WASHINGTON — An ongoing battle over $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief money for America’s indigenous people is missing a key participant — Native Hawaiians.

When Congress passed the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March the intent was to set aside at least some funds for tribal entities so that they could respond to the growing COVID-19 pandemic in their communities.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are particularly susceptible to the spread of disease and — like other people of color in the U.S. — are believed to be more vulnerable to the coronavirus due to higher rates of chronic illness, lower incomes and overall lack of access to health care. The same is generally true for Native Hawaiians.

Federal relief aid in the CARES Act was supposed to ensure the country’s indigenous peoples were not forgotten. Instead, tribes have been embroiled in a legal fight with the Trump administration over attempts to send the money to for-profit Native corporations in Alaska.

Native Hawaiians have never achieved federal recognition. Now that is keeping federal coronavirus assistance from flowing to Hawaiians. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

While a federal judge sided with the tribes last week, the U.S. Treasury Department has yet to release any of the funds.

When the money finally does flow, however, Native Hawaiians won’t see any of it. That’s because despite decades of trying, Native Hawaiians are not fully recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign entity in the same way hundreds of American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives are.

They don’t have a centralized government that can receive federal money, which means that in the midst of a global pandemic Native Hawaiians might miss out.

“This is a direct consequence of the lack of federal recognition,” said Hawaii Congressman Ed Case, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee. “I’ll say it straight, if Native Hawaiians were federally recognized the likelihood of higher funding is there.”

Other Money Available

That’s not to say Hawaiians won’t benefit from the federal relief programs.

Like most everyone else, they can still receive a one-time direct payment from the government, qualify for billions of dollars in small business loans and take advantage of government and other nonprofit services, such as for health care and education, through federal stimulus deals.


State and local governments received $1.2 billion in direct coronavirus relief aid and can also choose to allocate those dollars to Native Hawaiians through grants and other discretionary spending programs.

There’s also the possibility for some Native Hawaiian organizations to get direct allocations from the federal government through other provisions in the CARES Act.

Such was the case for Alu Like Inc., a Honolulu-based nonprofit that received $62,270 through the legislation and provides a wide range of services to Native Hawaiians from job training to elder care.

For the most part, however, the lack of direct federal funding means nonprofit organizations and agencies, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, must lobby Hawaii Gov. David Ige and other state officials to work on behalf of Native Hawaiians.

On April 3, shortly after President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act into law, OHA and several nonprofits representing Native Hawaiian interests, such as Papa Ola Lokahi and the Native Hawaiian Community Development Corp., sent a letter to Ige and top officials at the state Department of Education urging them to apply for millions of dollars in federal emergency education funds through the CARES Act and dedicate at least 25% for Native Hawaiian children.

OHA OFfice of Hawaiian Affairs entrance.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs entrance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The letter said the funding was critical due to the disproportionate effects COVID-19 was having on Native Hawaiian youth, most of whom depend on free and reduced lunch and are less likely to have access to computers and the internet to participate in distance learning while schools were closed.

“To make a dire situation worse our keiki will also face lasting challenges due to impacts of COVID-19 on their family members,” the letter said. “Many Native Hawaiians possess characteristics that place them in the high-risk category for COVID-19. More than one in four Native Hawaiians suffer from asthma in comparison with the 15.4% rate amongst non-Hawaiian individuals in the State. Approximately 13.3% of Native Hawaiians suffer from diabetes in comparison to 8.1% of non-Hawaiians in the State.

“Any assistance to lessen the burden upon Native Hawaiian families at this critical time of need will not only improve education outcomes for Native Hawaiian students but improve holistic outcomes for Native Hawaiian families as well.”

Sterling Wong, a spokesman for OHA, said there’s little more the agency can do other than urge state officials to apply for federal relief aid and allocate it accordingly to Native Hawaiians. He did not want to comment on the topic of federal recognition.

“We understand that Washington, D.C., is a challenging place for Hawaii,” Wong said. “We’re appreciative of our congressional delegation’s efforts to get Hawaii the funding that we’ve received, and our focus right now is trying to figure out what monies are available and how to get it to our community.”

Kuhio Lewis, who is the CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, was more blunt in his assessment.

“The unfortunate reality right now is we are subservient to the state and county government, we have to go through them,” Lewis said. “Really, Hawaiians need to come together to figure out their future and the structure of that future so we can start getting these funds.”

Native Hawaiian organizations, such as his, are reliant on government dollars, but Lewis said there’s barely been a trickle from the feds despite there being trillions of dollars on the table.

Volunteers from the the COVID Command Mobile Unit, led by Dr. Scott Miscovich, screen Hawaii residents in their cars when they showed up for the free drive through testing event in Wahiwa,HI on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Native Hawaiians would appear to be more susceptible to the virus because of historic socioeconomic and health issues. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Prior to the pandemic, the council had hundreds of applicants for a program that gave one-time payments of $1,500 to Native Hawaiians experiencing a temporary hardship, such as job loss or unexpected medical bill, that made it difficult to make their next month’s rent or pay their utilities. Once the virus took hold on the islands the numbers jumped into the thousands.

“We know there are many ongoing attempts to push money to us, but right now there’s not a lot,” Lewis said. “Things are coming at us fast and furious, and what we’re seeing is our federal, state and county governments trying to figure out how to deploy their resources, but everything is moving so quickly. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of interest or support.”

“The unfortunate reality right now is we are subservient to the state and county government, we have to go through them.” — Kuhio Lewis, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

The lack of a centralized Native Hawaiian government also causes a problem, Lewis said. Had Hawaiians completed the federal recognition process the government would have a direct repository for relief aid.

As it stands, Hawaii’s congressional delegation must instead pump money into multiple different program budgets administered by multiple different agencies to get federal dollars to the Native Hawaiian community.

“Honestly, we keep kicking the can down the road because we don’t get along or we can’t figure it out,” Lewis said, “but really it’s a conversation that we need to have.”

A Long History Of Disagreement

Native Hawaiian federal recognition and forming a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. has a long, controversial history in Hawaii, one that’s most often linked to late-U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, himself a Native Hawaiian, who fought for many years to pass legislation that would put his people on the same footing with the federal government as American Indian tribes.

Akaka, who retired from Congress in 2012 and died in 2018, failed in his endeavor. But in 2016 the Obama administration’s Interior Department finalized a rule that would allow Native Hawaiians to form their own government. Hawaiians, however, could never agree on what self-governance should look like under U.S. rule, which ultimately sunk the process.

The pathway to self-governance still exists, but Native Hawaiians have yet to complete the journey. In terms of federal funding, Hawaii’s congressional delegation has needed to be creative.

Over the decades, language has been inserted in various laws and programs that carve out allocations for Native Hawaiians for housing, health care and education.

For example, when the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act was first passed in 1996 it only served the affordable housing needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Four years later a new provision was added to the law that allowed grants to Native Hawaiians through the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz fights against the Trump administration every year when it tries to cut funding for Native Hawaiians. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Securing funds for Native Hawaiians has been a perennial challenge for Hawaii’s congressional delegation, especially with Republican President Donald Trump in the White House.

For years, conservatives, with the backing of special interest groups like the Heritage Foundation, have pushed to eliminate federal programs benefiting Native Hawaiians, arguing that they were a racial classification rather than an indigenous people with their own governing structures analogous to American Indians.

Among those who supported this view is U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who Trump appointed to the high court in 2018. Kavanaugh has argued that any benefits for Native Hawaiians should be “subject to strict scrutiny and of questionable validity under the Constitution.”

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz knows the dance all too well. Schatz is a Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and each year must reinsert money into the federal budget for Native Hawaiian health care, education and housing programs that the Trump administration zeroes out.

Schatz said that any arguments that Native Hawaiians don’t already have a trust relationship with the U.S. government are undercut by hundreds of statutes, decades of funding and numerous lawsuits.

“There’s some continuing animosity toward recognizing the trust relationship the federal government has with Native Hawaiians, but most of the work gets done on the Appropriations Committee,” Schatz said, “and as the old saying goes, ‘There are three parties in Washington, D.C. — Democrats, Republicans and Appropriators.’”

“The appropriators tend to take care not to mess with each others’ states, and so on that basis we’ve been able to not just maintain funding for Native Hawaiians but increase it in the last seven years.”

Native Hawaiians will still receive millions of dollars through the coronavirus relief packages, he said, it just won’t go directly to a specific government entity because it hasn’t been set up yet. Until that happens, Native Hawaiians will continue to miss out on certain pots of money, including the $8 billion set aside in the CARES Act.

“We need a new president,” Schatz said, “and then we need for the Native Hawaiian community to move through the process of determining what a Native Hawaiian governing entity would look like.”

Editor’s note: Before the coronavirus sent us scrambling to report on the rapid spread of the disease in Hawaii and the effort to contain it, we had launched “Fault Lines,” a yearlong reporting and community engagement project aimed at exploring the social and political disconnects in Hawaii as well as promising examples of people and organizations who were trying to bridge those divides. The pandemic is underscoring some of those fault lines including the disconnect in the Hawaiian community. Read more of our coverage of Native Hawaiian issues in this project here. 

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