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1st Native Hawaiian woman nominated to lead DLNR on facing opposition

Gov. Josh Green nominated Dawn Chang to lead the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Office of Gov. Josh Green
Gov. Josh Green nominated Dawn Chang to lead the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

A petition has been started to oppose Gov. Josh Green's nominee, Dawn Chang, to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources. Chang is a former deputy attorney general for the department, and previously served on the state Land Use Commission. She also started a company called Ku’iwalu Consulting.

Chang said her role as a consultant was to help companies and organizations engage with the community. Clients have included the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, Sandwich Isles Communications, and developers like General Growth Properties and The Howard Hughes Corporation.

The land use issues have touched the State Historic Preservation Division and the Burial Council within DLNR. Native Hawaiian activist Edward "Eddie" Halealoha Ayau is behind a petition asking Green to withdraw Chang's nomination. Chang, also Native Hawaiian, and Ayau previously worked together.

"I'm a lawyer. I've worked at the Department of Land and Natural Resources. I'm Native Hawaiian. I'm a woman. I think the experiences I bring to the table are varied. They reflect both a balance between government agencies, developers and the community. That's what I've dedicated my life to," Chang said.

Dawn Chang, right, and The Conversation's Catherine Cruz at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on Jan. 6, 2023.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Dawn Chang, right, and The Conversation's Catherine Cruz at Hawaiʻi Public Radio on Jan. 6, 2023.

A confirmation hearing before the state Senate has yet to be set.

Read her full interview below with The Conversation's Catherine Cruz.


DAWN CHANG: My mother is Edna Kealoha Hoʻokano. She's from the ahupuaʻa of Kahaluʻu. Her family has kuleana lands at mauka, and they, and in fact, my tūtū is buried on that kuleana land as well as other family members who are in unmarked burials. But they grew taro up there. They also had a fishing village. My uncle was a great squid man. But I grew up, you know, I was very fortunate and I went to school, I wanted to be a community organizer, work for Queen Liliʻuokalani's Children's Center organized in Waimānalo. But what I realized as I was working with the families and the children is that many Hawaiians have challenges — and systemic challenges. And fortunately, with the vision of CJ (Chief Justice) Richardson with the law school, I was able to go to law school. And you know, CJ's vision was one to provide access to affordable legal education for Hawaiʻi residents, in particular Native Hawaiians. But the kuleana we have is then it is to provide access to affordable legal services. So I clerked for Judge Walter Heen, Intermediate Court of Appeals, and then I went to work for the Attorney General's Office. So I recognize that Edward Halealoha has some concerns about my nomination, but he and I worked together when he was at SHPD (State Historic Preservation Division), and I was a deputy attorney general advising the department. But the department is full of people who have great passion, they want to be there. They are there taking care of the lands, the waters and the resources, great aloha for them. But what I also realized working at DLNR, as their deputy, is that many times issues would come before the Land Board for decision or before the Water Commission, and that's the first time the community ever heard about it. So they're angry, the Land Board is angry because they have to make a hard decision. So I decided to leave the Attorney General's Office and open a very small practice. And my practice was primarily facilitating culturally contentious and sensitive issues. So for a lot of the beginning of my career, I did do a lot of work on Native Hawaiian burials. And I do want to cover, I know people have had concerns about my work with Kawaiahaʻo Church, but my work was with a lot of developers on helping them navigate through the burial laws. I'd like to believe respect from many of those families that I worked with and in fact, Paulette Kaʻanohi Kaleikini, she filed a lawsuit against HART because they did not comply with the law. And as a result, the HART project was stopped. But it was Paulette Kaleikini who recommended to Dan Grabauskas at that time, the CEO, that he should hire me to help with HART getting in compliance. So fast forward. A lot of my work as a consultant has been to create safe spaces for good conversation to ensure that people who have been disenfranchised from the process, in particular Native Hawaiians, have a seat at the table. So a lot of projects whether they have been to facilitate the 14 meetings held by the U.S. Department of Interior on federal recognition, whether it's been the development of the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, or whether it's been working with federal and state agencies, I was not there to advocate — but I was there to create a process that provided access to those who have normally not been able to participate, to participate in the process.

CATHERINE CRUZ, HOST: This week, there are members in the community, including Eddie Halealoha, who have started a petition to oppose your confirmation. And they say that while you would be the first Native Hawaiian woman to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources, they say it's not a matter of race or gender, that they say it's about integrity, because of some of these positions that you took and the advice that you gave Kawaiahaʻo Church on the burials. And, you know, I've been to a number of those Burial Council meetings, and, you know, the protests and the depth of the pain is, the pain is very deep.

CHANG: It's immeasurable. I mean, Catherine, I did work at Kawaiahaʻo. When they first approached me, they were planning to do an underground parking garage at Likeke. And I had recommended to them you really should reconsider. Try not to disturb any of the area there — work within Likeke Hall. I was a consultant, I was not their lawyer. I will share with you that I, the attorney general that was advising SHPD, as well as Kawaiahaʻo's lawyer, we all believed that Kawaiahaʻo was a cemetery. And under the laws, Chapter 6E, cemeteries are exempt from 6E. But we were proven wrong. The court said, "Nope, this is a Native Hawaiian burial site." I do not recall at any time that I had advised them not to do an archaeological inventory survey. That wasn't my call. I did share with someone in an email that there's two types of burials, one an inadvertent and one a previously identified. But when you talk about pain, I will share with you that probably was one of the hardest projects I've ever worked on. Because I know that the families and the congregation of Kawaiahaʻo, it was painful for many of them. That was their ʻohana.

CRUZ: And it's still not resolved.

CHANG: And now I sit in a position at DLNR. But for me, this is really a family matter. I have not been briefed by the SHPD, Oʻahu Island Burial Council. I recognize that I probably will become a lightning rod. So it's probably better that I step back from them. But I want to help in any way that we can at DLNR to facilitate some closure for that. I did eventually terminate my role with Kawaiahaʻo and I recommended that you really should reconsider not building Likeke Hall. But again, I was not their attorney, I was their consultant. I didn't make any decisions. The decision about whether to do an archaeological inventory survey is really one with the State Historic Preservation Division, but it is painful. I recognize many of these situations where burials are unearthed that families feel this passion and I aloha those. I aloha those, even Eddie Ayau, his commitment to take care of iwi kūpuna, all of the cultural descendants, that is a extremely heavy kuleana that they share. My family is buried on our kuleana lands, and we will do anything to protect those.

CRUZ: I did talk with him and he does believe very strongly that you tried to argue the legal position that you were recommending, but because you were a consultant, you know, the courts didn't agree. So he believes that you tried to circumvent the law in that case. He also brings up the Mapulehu burials on Molokaʻi, that there was a disturbance of 60 sets of remains. And he says the fine would have been up to $600,000, you know, $10,000 per violation. And he was recommending a $300,000 fine. And at the end of the day, it came down to one violation and $10,000.

CHANG: I think there's a lot more to that. There's always two sides, right? And Eddie Ayau is correct. There was a massive disturbance. This was a landowner who was doing farming, she was excavating. And she denied that she did anything wrong. But clearly pursuant to the investigation, it revealed that iwi kūpuna were disturbed. She had pushed a lot of the piles, and you could see burials in them. Now, this was the first burial case that we were going to litigate. And we decided – I was at the Attorney General's Office at that time – we decided to take that case to court. We sued her. That's the first time that this has ever happened. So that was historic, that the State Historic Preservation Division, Department of Land and Natural Resources were going to aggressively pursue legal action against a landowner who violated the law. Going through that process, it was very clear that the judge who was hearing the case wanted us to find a settlement. So the Attorney General's Office, we had to really think about what is it that we wanted to accomplish. One, we got a fine from her. We got her to stop. But we set a precedent that the state was not going to tolerate landowners who violated the law. Now clearly, Eddie Ayau wanted a lot more, but we as a state with the Attorney General's Office had to think about a much broader picture. What happens if we would have lost? What happens if the court found that we didn't prevail? So for us, it was more important from a state position to establish precedent that the state was going to aggressively pursue anyone who violated the law.

CRUZ: Eddie Ayau has said that there they are going to fight your confirmation. We saw what happened with Carleton Ching. The perception was that he was a developer's guy. I think Eddie holds that view of where you come from and the clients that you've advised in your career.

CHANG: I'm disappointed, but you know, I aloha his passion. I think this is a historic moment. You have three Native Hawaiians leading Department of Land and Natural Resources. I will be the first Native Hawaiian woman as the chair. Laura Kaʻakua is the first deputy. And Kaleo Manuel is the deputy of the Water Commission — historic. I would hope that the Native Hawaiian community would look upon that and applaud or at least acknowledge Gov. Green's recognition that the Department of Land and Natural Resources — which touches all lands, public lands, waters, natural and cultural resources — that we as a leadership team have the opportunity to work with the community, and in particular, the Native Hawaiian community to start the healing, to start the efforts to move us forward. I am sorry about what happened to Carleton Ching. However, I think I bring a very different skill set. I'm a lawyer. I've worked at the Department of Land and Natural Resources. I'm Native Hawaiian. I'm a woman. I think the experiences I bring to the table are varied. They reflect both a balance between government agencies, developers and the community. That's what I've dedicated my life to. I'm a process person. There are much smarter persons than me on substance. So I am a process person who believes in creating spaces for good conversations where hard decisions have to be made. I believe in informed decision-making. And that's what I think I bring to the table at DLNR.


CRUZ: Carleton Ching ended up withdrawing his name at the end. The group says that they had tried to address this with Gov. Green, you know, before this moved along in the process, and he's held fast to this team.

CHANG: I think the governor and Mrs. Green share this strong sentiment about finding opportunities to heal with the Hawaiian community, whether it's Maunakea, and I will acknowledge I did the comprehensive management plan for Maunakea — also did an independent assessment. Now while I can sit on the Maunakea authority by law, there is an ex officio I have chosen as a result of my previous work with Maunakea, not to sit on the board, but rather to delegate that. But I think that this is an opportunity for us to move forward. I think this team brings great hope to our ability with our collective experience in land, water and resources to try to find a path forward to work with the community.

CRUZ: But given your position on Maunakea, and your work there, and your work with these other hot-button issues, whether it's with the Burial Council, or other areas of the State Historic Preservation Department division, do you think you can be an effective leader given you've had this history?

CHANG: I would like people to understand that my role in all of these projects, I was not advocating, I've never worked for TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope). TMT has never been a client. I was not advocating for telescope development. I was not advocating for federal recognition. I was not advocating for Kawaiahaʻo to develop that. My role as a consultant was to design a process to engage with the community that has normally not had a seat at the table. So when I did Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan, before I had any public hearing, we held over 200 small talk stories. When we did the public hearings for the Department of Interior and federal recognition, very painful. I cried after every single one of those meetings. For Hawaiians, that was historic. We'd had 500 people at each of these meetings. We always created space for kūpuna at the front of the room. We always asked kūpuna to speak first. We always opened with a pule. So I have tried to design processes that are culturally sensitive, that acknowledge that, for many local residents including Hawaiians, they don't feel comfortable coming up to a podium. So how do we create the opportunities for them to participate? And I believe that's what I bring to the department — fair, objective, and someone who designs a process to ensure that people have a meaningful opportunity to participate. Decisions will be made, but I believe if people feel like they've been heard, listened, they've had a chance to participate, to have their input — they may not like the decision — but perhaps they may feel more accepting of it. You know, I recognize stewarding these lands, we need the community support. So I hope I have the opportunity to be confirmed and move forward but if not, we'll see.

CRUZ: Eyes wide open.

CHANG: Eyes wide open.

CRUZ: Thank you so much, Dawn.

CHANG: Thank you so much, Catherine. I greatly appreciate this time.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 6, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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