Federal government gives Native Hawaiians a path to independence

The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced Friday the finalization of a federal rule that allows Native Hawaiians to create an independent government which would be formally recognized by Washington.

Since 2014, DOI has held 20 public meetings on the issue, following through on a promise President Obama made at the beginning of his first-term in the White House to improve governmental relations with America’s indigenous peoples.

As a result of the announcement, independence leaders in the Aloha State have been given the confidence an autonomous governing body will be able to work in cooperation with the federal government.  In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Native Hawaiian tribe could not been officially recognized by DOI, per department guidelines.

However, the latest effort to create such a tribal government failed earlier this year after a state convention charged with the task of determining the entity’s structure fell apart due to a legal challenge to the convening organization’s method of electing delegates.  Ultimately, Na’i Aupuni bowed out of the constitutional drafting process in March after the Supreme Court issued an injunction which ordered the convention’s votes not be counted.

Despite the setback, support for an indigenous government still has significant support in the Hawaiian Islands, although there is some disagreement over whether total independence or a recognized partnership should be sought.

If the more moderate approach is ultimately adopted, Native Hawaiians would have approximately the same type of relationship with the federal government that mainland tribes currently enjoy.  The independent Hawaiian people would be allowed to file lawsuits in federal court and could exercise discretion in the administration of social programs.

“If a formal government-to-government relationship is reestablished, it could provide the community with greater flexibility to preserve its distinct culture and traditions,” DOI said in a statement. “It could also enhance their ability to affect its special status under Federal law by exercising powers of self-government over many issues directly impacting community members.”

Others, however, like Native activist Bumpy Kanahele, are advocating for a clean break with the U.S. government and an independent Hawaii, which last existed in 1893 before being overthrown by sugar plantation owners and other foreign businessmen.

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

According to the 2010 census, there are about 527,000 Native Hawaiians in the U.S.  While Cherokees outnumber them by nearly 300,000, University of Utah College of Law Professor Alexander Skibine said Hawaiians could be considered “the largest tribe” in America because their enrollment is higher than any other in the U.S.


[Washington Post] [Hawaii Public Radio] [Hawaii Tribune-Herald]