I’ve worked with Uncle Walter Ritte for well over a decade at this point — long enough that we can bark at each other effectively and affectionately. I’m fairly certain it’s how we remain so productive after all these years.

I’ve been bringing up federal recognition a lot lately, and it irritates him every time. “Why you gotta bring up something that’s a dead issue?” he asks, annoyed, over breakfast at Big City Diner on Waialae Avenue a couple Sundays ago when I most recently brought it up.

“Because we were right, and we should make them talk about that,” I said.

“Eeeaaahh!” He flicks his hand at me, a sure sign of irritation. “Unity! We should be talking about unity.”

“Unity” has become Uncle Walter’s passion. It was the driving force behind our organization of the ‘Onipa‘a Kākou march last January. It’s been a driving vision behind the formation of the nonprofit he now runs, ‘Āina Momona. It’s become his full-time work: unity.

And I’m on board with unity, because that’s my job in all of this, back up Uncle Walter. But my job is also to watch the periphery. My job is to remain cautious and suspect.

I’m not convinced federal recognition is a dead issue. I think it’s dormant. And after living on a volcanic island chain my entire life, I’m more than a little suspect of all things dormant.

Young people line up to begin the Onipa‘a Kākou march in January 2018 to observe the 125th anniversary of the Hawaiian Kingdom overthrow. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2018

Only a few years ago proponents of federal recognition were hell-bent on seeing it happen. They were coming straight through anything in their path, including those of us who stood in their way. It all seemed well lined up:

  • Barack Obama was considered a president friendly to Hawaiians and supportive of federal recognition
  • Obama appointed a leading advocate for federal recognition as undersecretary of Interior for insular affairs
  • Federal rules were passed that would pave the way for it to happen, circumventing congressional approval

Various delays, some in part due to the gridlock of Washington and others in part to strong, vocal opposition on the ground here in Hawaii stalled implementation of federal recognition during Obama’s terms, yet advocates seemed convinced of a Hillary Clinton victory and her willingness to finalize what Obama had started.

How Trump Changed The Conversation

Then Nov. 8, 2016, came and Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States.

I’ll admit that while I strongly supported Clinton and gladly voted for her, the federal recognition issue stuck in my craw even then.

At numerous meetings, among heated discussions and even all-out fights, this had always been one of my favorite points to make: Why would we want to hitch ourselves to a government that could turn on us at any moment?

The strongly Democratic group favoring federal recognition always laughed this argument off. No one seemed to believe a Clinton/Democratic Party loss even possible, certainly not to Trump. Yet here we are, and Trump has gone out of his way to target federally recognized tribes.

So where are the federal recognition advocates now?

For the most part, particularly on the issue of federal recognition: crickets.

Yet, delegates of Na‘i Aupuni and those who voted in support of its constitution have continued to work their way into government. It’s an interesting contrast to opponents who have built impressive momentum around sovereignty and awareness on issues critical to Native Hawaiians.

In addition to strategic placement within political and other leadership positions, leaders from Na‘i Aupuni appear to be continuing their efforts to fundraise to hold an election to ratify the constitution written and voted on during the hasty month-long Kanaiolowalu process.

A fundraising letter was leaked in 2016 and as recently as last summer, representatives of the effort participated in a high-level funders conference in Washington, D.C., representing the “Aloha Lahui Collective Action Fund and Native Hawaiian Roll Commission.”

Time will surely tell which of these rather different strategies proves more successful. What cannot be denied is that proponents are showing themselves to be more formidable in navigating the current Western-dominated system than the opponents of federal recognition. And to the extent that young Hawaiians should be assuming leadership positions, it’s absolutely fantastic to see these advances.

Hard Conversations Needed

Yet, one must question how well they can represent a growing number of Hawaiians (and even non-Hawaiians) who do not want federal recognition. Whether on the left or the right, there’s clearly an increasing number of people in Hawaii who are unhappy with governance here, both at the local and federal level.

The question remains: Why aren’t we having active discussions about self-governance?

On one level independence seems unimaginable, and there are real questions as to whether Hawaii has enough of an economic base to be self-reliant. There’s no doubting that many Pacific Island nation states rely heavily on foreign aid, which begs the question of whether we wouldn’t be worse off if we were independent.

Yet, we need to at least begin to recognize that our current model is highly problematic. We continue to waste and ruin natural resources at an alarming rate. The wealth gap in Hawaii seems unbridgeable. A solution to the housing crisis continues to elude us.

This was the biggest problem of the race to federal recognition, it denied us the time and opportunity to have the hard conversations. It denied us the space to educate ourselves and each other about our needs and our future.

If the Aloha Lahui Collective Action Fund can find the time to fundraise on the continent and participate on panels there, it certainly should make the time to engage its base at home on the status and future of federal recognition.

We now have the opportunity to begin the hard conversations. The time is now. Let us begin.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.