Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Z. Ka’apana Aki, candidate for Office of Hawaiian Affairs at-large trustee. The other candidates for three seats include Julian Ako, U’i Kahue-Cabanting, Brickwood Galuteria, Lei Ahu Isa, Sam King, Kealii Makekau, Chad Owens, William Paik, Keoni Souza and John Waihee IV.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for Office of Hawaiian Affairs At-Large Trustee

Z. Ka'apana Aki
Party Nonpartisan
Age 40
Occupation Public policy advocate
Residence Mililani, Oahu


Community organizations/prior offices held

‘Apoākea Native Hawaiian Innovation Institute, non-profit organization.

1. What do you see as the most pressing problem facing Native Hawaiians, and what will you do about it?

Native Hawaiians endure some of the worst financial instability in the State of Hawaii, which serves as a core issue that intersects with every other issue that Native Hawaiians suffer disproportionately, such as, worst health, underperformance in education, overrepresentation within the criminal justice system, etc.

If Native Hawaiians were more financially stable (and secure), I strongly believe we would have the greater capacity to address the many other systemic issues we face. The simple stated solution to this problem is to provide Native Hawaiians with adequate and effective opportunities to vastly improve their economic standing.

This isn’t just a Native Hawaiian problem; long-time, multi-generationally-rooted locals also carry the burden of economic hardship. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has the capacity and means to build economic opportunity for Native Hawaiians and all others who call Hawaii, home.

While serving as a public policy advocate for OHA and a former OHA trustee aide, I put together an economic development plan that would leverage the power of OHA to build new economic sectors, while bolstering existing sectors through innovation and the kind of far-reaching insight that we have yet to see in this state. More plan details on my website and Facebook page.

2. What would you do to bridge the gaps within the Native Hawaiian community over issues like construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope or development of energy projects?

Free, prior and informed consent, would go great lengths toward bridging the many divides within the Native Hawaiian community over development projects that could negatively impact Native Hawaiian rights and traditional culture.

The Native Hawaiian community needs adequate and effective space to learn about an issue, engage in discourse, and to ultimately vet the issue. Public hearings by state and county agencies are not adequate for this. Likewise, adequate respect afforded to the Native Hawaiian people, their culture, and their traditional beliefs by state/county governments and business interests needs to be commonplace.

Gaps, or rather, an open wound within the Native Hawaiian community is caused, more often than not, by a systemic issue stemming from historical injustice. As a systemic issue, it should be very clear that Native Hawaiian interests are rarely ever at the forefront of decision-making processes that shape the socio-political-economic-environmental character of these islands.

Native Hawaiians, for over 129 years, almost never got to have the final say in how their lives are impacted in their own homeland. This practice of suppression continues today, from a time when racists and bigots sought the annihilation of the Native Hawaiian people. This bad habit needs to get dropped.

3. Do you support the construction of the TMT atop Mauna Kea? Why or why not? Could a new management structure help to resolve long-standing disputes?

This question requires a lot of unpacking due to the sheer complexity of the issue. The public has not been made aware of any updates with the TMT plan, so I cannot give a definitive “yes” or “no” answer to this question because I simply do not know where the TMT is in its development plan.

I strongly support astronomical development in these islands and I also strongly believe that astronomical development can contain principles and technologies in both Western origin and indigenous/Native Hawaiian – it can be both traditional and brand new. I strongly support responsible economic development connected to responsible astronomical development, no matter its origin.

New management does not mean better management. I believe that the TMT project could have been planned better with far more benefit to, not just the Native Hawaiian community, but specifically to the residents of Hawaii County, and ultimately for all the people of Hawaii.

I also believe that those leading the opposition of the TMT had missed many opportunities to better negotiate on behalf of the Native Hawaiian community and other residents of this state. Beneficial development in these islands is critical to our survival and Native Hawaiian interests can mutually advance them.

4. What role should the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands play in reducing homelessness?

The Department of Hawaiian Homelands is a state agency with a specific purpose — curing homelessness is not the agency’s purpose. I say this because there’s a tendency among many policymakers to saddle the group suffering the largest portion of a widespread societal issue with the task of solving that issue.

It is this government’s responsibility to end the homeless crisis. It is not the sole responsibility of a state agency mandated to provide homesteads for the survival of a people, who were on the brink of extinction.

With that said, the issue forming the impetus for DHHL’s establishment has evolved. Native Hawaiians are no longer on the brink of extinction, but we continue to suffer disproportionately as a result of the very same historical injustice that deprived many Native Hawaiians of assets/real estate, generational wealth, and ultimately, the means for financial security.

DHHL should continue to focus on its mission for the benefit of HHCA beneficiaries, however, as a housing agency, it should also work closely with agencies like OHA, and wealthy charitable organizations like Kamehameha Schools, to provide housing for all Native Hawaiians. There is enough capital held by the Native Hawaiian trust organizations to make this a reality.

5. Why do you think Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails? What can be done about it?

Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails for two reasons: disparate treatment as a result of racial prejudice, and ongoing socio-economic issues stemming from unresolved historical injustice that is often the reason for Native Hawaiians committing crimes in the first place. These are facts that can be found in OHA’s report on “The Impact of the Criminal Justice System on Native Hawaiians” and the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on “Disparate Treatment of Native Hawaiians in the Criminal Justice System.”

Native Hawaiians are not committing crimes at a greater rate than any other people. However, Native Hawaiians are more likely to get a prison sentence than any other group; more likely to get longer prison sentences than any other group; sentenced to longer probation terms; have the lowest ratio of release to parole revocations. The reason for this is racism – racial intolerance at every stage of the system, which can be mitigated through education, awareness and through encouraging tolerance.

I strongly believe that elevating Native Hawaiian socio-political-economic standing will have a direct positive correlation to the reduction of Native Hawaiians committing crimes. Dismantling institutionalized racism will also mitigate disproportionate representation and recidivism of Native Hawaiians.

6. What are your views regarding Hawaiian self-determination?

Self-determination is the fundamental human right to determine your socio-political-economic aspirations for yourself. Self-determination is more than sovereignty or independence. It’s about controlling a shared future by the people who actually share that future.

Groups of people with a shared identity, in what we often characterize as a “nation” – especially today – exercise self-determination through democratic processes; we elect our representatives, who participate in governance on our behalf, for our best interest – or at least that’s the idea.

When it comes to Native Hawaiians, as a distinct group of people, their best interests are not being decided by them, it’s being decided by the “voice” of majority, which at roughly 5% of the state population, is not them.

Native Hawaiians should exercise self-determination so long as it is effective in bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians, while also making Hawaii a better place to live. In exercising that self-determination, Native Hawaiians could assist greatly in breaking free the people of Hawaii from the stagnancy that has often plagued this state government and stifled our growth.

Hawaii has immense potential for all of its people and I strongly believe that effective and responsible Native Hawaiian self-determination can better the conditions for all.

7. Is OHA getting its fair share of ceded-land revenues from the state?

No, OHA is not getting its fair share. By constitutional mandate, OHA should receive, annually, 20% of the ceded lands revenue, which was recently estimated to be around $78.9 million per year. However, OHA is capped at roughly $15 million per year. If OHA’s mission is the betterment of conditions for Native Hawaiians, then clearly Native Hawaiians are being shortchanged by that lack of $64 million. That’s $64 million that isn’t going just to Native Hawaiians – that’s money that can be used to diversify, stimulate, and bolster the state’s economy for everyone’s benefit.

Lifting the cap on the amount of owed revenue that OHA can receive each year should be a priority among OHA trustees and a policy supported by every lawmaker in this state. This $64 (or so) million is not solely a boon for Native Hawaiians, but for all the people who call Hawaii home. OHA could be using this significant amount of funding to build better economies in this state and many more opportunities for its residents. I understand that confidence in OHA’s past leadership has been a major concern and bringing effective leadership to the organization is the reason why I chose to seek this seat.

8. Is OHA fulfilling its mandate to serve the Hawaiian people?

No, OHA is not fulfilling its mandate to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. I believe there are good people at OHA and many OHA trustees who have tried to fulfill OHA’s mandate to the best of their ability given the resources at their disposal. It’s obviously not enough to say that Native Hawaiians, as a distinct group of people, are well off, or even better off than the year before. Native Hawaiians still suffer the worst health in the state, they are among the most financially insecure, they constantly struggle within the educational system, they are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system and among the houseless. OHA has a whole lot of work to do.

I believe the source of OHA’s present ineffectiveness is two-fold: deficient leadership and severe lack of funding to advance its mission for the betterment of conditions for Native Hawaiians. OHA needs trustees with the necessary vision to see how the agency can play a pivotal role in bolstering Hawaii’s economy for its people; developing a strategic plan to realize that role; organizing Hawaii’s communities around this plan; and executing this plan for the benefit of all. We need to break the status quo.

9. Is Hawaii managing its tourism industry properly? What should be handled differently?

I strongly believe that this state is capable of managing tourism better. I think many longtime Hawaii residents share the notion that the state is operating the fast-food version of tourism: as cheap as it can get to attract the most tourists instead of focusing predominantly on quality. High quality tourism means balancing the visitor experience with the quality of life for residents. It means luxury tourism that encourages and supports high-paying jobs and local entrepreneurship.

I want to emphasize that resident sentiment for tourists and about tourism isn’t a predominantly positive one. Tourists want the Hawaii experience and businesses clamor to sell it to them – this has encouraged the growth of an industry that has encroached on the lives of residents. We’ve seen our secluded beaches far from tourist hubs become overrun by tourists looking to escape the crowds. We forego our favorite eateries to skip the long lines bolstered by travel reviews. I believe it’s too often that the quality of life for residents is sacrificed for the better experience of a visitor to these islands. There is a balance that can be achieved here, it just takes the necessary political will to achieve it.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

One of Hawaii’s biggest and long-standing issues is the “brain drain.” We’re not just losing our next generation youth to opportunities elsewhere, but we’re losing people of all ages, and across all skillsets to opportunities elsewhere. This should tell us that we have a serious problem in economic diversity with vast potential that isn’t being met – and there’s a reason for this: we are effectively under a stranglehold of special interests that do not allow us to pursue economic development in sectors that are not already established. Sector establishment and growth often requires government funding, but that highly sought-after funding is presently serving as the lifeblood for existing sectors. This is the “business as usual” of the status quo.

I strongly believe that we need to greatly diversify our economy, in part, by establishing new economic sectors in areas of major potential growth. One of these sectors is the agri-tech sector. With the most unprecedented effects of climate change hurtling toward us, accessibility to food will become more difficult, and every person on this planet needs food to survive. In our geographic isolation, we are incredibly vulnerable to resource shortages, so we need to invest in economies of the future.

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