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Two Native Hawaiians Appointed to Senior Posts at U.S. Department of Interior

DOI Appointees
President Biden has appointed two Native Hawaiians to senior posts in the U.S. Interior Department. Keone Nakoa and Summer Sylva will be joining the administration in the late fall.

Two Native Hawaiians have been appointed by President Biden to serve in senior posts at the U.S. Interior Department. Waimānalo Attorney Summer Sylva has been appointed Senior Advisor for Native Hawaiian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Keone Nakoa, the D.C. Bureau Chief for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, has been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs.

These positions carry a great deal of influence over federal policy towards Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and could have major impacts on these communities here and abroad.

Sylva is the current head of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation says the new post allows her to do the same kind of work at the federal level.

"I immediately understood the magnitude of that kuleana of being the Native Hawaiian representative at the table where critical federal decisions are being made about kanaka maoli issues," Sylva said. "And so I am absolutely committed to uplifting and amplifying the voices of our people in the same way that I've been honored to do at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation."

Sylva will be reporting directly to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first indigenous woman to head the DOI.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaʻāina, who led the DOI’s Office of Insular Affairs under the Obama Administration, said, "She’s in a critical role to be in the Secretary’s inner circle. And I understand the Secretary wanted it that way."

Kiaʻāina said Sylva’s appointment signals the agency’s desire to tackle some of the more complex issues facing Native Hawaiians.

"That could be improving the coordination of federal programs for native Hawaiian education, native Hawaiian health care, greater oversight by the federal government of our Hawaiian Home Lands programs, and of course, issues like self-governance," Kiaʻāina said.

Sylva’s appointment was announced Wednesday alongside that of Keone Nakoa, who will be serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs. This office oversees the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, as well as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.

"One of the most important issues, aside from the COVID response and recovery in these smaller territories, is the compact agreements with the Freely Associated States of Micronesia," Kiaʻāina said. "Of course, there’s a nexus here with regard to the Compact impact issues financially in Hawaiʻi. So I think having him there is going to make a difference."

No start date has been set, but Sylva says she expects to relocate to Washington D.C. in October.

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