Why is recognition important to us now?

By Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, PhD, Senior Professor, Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

I am a Native Hawaiian whose ancestors have lived in these Hawaiian Islands for 100 generations. As many of you know, I have long supported the return of the Hawaiian nation to our people and the end of the American military occupation of our country. In 1993, I helped Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi--a Native initiative for self-government begun in 1987 by Mililani Trask--lead a march of 18,000 Native Hawaiians calling for the return of Hawaiian Sovereignty on the 100 year anniversary of the overthrow. In my speech I called for the closing of the US bases in Hawaiʻi, and invited the US military to take their nuclear weapons, and their nuclear submarines, and their toxic waste, and their military personnel, all home to their continent. The crowd cheered madly, but the US military didn’t leave.

That was 21 years ago.

For the past 12 years, I have helped organize and fund Native Hawaiian student delegations from Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Mānoa to the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. We go there yearly to ask that Hawaiʻi be re-inscribed on the list of decolonizing nations, so that one day we can be independent again, under the UN process which provides a peaceful means for political change. I am not at all interested in violence or armed revolution.

For nearly 30 years I have been teaching young Native Hawaiians about Hawaiian culture, history, politics and resource management with a view to training the next generation of Native Hawaiian leaders who could run our country as an independent nation.

So why now do I support Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians?

Actually, I have always supported federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, as that has been a long-standing goal of Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi. We don’t see federal recognition and independence as mutually exclusive. We see a stronger political relationship with America as a positive tool to support our people in Native Hawaiian education, language, health, housing and land rights. After all, if you take someone else’s land by means of an illegal military force, you have to pay them some kind of compensation. Even the US congress agreed in the 1993 Apology Law that their military invasion was wrong and reconciliation should proceed.

Federal Recognition should be part of that reconciliation, and we have been waiting 21 years for America to move that agenda along. It looks like President Obama is also interested in supporting reconciliation for Native Hawaiians. He grew up in Hawaiʻi and he knows how bad it is for us in our own homeland.

Now I hear from opposing voices that the rules of federal recognition usually preclude independence, but that is not what is stopping independence for Hawaiʻi. If Native Hawaiians decide that they really want independence, then eventually that will occur. No matter how powerful the American military, let’s not forget that it was once said “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Now it does. We never thought that the Berlin Wall would fall, and then one day it did. We never expected that the Soviet Union would break up into smaller countries, and then it did. History teaches us that political borders change over time depending on the will of the people. If Native Hawaiians really want to separate from America, then they will. I am not sure that all Native Hawaiians want to leave America just yet.

However, I want federal recognition before independence.

Why? Because we Native Hawaiians are still a minority in our own country. We may be the fastest growing minority, with Native Hawaiians comprising 40% of all the students in Hawaiʻiʻs public schools, but we are not in the majority yet. If we were independent tomorrow, we Native Hawaiians would not control our own country because we do not yet have the numbers. Our independent Hawaiian nation would still be controlled by foreigners because there are more of them. I can’t see how that would be different from what we have now under America.

Moreover, I just learned two years ago that many of the independence activists do not support Native Hawaiian rights to land, to language, to education, to health or to housing! They want to go back to the constitution that was in place at the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani. I am a Native Hawaiian and I do not support that constitution written by foreigners. I am a citizen of Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi and I support the constitution that we wrote in 1987 that supports Native Hawaiian rights. [See http://kalahuihawaii.wordpress.com/ka-lahui-hawaii-constitution/ and http://kalahuihawaii.wordpress.com/hookupu/].

When I tried to find a compromise with independence activists, and garner their support for Native Hawaiian rights, a.k.a. Indigenous rights as guaranteed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, they called me a racist. Here I thought I was a patriot! But the word “race” in English is “Lāhui” in Hawaiian and “Lāhui” implies a nation of people who are related. As Native Hawaiians we all descend from Papa and Wākea, earth mother and sky father, and as Indigenous Peoples we have the right to the lands of our ancestors and the right to speak our language and practice our culture. All the countries of the world at the United Nations have agreed that we Indigenous Peoples have those rights.

In America, Indigenous Peoples who are federally recognized have rights to land and language, to health and housing, and to education in their own language and culture. I want those rights clearly defined before we become independent with a constitution that does not support Native Hawaiian rights. That is why I support federal recognition.

Here is something else. You might remember that I asked the American military to leave, and they did not, but I have no doubt that one day they will close bases in Hawaiʻi because it is too expensive to maintain them here. In America, when military bases are closed the federally recognized tribe gets first dibs on the return of those lands. If we Native Hawaiians had already been federally recognized then Barbers Point would have come to the Hawaiian nation instead of to the State of Hawai’i. When I look at all of the military bases I see housing and schools and hospitals that Native Hawaiians could be using, especially on sacred lands like Mōkapu.

I am a grandmother now and I am tired of waiting for a Native Hawaiian government. I want a government now that is not OHA the state agency. I want a Native Hawaiian government that can negotiate for land for my grandchildren, and land for the 45% of Native Hawaiians who have had to leave Hawaiʻi to escape the great economic hardship here, so that finally they can come home. Maoris in New Zealand have land for their people. Why can’t Native Hawaiians have land that we control for our own people?

I want a Native Hawaiian government that can run its own Hawaiian Board of Education and school system where all Native Hawaiian children can learn to speak Hawaiian and practice Hawaiian culture. I want us to have our own hospitals and doctors where Hawaiian medicinal plants and lomilomi are available as a matter of course. I want us to have access to water and land where we can grow the healthy food of our ancestors. We can have all of these things with federal recognition.

Some have said that the past drafts of the Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill have been too weak and have not given us enough, and they are right. However, the Alaska Natives were very unhappy with their federal recognition bill, and once they got that status they gained the standing to lobby for changes to their original bill; they have done so over 20 times. I have no doubt that once we get our foot in the door that we will lobby for changes as well, and the Alaska Natives will support us in that endeavor.

Why is federal recognition important to us now?

Because Senator Inouye is no longer in the congress to protect Native Hawaiian rights that federal recognition would ensure. Now with the rise of the Republican party that is notoriously adverse to any Indigenous Peoples’ rights, we are likely to lose all of the good work that he supported in education, in language, in culture and in housing. We are talking about over $700 million dollars of direct federal funding, for programs that have served over a million Native Hawaiians in the past 35 years.

It was federal funds that paid for the building of the great voyaging canoes Hōkūleʻa and Hawaiʻiloa. Federal funds have supported programs for the education of over 500,000 Native Hawaiian students between pre-school and graduate school. If the Republicans are successful in attacking Native Hawaiian rights not protected by federal recognition, the next step will be legal assaults against the private trusts of Kamehameha Schools and of Queen Liliʻuokalani.

I know that many of us are angry at the way America has behaved, but we would be foolish not to secure the Native Hawaiian rights that we have gained from the American government over the past 21 years. Now is the time to help President Obama help the Native Hawaiians. We must insist that the American government honor its special trust relationship with Native Hawaiians, and honor the 1993 Apology Law. We must insist that they give us federal recognition, so that we can continue to have the resources to survive culturally as Native Hawaiians for the next 100 generations.

Editor's note: This essay was submitted by its author to the Star Bulletin. It is printed here with her express permission.