Millions of dollars in federal funding for Native Hawaiian housing programs may be in jeopardy.

Hawaii’s U.S. senators and representatives on Tuesday jointly criticized legislation before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that does not reauthorize as much as $13 million a year for the state’s indigenous population, even though about $700 million would go to Native American housing annually.

The Bringing Useful Initiatives for Indian Development Act of 2017 would reauthorize all Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act programs except for those related to Native Hawaiians.

The King Kamehameha statue at the U.S. Capitol, where Hawaii might be taking an unfair hit, according to its congressional delegation. Civil Beat

 “By omitting Native Hawaiian housing programs, the BUIILD Act strikes a blow not only to the 37,000 Native Hawaiians who would benefit from their inclusion, but also over 500,000 Native Hawaiians in our country,” Sen. Mazie Hirono said in testimony before the committee.

Hirono continued: “But this is about much more than just stripping out Native Hawaiian housing programs from a bill. At a time when we see ‘us against them’ perspectives rising in our country, we cannot allow ‘divide and conquer’ tactics to undermine collaborative efforts to bring people together.”

Rep Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa. 29 dec 2016
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa fears GOP control in Congress may lead to a “slippery slope” when it comes to helping native peoples, Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The BUILD Act was introduced by Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota. A summary of the bill says it is intended to “improve the housing conditions and promote useful land uses within tribal communities.”

The bill would extend until 2025 provisions of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996.

For years, Native Hawaiians have received funding under the act in acknowledgement that there exists a special relationship between them and the U.S. government — even though Hawaiians are not recognized federally in the way that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are.

But Hoeven’s bill leaves Native Hawaiians out of the reauthorization.

The funding, ranging from $9 million and $13 million annually, has come in blocks grants and home loan guarantees.

‘A Slippery Slope’

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa echoed Hirono’s concerns about the omission in the new legislation, arguing that the bill is part of a larger assault by the Republican-controlled federal government.

“I think the main point is that it shows what happens to native peoples, people of color, people who can be subject to discrimination with certain laws,” she said Tuesday. “This is an example, and it is almost like the start of a slippery slope. We have already seen this with the Muslim travel ban. I hope that is not the total tenor we are dealing with, but that’s the concern.”

Senator Brian Schatz at Honolulu Civil Beat. 31 may 2017
Sen. Brian Schatz, at the Civil Beat offices in May, says a plan to cut federal funding for Hawaiians is an “attack” on Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hanabusa, Hirono, Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard submitted testimony to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, stating that they “strongly oppose” the measure.

“The housing needs faced by our native communities are among the worst in the country,” they wrote.

They cited the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 as clear evidence that the federal government has a “unique trust responsibility to promote the welfare of the aboriginal, indigenous people” of Hawaii.

To abandon the “bipartisan progress” that has been made on helping native communities with their housing needs “would be a grave mistake … This simply is not the way forward,” they stated in the joint testimony.

In her own testimony in front of the Indian Affairs Committee, where Schatz is a member, Hirono said:

“The history of our government’s treatment of native people is not a proud one. For Native Hawaiians, this includes the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893. Today, Native Hawaiians – like other native peoples across the country – continue to face high levels of poverty, lower educational attainment, and affordable housing.

“For those who do not recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people or oppose Native Hawaiian programs, I would ask that you learn more about their history and experience.”

Hanabusa said that, when Hawaii’s Dan Inouye and Dan Akaka were serving in the Senate, reauthorization for the Native Hawaiian housing programs was routine.

She said their departure (Inouye died in late 2012 and Akaka retired in 2013), combined with the current Republican control of all three branches of government, has “strengthened the hand” of conservative groups who do not recognize Native Hawaiians as a class akin to Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

Some, she said, have tried to argue that the 1920 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act no longer stands, “which is not true at all,” Hanabusa said.

Meanwhile, the use of the funding by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands was criticized earlier this year by Schatz. The agency didn’t produce any new housing units for Native Hawaiians in the previous fiscal year, even though it has $38 million in unspent federal funds.

There are also other Native Hawaiian groups seeking federal support for housing initiatives, including the the Sovereign Councils of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly, which is affiliated with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a coalition of more than 150 Native Hawaiian organizations.

DHHL and CNHA representatives could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Dishonoring Akaka, Inouye?

Hanabusa struck a hopeful note that the funding programs for Hawaiians would be reinstated. If not, she said that, if thee matter goes to court, Hawaii may have in its favor the fact that John Roberts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, represented the state in Rice v. Cayetano.

Rep. Gabbard at the King Kamehameha Lei Draping Ceremony in Emancipation Hall on Sunday. The congresswoman joined her colleagues in raising alarm over cuts to native housing programs. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

While Rice prevailed in that 2000 case, which lead to non-Hawaiians voting and running in Office of Hawaiian Affairs elections, Hanabusa said Roberts understands and respects the unique historical circumstances of Hawaii’s indigenous people.

Hawaii might also be helped by Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a state with its own significant native population and one that has often sided with Hawaii on federal issues important to both states.

Murkowski is a member of the Indian Affairs Committee chaired by Hoeven.

Schatz said he believes Hawaii is under enemy fire.

“By leaving out Native Hawaiians, this bill is an attack on my state and my people,” he said in his own testimony. “It dishonors the legacies of Dan Inouye and Danny Akaka. And it threatens the future work of this committee.”

Testimony from the Hawaii congressional delegation, June 13, 2017:

About the Author