The Interior Department announced Tuesday that it will seek input from community leaders in coming weeks as it develops its first consultation policy for Native Hawaiians.

Unlike American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians are not federally recognized by the U.S. government as having their own sovereign nation.

The Interior Department created a process for Native Hawaiians to form their own government-to-government relationship with the U.S. in 2016 under then-President Barack Obama, but the Hawaiian community has been unable to agree on a path forward due to deep divisions.

The new consultation policy appears to be an attempt by the Biden administration to put Native Hawaiians on similar footing as other Indigenous groups that are federally recognized.

Hawaiian flags on the lawn on opening day of the Legislature at the Capitol.
A new consultation policy could put Native Hawaiians on similar footing as American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, lauded the decision, saying it was a “very big deal and a vital first step.”

“One of the most important principles in policymaking, especially as it relates to Native communities, is: ‘nothing about me, without me,’” the Hawaii Democrat said in a statement. “This policy update recognizes that consultation with Native Hawaiians is an essential aspect of decision-making for the federal government and key to upholding its trust responsibility. We have a long way to go, but all progress starts with listening.”

According to the Interior Department, the agency will be required to consult with the Native Hawaiian community on any new rule-making, legislative proposal or changes to grant funding formulas.

It will also be required to consult with Native Hawaiians on any issues that might affect their ancestral lands, water and cultural resources.

The proposal states that Native Hawaiian Organizations, including dozens of groups such as the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, are the “informal representatives of the Native Hawaiian Community” and therefore will be heavily involved in the consultation process.

Working with such organizations is crucial, the policy states, because Native Hawaiians currently do not have a “unified formal government.”

“The Interior Department is committed to working with the Native Hawaiian Community on a government-to-sovereign basis to address concerns related to self-governance, Native Hawaiian trust resources, and other Native Hawaiian rights,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a press release. “A new and unprecedented consultation policy will help support Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination as we continue to uphold the right of the Native Hawaiian Community to self-government.”

The Interior Department’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations is scheduled to host two virtual consultations next month to gather feedback on the proposed rule. More information can be found here.

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