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Native Hawaiians take another step towards federal recognition

Native Hawaiian youth perform at a community meeting on Moloka'i, Hawaii, on June 17, 2015. Photo from Office of Hawaiian Affairs / Facebook

The first inhabitants of Hawaii could re-establish government-to-government ties with the United States under a proposal unveiled by the Obama administration.

The U.S. recognized the Kingdom of Hawaii until it was overthrown in 1893. Since then, Congress has enacted more than 150 laws to address Native Hawaiian housing, land, education and other issues.

But the lack of a formal government-to-government relationship has posed problems. Elections and programs that were once limited to Native Hawaiians are now open to other residents and a Native-only school has faced repeated challenges to its admissions policy.

The situation could be changing through a process being established at the Interior Department. A proposed rule that will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday puts control in the hands of Native Hawaiians -- they will decide whether they want to form their own government and whether to seek a formal relationship with the U.S.

Children wave the flag of Hawaii. Photo from Office of Hawaiian Affairs / Facebook

“The United States has a long-standing policy of supporting self-governance for Native peoples, yet the benefits of the government-to-government relationship have long been denied to Native Hawaiians, one of our nation’s largest indigenous communities,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a press release. “Today’s proposal is testament to the Obama administration’s strong support for our nation’s Native peoples’ right to self-determination.”

DOI led 15 public meetings in Hawaii last year to discuss the idea. Although the issue was not without controversy, the response was generally positive. More than 5,100 written comments were submitted and most supported the idea of creating a new process for the Native Hawaiian community.

Additionally, DOI held a series of tribal consultations in Indian Country. Again, tribes in the lower 48 and those in Alaska have generally supported extending the policy of self-determination to their counterparts in Hawaii. Key members of Congress also embrace the idea.

"It's a good move," Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said today at a hearing on two unrelated federal recognition bills.

Native Hawaiians are struggling to protect their sacred sites. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is raising concerns about the destruction of an ahu, or shrine, in Mauna Kea. Photo by Lakea Trask / Facebook

Going forward, the rule will be open for public comments for 90 days. Two public meetings will be held by telephone on October 26 and on November 7 and a separate consultation session with specific Native Hawaiian organizations will occur on October 27. A tribal consultation will be held on November 4 by telephone as well.

The 90-day window sets the stage for a potential final rule sometime in 2016. That gives DOI several months to finish work before President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii and maintains ties to the state, leaves office in January 2017.

“This issue has been discussed for many years, and I support President Obama and the Department of the Interior’s efforts to move it forward," Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) said in a press release. "I urge the public, particularly Native Hawaiians, to comment on this possible pathway for the United States and Native Hawaiians to establish a government-to-government relationship."

Barring executive action, Native Hawaiians could always turn to Congress for clarification of their status. But conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill have prevented recognition and self-determination bills from moving forward for the past 15 years.

Mililani Trask is longtime leader in the Native Hawaiian sovereignty movement. Photo from Facebook

If Native Hawaiians decide to form their own government, the proposed rule requires them to submit a formal request to DOI. Supporting documents must explain how they drafted their governing document and how they reached out to their prospective citizens. A "ratification referendum" also must be held to ensure the governing document has the support of the community.

"The written narrative thoroughly describing the process for drafting the governing document must describe how the process ensured that the document was based on meaningful input from representative segments of the Native Hawaiian community and reflects the will of the Native Hawaiian community," the proposal states.

According to the rule, the U.S. will only recognize "one sovereign Native Hawaiian government." But that government could include political subdivisions as long as they are described in the governing document.

Once a formal request is submitted, the rule establishes a 60-day public notice process. The prospective Native Hawaiian government will then have 30 days to respond to any comments.

A statue of King Kamehameha I represents the state of Hawaii in the U.S. Capitol. Kamehameha unified all of the Hawaiian islands in 1810. Photo by Architect of the Capitol

Once all of the information is deemed to be complete, the Interior Secretary must issue a decision within 120 days The proposed rule does not state what will happen if the request is denied.

"Native Hawaiians have the right to reorganize a government that they determine is best for them," Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a press release in which the entire delegation from Hawaii supported the proposed rule.

Forthcoming Federal Register Notice:
Procedures for Reestablishing a Formal Government-to-Government Relationship with the Native Hawaiian Community (To Be Published October 1, 2015)

Related Stories:
Dina Gilio-Whitaker: Native Hawaiians work toward sovereignty (11/28)
Opinion: Native Americans get stake in Native Hawaiian status (07/16)
Comment period opens on Native Hawaiian recognition proposal (06/20)
DOI considers process to recognize Native Hawaiian government (06/18)
Keli'i Akina: Recognition for Native Hawaiians just a power grab (06/04)
DOI considers regulation to address status of Native Hawaiians (05/28)
Opinion: Colleen Hanabusa fights for Native Hawaiian rights (01/21)
Opinion: Recognizing Native Hawaiians without act of Congress (05/02)
Washburn says Native Hawaiians can't follow BIA regulations (03/20)

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