Hawaiian Affairs Committee Lacks Native Hawaiian Legislators

Jan 6, 2021

Gambling on Hawaiian Home Lands, greater burial protections, and OHA election reform are just some of the top Native Hawaiian issues up for debate among state lawmakers this year. Whether these proposals advance or even get a hearing depends on each chambers’ Hawaiian Affairs committee. But what if this committee lacks native Hawaiian legislators? 

Hawaiʻi lawmakers reshuffle committee assignments every couple of years to ensure the best use of each members background or skillset. But this year, the House committee responsible for Hawaiian affairs lacks Hawaiian legislators. Healani Sonoda-Pale of the political action committee Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi says she’s concerned.

“It’s representation, having representation of the people whose lives you're going to be affecting when you make the decisions,” says Sonoda-Pale. “Having them be represented on that committee is super important.”

State speaker Scott Saiki who’s responsible for House committee assignments did not respond to HPR’s requests for comment. But former state senator Brickwood Galuteria says he doesn’t think there’s an intention to exclude Hawaiian legislators because assignments are requested.

“You go to the speaker, you say, ʻI'd like to be on these committees. This is where I feel my strengths are or this serves my constituency best,ʻ says Galuteria, “You're going to let the speaker know your preferences. And then, of course, you won't get them all but maybe you’re lucky enough to get them all.”

Big Island representative Mark Nakashima, who is not Hawaiian, says his native Hawaiian colleagues in the House seem reluctant to sit on the Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs, which he chairs.

“Because it kind of makes them the lightning rod of the community pressure to act accordingly,” says Nakashima.

He says of the dozen members on his committee, only one is Native Hawaiian – Kauaʻi Representative James Tokioka.

“But they don’t need to be on the committee to get their thoughts across,” says Nakashima.

He plans to consult his Native Hawaiian colleagues and constituents on the issues that come before his committee. He’s putting together an advisory group to do just that.

“I take this assignment very seriously,” says Nakashima, “I know about the issues from my perspective, but in order to do justice to the position, I am trying to expand horizons and to know more about the issues from the native perspective so I can act accordingly.”

Waiʻanae senator Maile Shimabukuro has been the chair of the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee for nearly a decade. She’s not Hawaiian but represents the largest Native Hawaiian community outside of Ni’ihau. Two of the five members on her committee are Native Hawaiian.

“I'm so grateful that I have Senator Keohokalole, Senator Fevella, and last year was Senator Kahele, of course, vice chair,” says Shimabukuro, “To have them on my committee was invaluable because we need to have their insight on the issues that affect them and their constituencies.”

As for Sonoda-Pale, she says she’ll be closely watching every move this legislative session to provide a Native Hawaiian voice wherever needed.