“When I was a little girl, there were Hawaiians who were professional doctors and engineers, but they were few and far between,” says Desiree Cruz. “Today there are tons of Hawaiian professionals, moving into positions of power, leadership positions in all different areas of government and private business and everything. This is just a logical next step.”
“This” is Kanaioholowalu, a yearlong registration campaign sponsored by the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Cruz, a popular entertainer and former Miss Hawaii, serves as the East Hawai`i “community outreach person” for the drive. According to Kanaioholowalu’s Web site, the goal is to create a “base roll of Native Hawaiians – a registry of individuals who will then be eligible to participate in the formation of a sovereign government, and also gather signatures from Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians on petitions declaring support for the reunification of Native Hawaiians and recognition of Native Hawaiians’ un-relinquished sovereignty.”
But the drive so far is far short of its goal of registering all persons of kanaka Maoli ancestry—an estimated half million people worldwide. Cruz believes that it has garnered 22,000 names so far. The deadline for the drive’s termination is January 19, 2014.
Kanaioholowalu stems from Act 195, passed by the State Legislature in 2011, which recognized the kanaka Maoli as “the indigenous population of the Hawaiian Islands.” That law also established the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, with five unpaid commissioners appointed by the governor, to certify and publish a roll of “Qualified Native Hawaiians.” According to a 2012 report from the commission to Governor Abercrombie, “The roll will determine eligible individuals that wish to participate in the process of reorganizing a Native Hawaiian government for the purposes of Native Hawaiian self-governance recognized by the State of Hawai‘i. Act 195 also expresses the State’s desire to support federal government recognition of a Native Hawaiian government.”
At stake is not just the political status of native Hawaiians, but the possible status of up to 1.8 million acres of “ceded lands” or “crown lands”—the lands held by the Hawaiian government and the throne before the overthrow, much of which are still managed by the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. A portion of the revenues from developments on those lands is supposed to go to benefit the Hawaiian people, through project such as OHA’s programs. If an actual Hawaiian government is set up, it may seek control of those lands—which would put it in charge of the leases for much of this island’s infrastructure, including harbor facilities, industrial districts, Hilo Airport, Hilo’s sewage plant, the Hilo landfill, the Banyan Drive hotels, the Mauna Kea telescopes, and Prince Kuhio Plaza, Walmart, Safeway,Target, and other retail stores.
For some Kanaka Maoli, like Cruz, the roll drive represents a step toward a generations-long dream of restored Hawaiian sovereignty. “I feel like this is the most important thing in my life, and I feel like my tutu is smiling down on me from Heaven,” says Cruz.
Other kanaka Maoli, however, view the state-sponsored process with skepticism or outright hostility.
“It’s a Trojan horse wrapped in a smallpox blanket,” remarks Pua’ena Ahn, alluding to allegations that the U.S. Army distributed blankets contaminated with smallpox viruses to native Americans in an attempt to wipe them out. He sees the enrollment effort as a stalking horse for “government within a government” similar to those established for American Indian tribes.
“What they don’t tell you is what federal recognition and tribal status is meant to achieve: the relinquishing of claims to that inherent sovereignty: to land and the money behind the land—that 1.8 million acres of prime real estate,” he says.
Ahn also challenges the roll’s racial basis. The Kingdom of Hawaii, he notes, had always included citizens of non-Hawaiian ancestry. Re-establishing a Hawaiian government based on kanaka Maoli ancestry and excluding the descendents of non-Maoli citizens of the former kingdom would reduce Hawai`i from a nation to a tribe.
“This whole thing is not a race claim, it’s a matter of national identity,” he says. “You’re born with whatever blood runs in your veins. Nationality is a matter of choice.”
Ahn is an active participant in the Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom Government, which has been electing assemblies and a Prime Minister according to the laws of the Kingdom of Hawai`i since 1999, and is seeking international recognition as the legal government of Hawai`i. Henry Noa, the Prime Minister of the Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom Government, notes that in the Native American Reorganization Act of 1934 and the Native Alaskan Claims Settlement Act of 1971, aboriginal Americans traded “Native American title rights” for federal recognition and monetary compensation.
“For years [the late Senator Daniel] Inouye and [former Senator Daniel] Akaka and Governor [then Representative] Abercombie tried to get legislation passed called the Native Hawaiian [Government] Reorganization Act,” he says. “It’s been reintroduced on the House and Senate Floor.”
He believes that “By international law they [First Peoples] are entitled to have aboriginal land title rights. They have ownership over the land. They can issue U.S. land patent grants. It’s a serious issue when you delve into it. He believes a Hawaiian government has such rights to “the whole Hawaiian archipelago.”
One of the most vociferous critics of the Roll Commission is Edmund K. Silva, Jr., one of the pretenders to the Hawaiian throne. His organization’s Web site, kingdomofhawaii.info, contains a series of letters attacking OHA, the Roll Commission and Kanaioholowalu, accusing them of “fraud” and of padding the roll with the names of people who hadn’t given their consent. One passage reads, for instance, “When faced with obvious defeat [in gathering enough names], OHA and the Roll Commission first attempted to steal signatures from other petitions. Then they threatened people into signing the roll by claiming anyone not signing would lose their status as Kanaka Maoli and their right to participate in or benefit from the creation of a new subordinate nation”—a status and a right that, maintains Silva, the state has no legal power to take away
But the roll is not, itself, a petition; it’s a registry, a list of people of native Hawaiian ancestry, like the registry of voters in a state election. What’s required to get on it is proof of ancestry. According to Cruz, the registry form “asks for the name on your birth certificate and it asks for your date of birth and where you were born. I would put my name in, my birth date, and my mother’s name and birth date and maybe my grandma’s name and birth date, and then the Department of Health [which is in charge of birth certificate records] can help us verify it.” As for “steal signatures for other petitions,”—yes, there was a previous attempt to register native Hawaiians, and yes, says, Cruz, the decision was recently made to add that list to Kanaioholowalu’s.
“Kau Inoa was a ten year long project and it was ten years ago, and it registered—I think it was 108,000,” says Cruz. That’s still far short of the 500, kanaka Maoli believed to exist worldwide, however.
Cruz also notes that 500,000 is about the same that the islands were thought to have had before Europeans reached Hawai`i, before their numbers were ravaged by European diseases.
“When Queen L. went to Washington in 1897, she made an official protest,” recounts Cruz. “She made nine points, and one of the points she made was ‘My people number 40,000.’ A hundred years before the overthrow, there were half a million. Ten years later it was 29,000. I think most people thought that Hawaiians would just be gone, the people would die off, the culture would die off….But now we’re stronger than ever. But one thing we’ve not been able to do is to define and to move forward with a political process, a political status. It’s time to move forward or we’re just kicking the can down the road again.”
According to the Roll Commission’s report, it is under OHA’s aegis “for administrative purposes only.” But some sovereignty activists, including Silva, believe that OHA is pushing the registration with the goal of itself forming the core of a “government within a government,” where Hawaiians, like native Americans, would be subject to both the laws of the United States and to Hawaiian government laws.
“The viewpoint that the Kingdom should be restored as an independent nation has never been a focus of OHA. The millions spent to promote a nation-within-a-Nation [sic] and to destroy the basis for an independent nation demonstrates a bias that precludes a perception that OHA is mediator for all the Hawaiian people,” contends Silva, in another letter.
“In these Hawaiian reservations, which law would apply? Would it be just another set of cops to arrest Hawaiians?” asks Ahn. He says when he put those questions to roll commissioner at a recent meeting, “He told me that within this so-called self-governing entity, Federal, state and county laws would still apply. All that it would be is just an extra set of laws….”
“Under Act 195, the roll will determine eligible individuals that wish to participate in the process of reorganizing a Native Hawaiian government for the purposes of Native Hawaiian self-governance recognized by the State of Hawai‘i,” states the Commission’s 2011 report to the governor. Whether the state would recognize any Hawaiian government that doesn’t cede authority to the state is an open question.
“In actual independence, would the state do what it is supposed to do and dissolve itself?” Ahn asks.
But a government within a government is not a foregone conclusion, according to Cruz.
“The goal is to register all Hawaiians around the world—whoever wants to participate. So that they can vote on what form of self governance we want to take,” she says.
“There are not formal options yet, but some of the more popular ones that you hear about are federal recognition, of course, and some people advocate for total independence, some people advocate for restoration of the monarchy, and there is talk of other perspectives. Kanaiholowalu is not an advocate for any particular form of government.”
Cruz admits her frustration with people “who refuse to participate, and then they complain that they’re not allowed to participate in the process.” She likens the registration drive to Hooponono, the traditional Hawaiian problem-solving protocol: “It’s a difficult process, and it’s painful process, but it’s a good process and it’s a healing process, but it’s based on the foundation that everyone needs to come to the table. You have to show up…. You have to show up, but you have to agree to disagree, and you have to treat people with aloha.”
Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.