Danny De Gracia: A Blueprint For OHA To 'Better' The Lives Of Native Hawaiians - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Opinion article badgeWhat exactly does it mean to seek the “betterment” of the Native Hawaiian people? We hear it every time the Office of Hawaiian Affairs refers to themselves, or every time candidates for OHA seek election, but in recent years, we haven’t seen much “betterment” of the local Native Hawaiian condition.

Having grown up on the mainland, I had no reason to know about OHA or its mission until 2005, when, as the human services committee clerk at the state House of Representatives, the chair had me ask the Capitol’s Legislative Reference Bureau to draft a bill that ran afoul of the state constitution.

“You can’t do that,” the LRB analyst rebuffed me over the phone. “Come over to my office and I’ll explain why.”

Bringing my legislative aide along as a witness, we sat down together in a windowless, depressing gray cubicle on the fourth floor of the big square building and were passed dense, crisp copies of LRB’s “Guide to Government in Hawaii” manuals as if we were about to assemble a complicated piece of IKEA furniture.

“You know there are multiple, distinct branches of government, right?” the analyst inquired, condescendingly.

“Yeah … I think I remember that from my master’s degree in political science,” I answered. “Executive, legislative, judiciary.”

“And in Hawaii, we technically have four branches of government. Maybe even five, depending on how you look at it,” he interrupted forcefully, unfurling on his desk a 3-foot-wide chart with a hierarchical tree-diagram of local government.

“The University of Hawaii has exclusive jurisdiction over itself, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is a semi-autonomous state agency mandated to better the conditions of Native Hawaiians. Your rep’s proposed bill steps on both of their toes. Unless you get a ConAm, you can’t do this.”

“That sure is a hell of a lot of government,” I sighed, texting the brass tacks of what we were just told to my chair. He texted back, “Tell LRB to do it as a concurrent resolution asking for a study, then.”

It was from that moment forward that I found myself intrigued by the powers invested in Hawaii’s “other” governments, particularly OHA. And the more hearings I attended, and the more bills I had to research for the Legislature, the more I realized that Native Hawaiians have a largely untapped, powerful mandate for their “betterment” that has never been fully leveraged on their behalf.

Whatever your opinions may be about the annexation of Hawaii or the vote for statehood, one cannot deny the fact that today, Native Hawaiians suffer disparities in education, housing, health care and overall outcomes.

We constantly talk in policy circles about how we have to be respectful of “the host culture,” but so long as Hawaiians – for whom this state is named – languish in poverty, poor health or can’t own property, “Hawaii culture” is just a commercialized hijacking of a population that will never benefit.

Like every other election, we see a number of prospective candidates running for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee seats. And like every previous election, the issue of “betterment” for Native Hawaiians is something we talk about. But again, are we really going to do something about it, or just talk about it as a lofty, undefined goal that will never be realized?

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustees. 4 jan 2017
An Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Time To Get Serious About Native Hawaiian Outcomes

The first thing that OHA and the trustee incumbents and candidates need to recognize is that the current way we are doing things just isn’t working. During the early Covid-19 pandemic, Native Hawaiians were among some of the hardest hit and most affected by their vulnerabilities in pre-existing health conditions and lack of home ownership.

Said another way, it took a deadly, highly infectious disease to reveal that Hawaii has a socioeconomic glass jaw and it doesn’t take much to shatter our way of life. The three things that Native Hawaiians need most right now are breakthroughs in their health, personal finances and opportunities for upward mobility, and OHA needs to play a bigger role in that.

To begin, OHA needs to step up on Native Hawaiian health. In the short term, this means aggressively finding ways to provide reduced cost or free health care services to Native Hawaiians. In the long term, however, this should also include funding scientific research to help provide new cures or therapies. Government plays an important role in “moonshots” – sudden technological advances to overcome challenges – and OHA needs to think of winning moonshots for Hawaii.

In the current system, we are constantly waiting for some new grant, nonprofit or political savior to swoop in and make everything better for us.

OHA also needs to work on developing products, information or services that can then be monetized and used to directly benefit Native Hawaiians either with some kind of public dividend payments, stipends or benefits. This in turn can reduce the pressures on those who are most vulnerable and allow them the space to save money and attain upward mobility.

We need to also seek out cooperative agreements with universities and see if Native Hawaiians can be offered free distance-learning college degree programs. We are not doing anywhere near enough to give Native Hawaiians the tools they need in the 21st century to not only be successful, but to have a sense of attainment in a world that is becoming too expensive and too difficult to overcome alone. OHA has a role to play in this and needs to step up.

In the current system, we are constantly waiting for some new grant, nonprofit or political savior to swoop in and make everything better for us. That doesn’t work. We have to build a self-sustaining system for Native Hawaiians that pays for itself and provides benefits that add stability and predictability to the lives of beneficiaries.

“Bettering” Native Hawaiians means giving them both the hope for tomorrow and tangible assistance, today. Let’s make that our goal.

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

Agree with most of what is said here. Healthcare is one of the biggest threats to Hawaiians and it's not only treatment, but starts with addressing the root cause. Hawaiians didn't live off spam and rice, they ate healthy low fat diets based on fish and taro. That alternative needs to be readily available so that we don't face the highest rate of obesity and diabetes. In addition, as sustainable economic driver it an idea long overdue. Many indigenous Indian tribes rely on casinos to support their tribes. Hawaiians should have something, tourism based or other to profitably enhance what OHA is given by the state, which is another limiting constraint and debate all in itself. Good ideas that need to be looked at, considered and even more important, acted upon. Trustees need to be accountable for the benefit of all Hawaiians and have the qualifications to make a difference because it hasn't been working as is.

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

Interesting take but please consider. OHA has less than 100 employees statewide and has a budget of roughly $35 million a year. They are getting roughly a quarter of the actual public land trust revenue they are entitled to by constitutional mandate - right now some $15 million a year. So take that into account Mr. Garcia when putting together your expectations for the semi autonomous state agency. OHA is not Kamehameha Schools with billions of dollars waiting to make a huge impact. They are doing what they can with what they have, starting with getting their own house in order. They are also looking for employees - so if Mr. Garcia would like to put in his application - he's got some nice ideas - I'm sure OHA would look at picking him up.

BigDaddy · 1 month ago

Such an well written and important story, yet I am surprized by the lack of comments. True the 5, so far, are very thought-provoking and well written but I have to wonder why more folks do not weigh in on this issue. Apathy?

Kahua · 1 month ago

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