Mahealani Cypher was a radio reporter in 1978 when delegates at the state constitutional convention voted to create a new agency made up of Native Hawaiians and dedicated to improving their lives.
Like many Native Hawaiians at the time, she felt excited and hopeful. “It was a relief that there were people in power who were doing something right,” says Cypher.
Cypher, now 72, has watched the Office of Hawaiian Affairs grow into an influential bureaucracy. OHA spends millions every year providing grants to nonprofits, providing scholarships to beneficiaries, funding legal services and employing more than 150 people.
The agency’s 2017 budget was about $45 million and it has more than $371 million in investments as of April 2018.
But over the years much of the idealism surrounding the birth of OHA has turned to disillusionment for many people, as the agency has become bogged down by political infighting and ensnared in ethics scandals.
The state Attorney General launched an investigation into OHA this spring after a damning audit questioned whether the agency’s leaders were spending money properly and meeting their fiduciary duties.
The FBI is also reportedly investigating the agency. Meanwhile, longtime trustee Rowena Akana is the target of a state ethics investigation, a case that she’s suing to stop. An ethics investigation into board member Peter Apo last year resulted in a $25,000 fine, on top of a separate sexual harassment case against him that OHA settled for $50,000.
The public scrutiny of OHA comes in the midst of a crucial election season. There are five seats up for a vote, a majority of the nine-member board that could shift its dynamics.
Fifteen people are running for three at-large seats, seven are hoping to win the Oahu seat and two are competing to represent Maui. Many newcomers are calling for more transparency and accountability, while incumbents are touting what they’ve done to improve the agency.
Nani Kalawe, a restaurant owner in Kaneohe, is among many beneficiaries who are disillusioned with OHA. “We had then very high hopes maybe we’ll get some kind of equality,” says Kalawe, who was a teenager during the constitutional convention.
Kalawe recently retired after decades of working at Bishop Estate. What’s happening at OHA now reminds her of the momentous corruption scandal at the private trust in the 1990s.
In Kalawe’s mind, OHA is disconnected from the very community it was created to serve. “Hawaiians are fighting with Hawaiians — we are not looking at the big picture,” she says.
Yet despite their frustration with OHA, many observers say there’s still a vital need for the agency and its work.
The median family income for Native Hawaiians over the past several years has actually been dropping, according to inflation-adjusted data compiled by the agency. While more Native Hawaiians are getting higher education degrees, many students still lag on reading and math proficiency. Native Hawaiians are also disproportionately incarcerated and continue to struggle with higher-than-average poverty rates.
Kapua‘ala Sproat, an attorney and director of the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawaii, thinks the focus on scandals distracts from the importance of OHA’s work on land, education and culture.
“It’s the repository right now of our lahui and so critical decisions are made on a regular basis,” she says.
Every election is important, she says, but the current controversies lend urgency to this one. “It could affect everything.”
When Kalawe was growing up in the 1970s, “it wasn’t cool to be Hawaiian,” she says with a laugh. She’s serious though. “My voice didn’t count. Our voices didn’t count.”
But that decade changed everything. Development projects and subsequent evictions sparked widespread protests. The bombing of Kahoolawe stopped after protests and a lawsuit and the deaths of George Helm and Kimo Mitchell. Native Hawaiians learned how to navigate using the stars and swells from a Micronesian master navigator and built the legendary voyaging canoe Hokulea.
The islands were swept up in what’s now known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. The constitutional convention of 1978 came just in time to codify some of the rights and recognition that Native Hawaiians were demanding and permanently shift the landscape of Hawaii politics.
Hawaiian was named one of two official languages. The state constitution was changed to protect traditional and customary rights. And the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established, a new organization that was made up of Hawaiians elected by Hawaiians, to manage money from a trust intended for their benefit.
“We were all young, we were all optimistic,” says Jim Shon, then a 31-year-old delegate to the convention. “We were going to change the world and OHA was going to change the world for Hawaiians.”
The idea, he says, came from the late Adelaide “Frenchy” De Soto, who wanted to create something bigger and more lasting for Hawaiians than the Hawaiian Homes Act.
Urging her fellow delegates to vote for the bill, De Soto said the organization would give Hawaii’s native people the opportunity to realize self-determination.
“It is my dream and the dream of my people that the Hawaiian today be given the opportunity to provide for the betterment of the condition and well-being of these young Hawaiians, to address the contemporary problems which Hawaiians face — of crime, inadequate housing conditions, welfare roles, education,” she said, according to transcripts.
“This native Hawaiian office is essential for the protection and preservation of the Hawaiian race,” she said.
The organization wasn’t without critics. A letter to the Star Bulletin in 1978 from Linda Cadiz called the idea “a chimera — a fantasy — a monster” that embodied the very racism it purported to fight against.
Still, the organization and the fact that it would be entrusted with money was significant for many.
Walter Ritte, a prominent Hawaiian activist from Molokai and former OHA board member, remembers going to a community meeting with the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye soon after OHA was approved.
“He raised his fist up and said, ‘Hawaiians now have brown power,’” Ritte says. “I was really really excited to have a vision to have Hawaiians come together and become a power bloc and push the Hawaiian agenda.”
That excitement dissipated a few years later when Ritte was on the OHA board and got charged with a felony for illegal night hunting.
“I took the position that the state had no right to interfere with the OHA,” Ritte says. “The trustees decided to follow the directions of the Attorney General.”
To Ritte, that’s when OHA started to morph into a bureaucracy that’s more reflective of a state agency than a Hawaiian organization that manages trust funds.
The question of exactly how independent OHA is — and what it means to be semi-autonomous — is something that the organization continues to grapple with.
Trustee Akana’s recent lawsuit against the state ethics commission argues that the agency doesn’t have the authority to question expenditures that OHA approved internally, because the agency is spending trust funds, not taxpayer funds.
OHA’s identity was a key question in the pivotal lawsuit Rice v. Cayetano filed in 1996. A Big Island rancher named Harold Rice sued for the right to vote in OHA elections, which were originally limited to people of Hawaiian descent.
Sproat from UH remembers exactly where she was when she read the ruling — standing by her printer at her office wondering, “How could they get it so wrong?”
She believes the ruling led to a disconnect between voters and trustees.
“The Native Hawaiian community was more in tune with our own priorities and needs and the leaders that would best fulfill that,” she says. “Post-Rice v. Cayetano, I think the voters are less educated about OHA in general and about people who want to be trustees and what their positions are on various issues and the intricacy of those issues.”
Some non-Hawaiians like Shon, the delegate to the 1978 constitutional convention, still decline to vote in OHA elections out of respect for that position.
Former Gov. John Waihee, who was also a delegate at the constitutional convention, says Rice v. Cayetano undercut OHA’s legitimacy. The ruling “changed the agency from one that was structured in a way that it would be a Hawaiian agency to an agency that provided services to Hawaiians.”
“Prior to Rice v. Cayetano I really do believe that OHA saw itself and functionally tried to be a fourth branch of government,” Waihee says. “After Rice v. Cayetano, OHA is not really sure where its place is within the state’s hierarchy of governance.”
The agency has also become dependent on the Legislature to allow it to receive more revenue from lands that used to belong to Hawaiian royalty and were ceded to the U.S. OHA has been lobbying the Legislature regularly to receive more than the current $15.1 million cap.
Mahealani Wendt, who formerly led the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, says OHA was envisioned as being equal to the three branches of government but has been “relegated to an agency within the executive branch, forced to beg a pretty recalcitrant Legislature for funding in order to fulfill its mission.”
“Being forced to beg a begrudging Legislature for funding, we see this as a further indignity,” Wendt says. “The fact that the U.S. and state government control Hawaiian lands resources and other assets, the fact that they parcel out these lands, resources and other assets kind of like we’re children is deeply wounding.”
When it comes to OHA’s existing money and resources, there’s no shortage of debate and criticism about how the agency is spending it. Nowhere is this clearer than the issue of Hawaiian nation-building.
OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado was among a few who supported the idea of making Hawaiians a federally recognized tribe at a June 2014 hearing held by the Department of Interior.
The proposal was resoundingly rejected by numerous kanaka maoli who don’t consider themselves American and want their islands back.
On the other side are beneficiaries like Kalawe, who says she’s heard enough false hopes about sovereignty over the years that she no longer thinks it’s possible.
“It’s not going to happen for the Hawaiian people,” she says. “It’s just not.”
Instead, she wants OHA to spend money on things that matter to her: funding for Hawaiian entrepreneurs, rental subsidies, scholarships for medical school.
Kalawe is among many deeply concerned by the questions raised in a recent state audit, which pointed out that OHA and trustees were spending trust money loosely without enough guidance or controls.
The finding rang true to Kalawe who has long suspected that the organization benefited the politically connected.
The agency argued that the money still went to Hawaiian causes and organizations even if it was discretionary. Several trustees who got in trouble for using their money to help individual Hawaiians also said that the expenses were consistent with OHA’s mission.
Wendt says that’s not good enough.
“It’s not an acceptable defense that the money benefited organizations consistent with the agency’s mission,” Wendt says. “The question is what makes that one Hawaiian more deserving of the expenditure than the next.”
Further shattering the illusion of OHA’s promise is the frequent bickering among trustees who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits against one another.
There’s also a lot of dissatisfaction with OHA’s chief executive officer Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, and trustee Apo says the group needs just one more vote to replace him.
Neither Crabbe nor Machado, OHA chairwoman, responded to requests for interviews for this article.
Apo is an OHA board member but decided not to run again this year in the wake of his ethics troubles. He says he’s leaving with a deep sense of disillusionment.
“My conclusion is that we are wandering,” Apo says “The mission wanders from one budget period to another. The wandering does not include accountability.”
Sproat from UH worries that the media’s focus on the drama at OHA gives fuel to critics who oppose the idea of the race-based agency while ignoring the organization’s achievements.
She says OHA is a critical funder for the Native Hawaiian law program she leads by supporting legal services to beneficiaries on the neighbor islands.
OHA also funds Hawaiian charter schools, which have helped bring back the language from the brink of extinction, and supported lawsuits challenging the state’s management of Mauna Kea and protecting Hawaiian traditional and customary rights.
“Hawaiians still see OHA as one of the final hopes for lifting up the Hawaiian people.” — Mahealani Cypher, Koʻolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club
“I’ve visited loi kalo that have been planted since the return of the water,” Sproat says, referring to OHA’s funding of Hawaiian water rights lawsuits that helped restore stream flows. “I’ve really witnessed how they’ve improved the lives of Native Hawaiians. I’m grateful for the work that they do.”
Then there’s the value of OHA’s voice.
The agency soundly condemned the January arrest of a professor for speaking Hawaiian in court, with the public outcry leading the state judiciary to rescind the bench warrant and amend its policies.
OHA also helps ensure Native Hawaiian perspectives are heard in the news media and the halls of government.
“The existence of OHA brings a focus to Hawaiian issues that actually never existed before,” Waihee says. “Forty years later people forget what it was like before. We take for granted that there is an agency out there that works on Hawaiian issues.”
OHA staff testify on bills ranging from housing policy to fishing rights and comment on developments at local permitting boards. The organization even has a Washington, D.C. branch to weigh on national policy.
Despite its failings, “Hawaiians still see OHA as one of the final hopes for lifting up the Hawaiian people,” says Cypher, who is a member of the Koʻolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club.
“The historical context (of OHA) is of people who lost their country,” says Wendt. “As a people we have never stopped striving to overcome this sense of loss.”
Waihee, whose son is an OHA trustee running for re-election, questions the media focus on OHA’s problems, saying, “it’s as good as any of the other institutions in state government.”
“If we take a look at the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Congress and say go back to when the Founding Fathers put it together, we probably would be disappointed,” Waihee says. “Nobody goes around and says it all ought to be changed. Like every other institution it evolves … Nobody runs around saying, ‘Yeah, we should make sure we don’t have a president just because we have Donald Trump.”
Waihee doesn’t think the criticism of OHA is racist — though he knows of others who do — but he thinks Native Hawaiians are often held to higher standards.
“There is an expectation that Native Hawaiians need to be noble savages that doesn’t exist for the same person, by the way, if they were the trustee, one of the commissioners at HART (Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation),” Waihee says.
At the same time, ethics problems make OHA easy fodder for the media, he says.
“Sometimes OHA is its worst enemy,” Waihee says. “They are an easy target.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Kapua‘ala Sproat. Her last name is Sproat, not Sprout.
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