Na'i Aupuni kicks off amid heated talks

Published: Feb. 1, 2016 at 3:22 AM HST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2016 at 5:26 AM HST
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Rowena Akana
Rowena Akana

Delegates to the native Hawaiian constitutional convention met at the Pagoda restaurant tonight. It was a social meeting designed to introduce delegates to each other.

But behind the scenes, discussions between some delegates have become openly hostile, with some reverting to name calling and personal attacks.

"I've seen what's going on the Internet with the back and forth and people arguing. That's the kind of thing to me that's going to stall the process," said delegate Rowena Akana, who also is a trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The arguments are largely between delegates who support federal recognition by the U.S. government and those who want independence from the U.S. Many of the critics who favor independence plan to protest Monday's opening session.

"The community is so divided between independence and federal recognition. So it's important for us to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters who want independence and to figure a path, perhaps in the future," said delegate Annelle Amaral, a former state lawmaker.

Amaral said federal recognition is needed now to support federal programs for Hawaiians, which are at risk.

"We no longer have the senior Senators Akaka and Inouye to help usher through the programs native Hawaiians need," she said.

"All of this falls apart with a Republican Congress that is now saying we are race-based, we have no federal recognition. The attempt is to preserve and protect those programs."

But some critics say federal recognition doesn't go far enough.

"This is a state-funded, designed event. It really has nothing to do with self-determination so much as it has to do with the predetermination by the state and the federal government of the United States" toward federal recognition, said Hawaiian filmmaker Keala Kelly.

"Anything short of self-determination is unprincipled, immoral and illegal."

Others believe that the constitutional convention has no legal standing since its delegates weren't elected. An election was halted after the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii sued, arguing that organizers were using state funds for a race-based election.

"It doesn't represent the people of Hawaii. It doesn't represent the Hawaiian people. It doesn't have any legal standing," said Kelii Akina, the Grassroot Institute's president.

Delegate Rowena Akana said she's cautiously optimistic the opposing sides will be able to work through their differences to craft a constitutional document. But she said it's going to take a lot of work.

"I'm hoping that rather than focusing on petty things, they will draw their attention toward the kinds of government they would like to see," she said.

"Hawaiians all want the same thing, which is justice and reparations for lands taken."

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