A process to reconcile with Native Hawaiians over long-standing issues hasn’t begun, and there’s already mistrust in how the state will handle it going forward.

Resolutions in the House and Senate seek to establish a blue-ribbon commission appointed by Gov. David Ige that will try to find solutions to long-standing issues facing Native Hawaiians.

But what exactly those issues are and who would serve on the commission are the two biggest questions lawmakers and folks who testified at the Legislature tried to address at a hearing Monday morning.

One of the commission’s first tasks would have been to find a way forward on Mauna Kea. But the House Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs Committee removed that instruction to the future commission.

Rep. Ryan Yamane, who chairs the committee, said that the commission should ultimately choose what it wants to address.

Chair Ryan Yamane, Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs asks testifiers some questions during hearing.
Rep. Ryan Yamane, chair of the House Water, Land and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, doesn’t want the government to direct a commission tasked with bridging the relationship between the state and Native Hawaiians. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“They will decide what they want,” Yamane said in a phone interview Monday. “If it is Mauna Kea, that will be self determined. They will decide what those issues will be and what they want to address.”

While resolutions lack the force and effect of law, they allow the Legislature to give direction to certain parties or make requests of the government. A similar resolution in the Senate still contains the Mauna Kea provision.

Outside of government, the business community and some astronomers, the resolution received much opposition. Some members of a pro-TMT group submitted written testimony to lawmakers supporting the measure.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said that the vote was unanimous.

The committee voted to approve the resolution at Monday’s hearing. It now goes to the full House where it would need approval by a majority of the 51 members. Then it will pass to the Senate for consideration.

Rep. Tina Wildberger cast the lone “no” vote.

“Ironically, there are no Native Hawaiians on the Water, Land & Hawaiian Affairs Committee,” Wildberger said in an Instagram post. “So, based on the overwhelming opposition testimony from the Hawaiian community, I felt it was important to make sure their voices were represented on the Committee!”

Conflict over the Thirty Meter Telescope has underscored much of the discussion in government regarding Native Hawaiian affairs recently. However, government leaders including Ige, leaders in the House and Senate and Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim have kicked around the issue with no solution.

Several people who testified before the House panel said the process to select commission members is unfair because the resolution would allow Ige to select the members.

“It’s flawed already,” Ilima Long, an activist and student at the University of Hawaii, told the committee. “It’s going to be really difficult to gain the trust of the Native Hawaiian community. I don’t trust (the process) already.”

Making sure the commission is representative of Native Hawaiians throughout the state was a major concern for lawmakers as well. They want to ensure the commission isn’t steered by the government, a sentiment shared by House Speaker Scott Saiki, who introduced the resolution.

“If this is to work here, the process must come from the native people,” said Rep. David Tarnas, who’s Big Island district includes parts of Waimea and Mauna Kea. “It must be pono. It must work here. It must come from within.”

Attorney General Clare Connors said that Ige’s staff has been looking at various models from other countries that have struggled with relations between the government and their indigenous people. Those include Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

Connors agreed with the committee that government shouldn’t be steering the commission.

Ige, some members of his cabinet and Kim all mentioned addressing the situation on Mauna Kea in their written testimony to lawmakers on the resolution. 

“Mauna Kea, and the complex task of stewarding it respectfully, is front and center among the issues that require a unified approach,” Ige wrote in testimony to lawmakers.

Healani Sonoda-Pale testifies during a Water, Land Hawaiian Affairs hearing at the Capitol.
Healani Sonoda-Pale is concerned that Ige’s picks on the commission would skew it in favor of TMT. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Both TMT supporters and those who have blocked its construction have concerns with how the commission will recommend the state reconcile with Native Hawaiians.

Sam King II, leader of the group Imua TMT, supported the resolution but wanted the conflict of Mauna Kea to be separate from discussions about reconciling with Native Hawaiians.

TMT supporters feel it’s another way to delay construction, while some protesters, who call themselves protectors or kiai, are concerned that the commission was intended to simply steamroll any opposition to the telescope.

“The governor will do anything to clear the road to Mauna Kea, including a bogus reconciliation process,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, chair of the Ka Lahui Hawaii Political Action Committee.

Walter Ritte, a long-time activist from Molokai who is also a leader in the Mauna Kea movement, said the Legislature should hold off on the commission for now. 

Instead it should meet with other government leaders as well as leaders in the protest movement to sort out how to restructure the management of Mauna Kea. That was a point in Kim’s plan, but Ige has made little progress on that and the Legislature is not considering any bills to restructure management of the mountain.

Besides, Ritte says, a resolution on Mauna Kea is unlikely.

“You won’t get a bunch of Hawaiians in a room to agree on Mauna Kea,” Ritte said. “The Mauna Kea people, they’re willing to die … you cannot move those kinds of commitments.”

Nathaniel Kinney, executive director of the Hawaiian Construction Alliance, supports the resolution. He hopes it can help break down barriers between government and its citizens.

“Let’s just start with this first step of more open dialogue,” he said.

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