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6 of 9 seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees are up for election this year

Catherine Cruz

Six of the nine seats on the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees are up for election this year. That gives Hawaiʻi voters considerable power in charting the future course of this agency — and the $600 million trust fund it oversees — with the mission of improving the conditions of Native Hawaiians.

The future of OHA is built on the story, and the context, of its origins.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs came about in a time of activism in the 1970s. Troy Andrade teaches at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law.

"You had this Hawaiian Renaissance in culture, in language, in spirituality that was occurring," says Andrade. "All of that led to these political movements. Groups like the Hawaiians. You had things like the traversing of the Pacific by the Hōkūleʻa and then you had Kahoʻolawe."

At the 1978 Constitutional Convention, Native Hawaiian leaders like Aunty Frenchy DeSoto and former Gov. John Waiheʻe pushed a Hawaiian Affairs Package, which included the creation of this Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

"It becomes a form of reconciliation between Native Hawaiians and the state for historical injustices. So it's really envisioned as a vehicle for reparative action for Native Hawaiians," says Andrade.

The idea was to have an organization that would be elected by Native Hawaiians, and run by Native Hawaiians to benefit Native Hawaiians. But in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rice v. Cayetano that restricting voting in these races to Native Hawaiians was unconstitutional.

"With the ability of non-Native Hawaiians to now vote, you have the potential for the Hawaiian voice to get watered down in an election that is now open to everyone," says Andrade.

2022 has been a crucial year for Native Hawaiians at the state Legislature. More than $1 billion was infused into the various Native Hawaiian-serving organizations and state agencies.

OHA received $64 million in underpaid public land trust revenues from the state.

"I really hope that folks engage in discussions with the candidates for OHA to ensure that they are there and willing to push the state government, to push the federal government for additional support to ensure the betterment of Native Hawaiians whether it be in education, health care, housing, whatever it is," says Andrade.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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