Feds finalize pathway for formal relations with Native Hawaiians

Native Hawaiian Recognition: How did we get here?
Healani Sonoda-Pale (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Healani Sonoda-Pale (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Image: Hawaii News Now / File
Image: Hawaii News Now / File

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Friday morning that Native Hawaiians are eligible to form a sovereign government that would have the same rights as Native American tribes to negotiate directly with the U.S. government.

The proposed rule would make Native Hawaiians eligible for federal recognition. Officials say it's not "automatic" federal recognition, but lays out the path to re-establish direct government-to-government relations, if Native Hawaiians so choose.

The so-called rule -- known as "Part 50" – leaves it up to the Native Hawaiian community to determine what their government would look like and what its agenda would be.

"This final rule provides the Native Hawaiian community with the opportunity to exercise self-determination by re-establishing a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States," U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the announcement.

DOI officials said the process includes establishing a formal unified government that would represent the majority of Native Hawaiians. That government would then make a written request to the Secretary of the Interior to engage in direct governmental relations. It would then have to show that it can meet three main criteria regarding the governance of its people. The entity would have to show it could provide for orderly elections, guarantee civil right protections, and protect the current rights and benefits for Native Hawaiian under existing federal law.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said, "This is an historic step towards doing what is right and just for Native Hawaiians. 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."

The Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown on January 17, 1893.  Influential Hawaii businessmen formed the Committee of Safety to end the monarchy and annex Hawaii to the United States.  They started a coup with more than 160 U.S. Marines and Navy sailors who stood outside Iolani Palace.  Queen Liliuokalani surrendered to avoid bloodshed and Hawaii was annexed in 1898.

In 1993, on the 100 anniversary of the overthrow, congress issued an apology to the native Hawaiian people, signed by then President Bill Clinton. It was sponsored by Senator Daniel Akaka and the late Senator Daniel Inouye.

The first big push to establish a native Hawaiian roll commission was in 2013, thousands signed up to try and organize an independent Hawaiian governing body.  That's when the federal government, the Department of Interior got involved to establish a government to government relationship. Public meetings were held across the state which often ended in combative testimony.  Division among Hawaiians sparked heated debate over those wanting the federal relationship and those who wanted an independent nation.

Nearly derailed by legal challenges the Na'i Aupuni gathered people from around the state in a convention -- or a'ha -- where participants approved a draft constitution.    That constitution has yet to be ratified because of funding.

"It might have taken a hundred years and several presidents," says Robin Danner the Policy Chair at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement who praises President Obama, "A Hawaii born president took up his kuleana."

While supporters praise the rule's establishment for finally taking the guesswork out of the process, opponents wasted no time in blasting the rule.

"It's not self-determination, and it undermines our right to self-determination, and it undermines the Hawaiian community voices that have loudly said 'no,'" said Healani Sonoda-Pale, one of the founding members of the group Protest Na'i Aupuni.

Based on previous draft rules, Native Hawaiians would be able to form a sovereign government with rights similar to those given to Native American tributes. At least 50,000 Native Hawaiians would have to support such a government before it could negotiate with the federal and state governments for land and other benefits.

"That's a joke, because basically the only form of government is a federally recognized tribe that is managed by the Department of the Interior," said Sonoda-Pale, adding that she doesn't trust the department.

During a series of public hearings more than two years ago, federal government officials faced a buzzsaw of opposition as they stressed the need to work together.

But Sonoda-Pale said that's something for Native Hawaiians alone to decide.

"We still kinda need to come together and decide on our won where we want to go instead of having the state and the federal government coming in and telling us where we should go," she said.

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