The federal government announced Wednesday it will take a first step toward recognizing and working with a Native Hawaiian government at a time when a growing number of Hawaiians are questioning the legality of the annexation of Hawaii by the United States.
The U.S. Department of the Interior will host a series of public meetings during the next 60 days with Native Hawaiians, other members of the public and Native American tribes in the continental U.S. to discuss the complex issue, Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget for the department, said during a conference call with reporters.
"This does not mean we are proposing an actual formal policy," Suh said. "We are simply announcing that we'll begin to have conversations with all relevant parties to help determine whether we should move forward with this process and if so, how we should do it."
Native Hawaiians have been taking steps to form their own government, but the possibility of federal recognition and a growing sense that many Hawaiians want to pursue independence led some observers to call for a delay in the nation-building process. Kamanaopono Crabbe, the CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in Hawaii, suggested a delay of at least six months after questions were raised about whether the Hawaiian kingdom still exists in the eyes of the United States.
Two potential steps — creating a government and seeking federal recognition — can happen at the same time, said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department.
Critics have said the path the federal government is pursuing is inappropriate because it appears the end goal is to incorrectly recognize Native Hawaiians as a Native American tribe. However, the federal government's process leaves it up to Hawaiians to define themselves, and there would be discussions about whether it makes sense for Hawaiians to pursue a similar tribal designation, Suh said.
"This process only pertains to the relationship between the U.S. government and the Native Hawaiian community," Suh said.
The community meetings would start next week in Honolulu and would elsewhere throughout the state.
The Kingdom of Hawaii existed until 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown by a group of businessmen, most of them Americans. It was an independent republic from 1894 until 1898, when it was annexed by the United States as a territory before becoming a state in 1959.
Williamson Chang, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, believes the legal questions raised recently about whether the Kingdom of Hawaii still exists pushed the federal government into action.
"I consider Hawaii to be occupied or under a state of emergency," Chang said. "The one thing I'm sure of is the United States does not have jurisdiction."
A federal recognition that is similar to a tribal designation would be a step backward in the eyes of many Hawaiians, because the U.S. previously recognized the Hawaiian government as equal, not beneath, the U.S., Chang said.
The Associated Press