Obama administration begins Native Hawaiian recognition process

After years of inaction, the federal government is considering formal recognition of Native Hawaiians, even as Native Hawaiians in the state work on creating a sovereign government themselves.


After years of inaction, the federal government is considering formal recognition of Native Hawaiians, even as Native Hawaiians in the state work on creating a sovereign government themselves.

The U.S. Department of Interior announced Wednesday that it will take a first step to consider re-establishing a government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Native Hawaiian community. That process begins with a procedure known as Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, or ANPRM.

The ANPRM asks five broad questions:

  • Should the federal government propose an administrative rule that would facilitate the re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community?
  • Should it assist the Native Hawaiian community in reorganizing its government, with which the United States could re-establish a government-to-government relationship?
  • If so, what process should be established for drafting and ratifying a reorganized Native Hawaiian government’s constitution or other governing document?
  • Should the federal government instead rely on the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian government through a process established by the Native Hawaiian community and facilitated by the state of Hawaii, to the extent such a process is consistent with federal law?
  • If so, what conditions should the federal government establish as prerequisites to federal acknowledgment of a government-to-government relationship with the reorganized Native Hawaiian government?

The first step in the process, which includes a 60-day window for public comment, begins with publication today in the Federal Register at doi.gov/ohr/reorg/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=537973.

The Interior Department hopes to expedite comments with a series of public hearings, beginning Monday on Oahu. Big Island meetings will be held July 2 and 3.

In addition to the public meetings, comments can be submitted online at regulations.gov or via U.S. mail, courier,= or hand delivery to: Office of the Secretary, Department of the Interior, Room 7329, 1849 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240 (use Regulation Identifier Number 1090-AB05 in your message).

In a telephone conference with the media Wednesday, officials with the Departments of Interior and Justice stressed that their process is separate and independent of the nation-building process Native Hawaiians are currently conducting through the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget, Rhea Suh, said she realized the state is moving forward with a nation-building process. The federal government, she said, is looking at the larger issue of federal recognition.

“We think these things are complementary,” Suh said. “We will certainly work in a complementary fashion.”

After the initial 60-day period, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will decide if the government should proceed to a formal rule-making process. This second 60-day process also allows opportunities for public input.

It’s too early to know if federal recognition for Native Hawaiians will be the same as that for Native Americans, said Sam Hirsch, a Justice Department attorney participating in the media briefing. Many Native Hawaiians have indicated they don’t want to follow that model.

Hirsch said it will be up to the public and the Native Hawaiians themselves to look at the proposed rules and decide “whether all or part of it makes sense” in their governance model.

But, when pressed, he conceded that, “Ultimately, it’s the call of the secretary.”

Lei Kihoi, Hawaii Island representative on the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, said it’s important for the public to understand the two different processes going on. The state process of establishing a roll of Native Hawaiians, in order to vote for delegates in preparation for a spring convention where a government will be constructed, is separate and distinct from the process of federal recognition, she said.

Both processes, however, are welcome, she said.

“I think it’s going to spur a lot of discussion from Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike. This affects all people,” Kihoi said. “I think it’s healthy for the community to educate themselves on the issues and the history.”

OHA CEO Kamana-opono Crabbe also emphasized federal recognition is just one option.

“The decision of whether to walk through the federal door or another will be made by delegates to a Native Hawaiian aha and ultimately by our people,” Crabbe said in a statement. “We are committed to keeping all doors open so our people can have a full breadth of options from which to choose what is best for themselves and everyone in Hawaii.”

OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado praised the move as “an important step toward ensuring that millions of dollars for Native Hawaiian education, health and other programs will continue to flow to our people and that our Hawaiian trusts and programs will be protected from further legal challenges.”

Hawaii’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement approving of the plan.

“We applaud the Administration’s commitment to an open dialogue, starting with listening sessions in Hawaii to provide ample opportunity for Native Hawaiians and the general public to contribute their comments and concerns,” Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Reps. Colleen Hanabusa and Tulsi Gabbard, all Democrats, said in the statement.

“This notice represents an historic opportunity to address years of injustice and marks a positive step forward in the push for Native Hawaiian self-determination,” they added.


Gov. Neil Abercrombie also welcomed the news.

“I commend the Obama Administration for recognizing and supporting Native Hawaiians as it works to reconcile its relationship with Native Hawaiians at the federal level,” Abercrombie said in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming representatives of the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Justice to discuss ideas for updating federal policy on Native Hawaiian self-determination.”

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