Feds Finalize Rule on a Native Hawaiian Government

Sep 23, 2016

Credit Flickr / LuxTonnerre

The U.S. Department of the Interior has finalized a rule that creates a pathway to federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. The process began two years ago, and included thousands of pieces of testimony from listening sessions across the state and on the mainland.

The Department of the Interior’s announcement allows Native Hawaiians the choice to determine whether and how to reorganize its government. The new relationship would be similar to the tribal status of Native American Indian groups.

“This final rule provides the Native Hawaiian community with the opportunity to exercise self-determination by reestablishing a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a press release. “Throughout this two-year rulemaking process, thousands of voices from the Native Hawaiian community and the public testified passionately about the proposal. Today is a major step forward in the reconciliation process between Native Hawaiians and the United States that began over 20 years ago. We are proud to announce this final rule that respects and supports self-governance for Native Hawaiians, one of our nation’s largest indigenous communities.”

Annelle Amaral, the president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, supports the move by the federal government and sees it as an opportunity for the Hawaiian community.

"What it allows us to do is to finally have control over our sacred sites, over health care for our people, over the education of our children," said Amaral. "Instead of waiting for someone else to do something about our problems, with our own government we can begin to initiate change."

Protesters against the DOI rule filled the State Capitol auditorium in 2014 at the first of 15 public meetings across the state and on the mainland.
Credit Molly Solomon

But not everyone is behind the idea of federal recognition.

Native Hawaiian activist Bumpy Kanahele says the involvement of the federal government is not welcome. And stands in the way of a return to an independent, sovereign Hawaiian nation.

"The Interior Department being involved in any type of discussion regarding our national identity is totally out of line," said Kanahele. "I guess it's the only way they feel they can communicate with us."

For other Native Hawaiians, the federal rule opens up a path for future action, whether they choose to pursue it or not.

"Once Native Hawaiians establish its own government, only at that time will there be a determination of do we want to seek federal recognition, do Native Hawaiians want to go with independence, do they want to maintain status quo," said Keali’i Lopez, the board president of Imua Hawai‘i.  "So what the Department of the Interior and President Obama have done is just create the pathway. It's going to be up to Native Hawaiians to choose what path they take." 

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency that advocates for Native Hawaiian issues, released a statement in support of the rule. "Native Hawaiians have been the only major indigenous group in the 50 states without a process for establishing a government-to-government relationship with the federal government.  This rule finally remedies this injustice," said OHA Chairperson Robert K. Lindsey in a press release. "OHA will spend the next few days closely examining the rule to better understand how the Native Hawaiian people can – if they choose – pursue a government-to-government relationship.”

In a statement, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz added, "This is an historic step towards doing what is right and just for Native Hawaiians.  For far too long, Native Hawaiians have been the only federally recognized native people without a government-to-government relationship with the United States.  Generations of Hawaiians and allies have worked to restore this relationship, and this rule is one of the most significant developments in making this a real possibility."

The final rule, along with Frequently Asked Questions, can be found at www.doi.gov/hawaiian.