Indigenous, But Not Really: Native Hawaiians Deserve a Chance at Self-Governance

By: Joshua Sloan

November 28, 2022

Native Hawaiians were once a sovereign people who have become a neglected and impoverished minority in their own territory. In 1988, the American Indian Law Review laid out a comprehensive argument for granting Native Indigenous status for Native Hawaiians. 34 years later, no such status has been granted. So how has the movement towards granting Native Hawaiians this status, given their controversial integration into America as citizens, progressed over the decades?

To understand why the Native Hawaiian situation is unique, one must first know their story. In 1887, U.S. and European oligarchs forced the Hawaiian King Kalakaua to sign a constitution that stripped him of his authority, removed Native Hawaiians’ land rights and allowed foreign landowners the right to vote. When the former King’s successor, Queen Liliuokalani, moved to re-establish the monarchy, Americans imprisoned her in 1893 and sentenced her to 5 years in prison and hard labor. The administration of American President Benjamin Harrison encouraged the takeover, and he dispatched sailors from the USS Boston to the islands to surround the royal palace. Essentially, the U.S. orchestrated a coup in which they usurped the power of local Hawaiian leaders. Ever since, Hawaii has been a part of the U.S.  The U.S. Government has formally recognized the error of their ways, and in 1993 the Native Hawaiian community received an apology from the Government for the way their land was appropriated, the way they suffered, and the way they were subjugated. This document is known as the Apology Resolution, and within it the U.S. Government acknowledges that 1,800,000 acres of lands were acquired by the United States without the consent of or compensation paid to the Native Hawaiian people. Jon M. Van Dyke, a Yale and Harvard graduate and a Professor of Law at the University of Hawaii, stipulated that the plight of Native Hawaiians is not unique, but rather similar to that of other Native Americans in the U.S. He says, “Their lands and sovereign autonomy were taken from them without compensation or consent. Attempts were made to destroy their culture. Their population declined dramatically, and they occupy the bottom of the socio-economic scale in their own islands.”

To expand upon Professor Van Dyke’s point, according to 2019 data, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 14.8 percent of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, in comparison to 9.0 percent of non-Hispanic white persons, were living at the poverty level. With the struggles of Native Hawaiians at the forefront of their minds, along with the conflict in Ukraine and a multitude of other hot-button issues, Congress passed, and President Biden signed into law, H.R. 2471, the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2022, on March 15, 2022.  

For Hawaiians, the Consolidated Appropriations Act addresses four key issues: (1) the act increases funding to support low-income students and Minority Serving Institutions, including Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, (2) the act increases funding for federal programs that support Native Hawaiians, (3) the act includes about $5.5 million in congressionally directed spending for a number of University of Hawaii programs, and more than $700 million was assigned to address the Red Hill water crisis. The Red Hill water crisis was an event in November 2021 where petroleum leaked into the residential tap water supply on Hawaii, and it effected around 93,000 U.S. Navy water system users. While the granting of funding for Native Hawaiian education, as well as for Hawaii’s climate issues, is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. Nothing is done to address the hypocrisy of the Government’s position that Native Hawaiians are essentially the same as indigenous people yet they’re the only federally-recognized Native people without a government-to-government relationship with the Federal Government.

An act that has been untouched since 2012 could be the solution to this problem: the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2011. The Act proposes what the name suggests: that Native Hawaiians be granted the right to self-governance. A Senate report that accompanied the proposition delves into the aforementioned hypocrisy of the U.S. Government’s current position, as it states that “Native Hawaiians are indigenous to the State of Hawaii–just as American Indians are indigenous to the contiguous United States and Alaska Natives are indigenous to the State of Alaska. [This Act] creates parity within federal policy so that Native Hawaiians will be treated as are all other Native Americans.” After being proposed by Hawaiian Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka, the Act died in a previous Congress. A revival of this Act would permit for the recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity by the United States.  

On another note, it is important to ask whether Native Hawaiians want to self-govern. An overwhelming majority of Native Hawaiians that testified at public hearings in 2014 rejected the idea of the U.S. Government recognizing a new Native Hawaiian government. It is noteworthy that this data is not an accurate representation, given that the people who go to public hearings are typically the most impassioned few. Native Hawaiians, when asked, largely gave a variety of interesting reasons as to why they opposed the idea. Some demonstrated a total unwillingness to negotiate with, what seemed to them to be, a thieving U.S. Government. Others did not want to come to an agreement and essentially formally recognize the U.S. Government’s seizure of property out of fears that it will be misconstrued as settlement on the issue. Kahalu’u Kupuna and Protest Na’i Aupuni member Kapu Lambert said, “We [Native Hawaiians] cannot trust the State and Federal governments and their collaborators to do the right thing on our behalf especially when it comes to Hawaiian sovereignty and lands.” Others simply believe that Americans should not involve themselves whatsoever in a reorganization of the Hawaiian people’s government.

          Given this seemingly rampant and potentially justifiable distrust of the U.S. Government, the Government will have to go above and beyond to rectify the misdeeds of its predecessors. The U.S. Government should issue a sweeping resolution classifying Native Hawaiians as a body of people capable of self-governing, and thus call for a revival of the movement that motivated the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2011. The Act has great potential to give these disgruntled Native Hawaiians what they want: a declaration stating that they can self-govern, without any procedural direction as to how the U.S. suggests that they govern. 

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