HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Native Hawaiian recognition took a major step when the Obama Administration said it will consider procedures to re-establish a political relationship with Hawaiians.
Starting Monday, the U.S. Department of the Interior will hold public meetings statewide on how to develop a formal government-to-government relationship with Hawaiians.
"It's critically important and what a surprise," said state and former Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Sen. Clayton Hee.
The meetings are part of a long process in which Hawaiian could end up with the same tribal status that native American groups now have.
The Obama administration's plan provides many of the same benefits sought by the Akaka bill. But unlike the Akaka bill, it does not require approval from Congress.
Experts said such a relationship also will help protect many native Hawaiian programs, which have come under legal attack in the wake of U.S. Supreme Court's Rice vs. Cayetano ruling, which barred race-based programs for Hawaiians.
"I don't see this as anything to fear. Quite frankly, I see it as something to embrace," said Hee, D-Kaneohe.
"There are approximately 700 tribes that are federally recognized throughout the lower 48."
In a rare joint statement, Hawaii's congressional delegation -- Sen. Mazie Hirono, Sen. Brian Schatz, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa -- applauded the Obama administration.
"This notice represents an historic opportunity to address years of injustice and marks a positive step forward in the push for Native Hawaiian self-determination," they said.
But University of Hawaii law professor Williamson Chang said that many Hawaiians reject the model proposed by the feds. They see Hawaii as being "occupied" by the U.S. Government and don't recognize American sovereignty over Hawaii.
"Hawaiians won't be satisfied by the federal recognition or the government-to-government recognition on a tribal level," he said.
Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana'opono Crabbe added that the rulemaking process proposed by the Interior Department is "only one option for consideration."
"The decision of whether to walk through the federal door or another will be made by delegates to a Native Hawaiian 'aha and ultimately our people," Crabbe said.
"We are committed to keeping all of our doors open so our people can have a full breadth of options from which to chose what is best for themselves and everyone in Hawaii."