Kalahui Hawaii : OHA Going Full Speed Ahead With Nation-Building Effort
"It's time to move," said OHA Trustee John Waihe'e IV, who supports the "nation-within-a-nation" model of governance.
With efforts in Congress to pass the Akaka bill thwarted for now, OHA is throwing its considerable political clout and as much as $10 million into the effort to form an entity that could negotiate with the state, and possibly the federal government, for control of land, money and other assets.
The Akaka bill, first proposed by sponsor Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, six years ago, would give Hawaiian federal recognition and self-government rights, but an effort to bring the long-stalled bill to the Senate floor for debate was rejected last month. OHA's proposal is similar but does not seek a go-ahead from Congress as a first step.
It is within OHA's authority to take the lead in guiding the establishment of the new government, Waihe'e said. "We have the resources and we're the legally recognized representatives of the Hawaiian people. In that sense, it is our duty."
To succeed, the proposal titled Ho'oulu Lahui Aloha (to raise a beloved nation) will require thousands of Native Hawaiians to sign on.
OHA administrator Clyde Namu'o acknowledges concerns raised about the fast-paced timeline, which calls for the election of representatives to a new government entity by 2008. But he said it is imperative that the process moves quickly.
"The sooner we get this done, the sooner we'll be able to negotiate with the state," Namu'o said.
He noted that Gov. Linda Lingle has been supportive of Native Hawaiian causes, including the Akaka bill. If she is re-elected, he said, "We would certainly want to knock on her door at some point in the future about transferring assets from the state over to the government. That's part of what's driving the urgency of this."
Since June 23, when the Ho'oulu Lahui Aloha plan was approved by trustees, Namu'o and other OHA leaders have met with representatives from nearly a dozen Native Hawaiian groups hoping to enlist support in collecting names for Kau Inoa, the registry of Native Hawaiians that will help form the voting base for the new government. Namu'o said the response is positive.
Still, the plan is being assailed both by opponents contending that a separate government would discriminate against non-Hawaiians and critics asserting that Hawai'i should break free from the United States entirely.
Roy Benham, a former OHA trustee and president of the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club, said he endorses what the plan offers. And he said his club stands ready to send out volunteers to canoe regattas, Hawaiian music concerts and other places where large concentrations of Hawaiians gather to sign up people for Kau Inoa.
Benham said he agrees with the assessment that success for the plan is tied to voter registration and turnout at the polls. To date, about 50,000 have signed up. OHA's goal is to register 118,000, about two-thirds the total number of Hawaiians and part-Hawaiians in the state.
"It's a long way to go," Benham said. "That's the one thing the state is going to ask, and the feds will, too. I'm sure when we come in with our entity, the first thing they're going to ask is how many people does this represent?"
'IF NOT OHA, THEN WHO?'
Some critics question OHA's assertion of authority to lead the way.
"They're a state agency, and they're all about politics," said Mel Kalahiki, chairman of the independence group The Living Nation.
Namu'o countered that those who question OHA's lead in the process have yet to offer up any viable alternatives.
He estimated that the price tag for the entire process, from registration to the election of officers, ranges between $7 million and $10 million. The OHA trustees oversee an annual operating budget of about $28.5 million. The agency's investment portfolio is estimated at $400 million. "If not OHA," Namu'o said, "then who else? Who would have the money to finance such an effort?"
But Kalahiki said the OHA plan would likely preclude efforts to create an entity that would be entirely independent of the United States, the ultimate objective of his group. "I feel there is a need to call for another proposal," he said. Namu'o concurred that the proposed model is not geared toward secession from the United States.
"This government would always have to exist within the framework of the federal government," he said. If a majority of convention delegates were to push toward an independent nation, Namu'o said, those leaders would have to change the plan.
H. William Burgess of the group Aloha for All said his organization continues to oppose any plan that gives benefits for Native Hawaiians only. Like the Akaka bill, the premise of the new plan "is that race and ancestry are valid grounds for the permanent political and social segregation of American citizens," Burgess said.
Nation-building efforts are not a new pursuit for Native Hawaiians.
In the early 1990s a movement began that eventually formed a 97-delegate Native Hawaiian Convention known as Aha Hawai'i 'Oiwi. Elected by roughly 9,000 Hawaiian voters, the delegates began meeting in July 1999 with the purpose of establishing a model for a Native Hawaiian government.
Poka Laenui, chairman of the convention, said delegates had established committees and set up two models for Native Hawaiian governance an independent one and one that could be integrated into the U.S. structure.
But the convention ran into financial difficulties when both OHA and the Legislature cut funding, and it has not met as a full delegation since August 2004.
Laenui said Aha Hawai'i 'Oiwi is not in competition with OHA's Ho'oulu Lahui Aloha effort, but he expressed mixed sentiment about the matter.
"OHA was elected for a different purpose, to be a receptacle for certain funds and to assist Hawaiians," he said. "It was our mandate (as the Native Hawaiian Convention) to form the Hawaiian government." Laenui added, however, that he wishes the new OHA effort well. "There's enough room for everyone to try to organize Hawaiians," he said.
Namu'o, who participated in the Aha Hawai'i 'Oiwi process, said the work done by the Native Hawaiian Convention was significant and could be incorporated into the work of delegates in the proposed larger-scale convention.
Namu'o said he believes many of those now criticizing the process will eventually come on board, even running as delegates. "At this point, let's get on the bandwagon because this train is about to leave the station."