First steps toward Native Hawaiian sovereignty get tripped up

Ruling upheld by US Supreme Court puts contentious election on hold as supporters strive for self-government

Hula dancers perform before a Veterans Day ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Nov. 11, 2015. Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous peoples in the United States without their own political structure.
Hugh Gentry / Reuters / Landov

KILAUEA, Hawaii — The results were supposed to be announced on the first day of December.

But the historic first election that could lead to sovereignty for Native Hawaiians didn’t even make it to the final day of voting without a legal challenge pulling it to a halt.

No one thought this was going to be easy.

Still stinging from the bitter rout of colonization, Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous people in the United States without their own political structure. The election in November was to be the first step in changing that, with nearly 90,000 Native Hawaiians certified by a state-sanctioned roll commission to vote on delegates for a constitutional convention in early 2016. It would be there, supporters hoped, that the elected delegates would then draft a document to guide the creation of a government by and for Native Hawaiians.

But on Nov. 27, three days before the end of the 30-day vote, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, acting alone, ordered officials not to count ballots, putting all those plans in limbo. His order was in response to an emergency application from two non-Hawaiians, who aren’t eligible to participate in the election, and four Hawaiians who argue that race-based voting is discriminatory under the 15th Amendment.

The hold on ballot counting prompted election organizers to extend the voting period for three weeks, through Dec. 21.

“It’s a victory for all Hawaiians — and all Americans — in its affirmation of racial equality,” said Keli’i Akina, the president of public policy think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and one of the plaintiffs challenging the election. “Finally, it is a victory for the aloha spirit, which enables people of all backgrounds to live and work together in harmony.”

Kennedy’s order later gained majority support from the Supreme Court, continuing the prohibition on counting the ballots until there is a ruling on an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Michael Seabright’s decision in October that allowed the election to proceed. He ruled that the election is private, and private elections are permitted to limit voter eligibility by race.

“This is an election for delegates to a private convention, among a community of indigenous people for purposes of exploring self-determination, that will not — and cannot — result in any federal, state or local laws or obligations by itself,” he wrote.

We’ve got a local boy in the White House. The timing will never be better.

Mauna Krea Trask

attorney for Kauai County

The nation-building process is being organized by Na’i Aupuni, a private nonprofit. (In Hawaiian, na’i means “the one who conquered,” and aupuni means “created the kingdom.”)

Among some voters, there had been a sense of celebration for taking part in what they described as the first genuine Native Hawaiian election. Others boycotted the vote because it was organized with funds from the state of Hawaii and won a degree of federal endorsement when the Department of Interior urged Seabright to rule against any attempts to scuttle it. That the same government that had stolen their lands, outlawed their hula and purged their language from schools now appeared to be in support of a bid for their independence had some Native Hawaiians feeling suspicious.

Mauna Kea Trask, an attorney for Kauai County, said that those trying to thwart the election are letting emotion stall progress.

In Hawaii, indigenous Hawaiians are disproportionately plagued by homelessness, poor high school graduation rates, substance abuse and incarceration. The election, he said, was a timely chance to build a political mechanism to empower the Native Hawaiian people.

“They’re afraid to lose what they don’t have, and they don’t understand that with failure to act, we will lose what we do have,” Trask said of election opponents. “We’ve got a local boy in the White House. The timing will never be better.”

It’s like we’re having all the wrong conversations about this, and because of that it’s creating all these divisions.

Maija Calcagno

delegate candidate

Among the 200 Native Hawaiians competing for 40 delegate seats at the constitutional convention are activists, educators, politicians, police officers, fast-food workers and farmers. Half have college degrees. Some have criminal records. Most live in Hawaii, while others represent states such as California, Wisconsin and Florida. One contender resides in Sweden.

Binding them is a shared desire for a seat at the table when big questions about the political future of their people are discussed and maybe even answered.

The candidates’ collective campaign rhetoric, however, did little to tackle the art and intricacies of self-governance. The conversation focused instead on two sides of a fiery debate over which pathway to sovereignty Native Hawaiians should seek if they build their own political structure. A century’s worth of almost paralyzing anger born of the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom by the U.S. government has yielded little by way of consensus.

“It’s like we’re having all the wrong conversations about this, and because of that it’s creating all these divisions,” said Maija Calcagno, a delegate candidate from Vallejo, California.

A federally recognized Native government would allow Hawaiians to become citizens of their own nation while retaining American citizenship. This model became available in September, when the U.S. Department of Interior published a draft administrative rule outlining the process by which a Native Hawaiian nation, once formed, could seek a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States. There are 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes with a federally recognized form of self-governance, a special political status that indigenous Hawaiians have never been offered.

Those who decry federal recognition cite a deeply held distrust of the U.S. government that cannot so easily be swapped for an authentic desire to form a political partnership.

“I’m not an American, and I want people in the world to know that,” said Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a well-known Hawaiian nationalist who’s running for delegacy.

Another, presumably longer, pathway to sovereignty is total independence. The ambitions of those who champion this route have been refueled by a 1993 joint resolution in which Congress formally apologized for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, acknowledging that it was illegal and expressing a “deep regret to the Native Hawaiian people” as well as a sense of support for reconciliation. It would take an international court order to reinstate the Hawaiian kingdom, dissolve the state of Hawaii and do away with the U.S. government’s presence in the Hawaiian Islands.

Critics of total independence argue that loss of American citizenship would be debilitating for Native Hawaiians and note that it’s improbable to think that the U.S. government and its robust military, in which many Native Hawaiians serve, could be pushed off Hawaii’s eight strategically located islands.

“That’s a pie-in-the-sky desire,” said Robin Danner, a co-founder of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “These are not people who want to help Hawaiians build houses. These are people who want to be Malcolm X.”

We’re not unified, we don’t have a consensus on anything, and it seems like we don’t have a plan. There is no one that the Hawaiian community is looking at that’s a leader.

Paul Ishibashi

The political ramifications of a Native Hawaiian people so politically divided are not lost on Calcagno.

A federal recognition proponent, she was born into a family that fled Oahu for the U.S. mainland in the 1950s because it was difficult at the time for Native Hawaiian electricians, such as her grandfather, to get hired in the islands. Further in the future, she said, she would like to see the reorganization of a completely independent Hawaiian nation. But Calcagno, a law school student, said that’s something for which her people aren’t ready yet.

“Where would we be with a totally independent Hawaii right now?” she said. “There are no Hawaiians ready to run a government. If you’re so idealistic that you can’t accept anything but the most idealistic remedy, than you’re pretty much status quo.”

Walter Ritte, an independence activist who’s also at the forefront of Hawaii’s anti-GMO movement, publically scrubbed his name from the delegate candidacy four days before the start of the election, calling it a “disillusioned vision of sovereignty.”

Originally he planned to campaign for a delegate seat so he could advocate for total independence. He later decided that the process was being championed by an overwhelming majority of pro-federal-recognition candidates, leaving the total independence camp without a fair chance for an equal voice.

“This process has been and continues to be rigged to fit very specific agendas, and I cannot participate in a process that is not pono” Ritte said, using the Hawaiian word for “righteous.” “This is not the kind of thing that we want to build our nation on.”

Pua Ishibashi, a delegate candidate from Hawaii Island, lamented that there has been no comprehensive polling of Native Hawaiians, of whom there are an estimated half million, and no credible leadership to move the conversation forward.

The election seemed only to strengthen the glaring fissure dividing Native Hawaiians on the issues of what sovereignty should look like, how it should be achieved and who, if anyone, outside the Native community should have a hand in it.

“I think the biggest issue facing Hawaiians today are ourselves,” he said. “We’re not unified, we don’t have a consensus on anything, and it seems like we don’t have a plan. There is no one that the Hawaiian community is looking at that’s a leader. And we have no idea what sovereignty tastes like. We never experienced it like our ancestors. I think so much time has passed that maybe that’s part of the whole plan — that we forget.”

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