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Native Hawaiians given way to create ties with US government

Updated: 
September 24, 2016 - 12:05am

HONOLULU — Native American communities with their own governments have long had a way to establish a relationship with the United States, but until now one of the largest indigenous groups in the country hasn’t had the same opportunity.

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Friday that it finalized a rule for creating a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians — if they choose to form their own government and if they want such ties.

Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka spent about a dozen years trying to get a bill passed that would give Native Hawaiians the same rights already extended to many Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Efforts to get the bill to a vote have consistently been blocked, and Akaka retired three years ago.

Native Hawaiians have not had a formal, unified government since the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. Supporters of the Interior Department’s rule see it as a big step toward federal recognition.

Critics say it won’t right the wrongs of the overthrow and that it’s meant to turn Native Hawaiians into Indian tribes. Some Native Hawaiians say it can’t be assumed that all indigenous people share the same history, experiences and needs.

Many Native Hawaiians have long been clamoring for self-determination, but there are varying opinions of what that would look like, including federal recognition, restoring the overthrown Hawaiian kingdom or dual citizenship.

They are the largest indigenous group in the U.S. that has not been offered the chance for a relationship with the federal government, said Kris Sarri, the Interior Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy management and budget.

“Issues around the Native Hawaiian community itself organizing, making a decision to form a government … that is something really for the community to make decisions about,” she said. “All we wanted to do was make sure if they wanted to pursue those options, there was an option for a government-to-government relationship.”

The final federal rule mirrors a proposal announced a year ago and sets an administrative procedure that Interior would follow if an established Native Hawaiian government wants those ties.

It requires there be a governing document that undergoes a ratification vote by Native Hawaiians. An attempt last year to hold an election to select delegates for a constitutional convention fell apart after a lawsuit challenged the legality of holding a race-based election.

It’s not clear how the ratification requirement would be met. That’s for Native Hawaiians to figure out, Sarri said.

Some Hawaii lawmakers applauded the ruling, including Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

“This is an historic step towards doing what is right and just for Native Hawaiians,” Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a press release. “For far too long, Native Hawaiians have been the only federally recognized native people without a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Generations of Hawaiians and allies have worked to restore this relationship, and this rule is one of the most significant developments in making this a real possibility.”

“For decades, many in the Native Hawaiian community have fought for the same rights and treatment as indigenous groups across the United States, like Native American tribes and Alaska Natives,” Gabbard added. “The Department of Interior announcement today simply places the decision-making authority solely within the hands of Native Hawaiians to determine what, if any, government-to-government relationship they choose to have with the U.S. federal government.”

But not everyone is on board.

The Grassroot Institute criticized the DOI for subverting the will of Native Hawaiians on the issue of federal recognition. The watchdog group said the announcement of the DOI’s rule to facilitate the re-establishment of a formal government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community, the president has reignited a controversy that had begun to wane in the wake of Na’i Aupuni’s dissolution.

“Native Hawaiians are on record as overwhelmingly opposed to efforts by the Department of Interior to recognize or establish a Hawaiian tribe or government,” stated Keli’i Akina, PhD., president of the Grassroot Institute. “Every survey by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, from 1978 to the present, shows that Native Hawaiians want OHA to stop wasting money on federal recognition and, instead, to spend those millions on meeting the real needs of Hawaiians for housing, jobs, education, and health care. OHA and the DOI are on a crash course in their rejection of the will of the Hawaiian people.”

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