the side that best serves their interests.
Monette added that federal recognition is the first step to international recognition. And that, he said, might appeal to Native Hawaiians who hold out hope for full independence.
“Native Hawaiians can act like a sovereign now, the problem with that is they’re not recognized by anybody,” Monette said. “From my own opinion, they are missing out on a lot of opportunity by not getting themselves politically recognized by the United States.”
Native Hawaiian views on federal recognition can be as scattered as its population — more than half a million people living in the U.S. who describe themselves as indigenous descendants of the islands. Some want it. Some don’t. Others are ambivalent.
As former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee, the only Native Hawaiian to ever hold that position, says: “It’s complicated.”
“If you’re looking at a native people and their struggle, any weapon that you can put in your arsenal is positive, and that’s the way I see this situation,” Waihee said. “Federal recognition is another weapon in the arsenal.”
The former governor said it’s difficult to lay out all the specific benefits Native Hawaiians can receive from a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. But he said that regardless of what side of the issue someone comes down on, it’s important for Native Hawaiians to protect what they already have.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rice v. Cayetano that Hawaiian-only voting for trustees of state Office of Hawaiian Affairs was unconstitutional. Waihee said that effectively opened up the possibility of legal challenges to other entitlements that are granted to Native Hawaiians based on their ethnicity.
Federal recognition, Waihee said, could help block future attacks on those programs or the entities that administer them.
And while he admits the U.S. has a shameful history when dealing with indigenous people, and particularly American Indians, he still sees an advantage to having a government-to-government relationship, especially when there’s a disagreement, such as what played out in North Dakota between the Army Corps and the Standing Rock Sioux.
In some respects, he said the fact that the Standing Rock Sioux had such a relationship allowed it to raise additional legal arguments that the tribe’s concerns about the degradation of its water and cultural resources were not properly considered as the pipeline was being built.
“Every tribe, every nation, every people have a different variation of what federal recognition looks like,” Waihee said. “So the real question is: What is the Hawaiian variation going to look like?”
Inside his teepee, Leomana Turalde didn’t know what to expect for the future of Native Hawaiians. All he saw was a bunch of people fighting each other and failing to set their own course for the future.
But Turalde holds out hope for Hawaiians and other native cultures that have been victimized over the generations. If the protests on Mauna Kea and at Standing Rock taught him anything, it’s that indigenous people are no longer willing to stay quiet and that more people are starting to listen.
“I hope that things change in our future,” Turalde said. “The change that I want is for people to come together and figure it out. Because if we figure it out amongst ourselves then anything is possible.”