HONOLULU (AP) — It will be up to the Native Hawaiian community to create its own government — if it chooses to do so, the U.S. Department of the Interior said Tuesday. The department outlined a proposal that would establish a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States and Native Hawaiians — if they want such a relationship.
"We're creating a pathway, but in terms of the community organizing a government or seeking to establish that relationship, that is actually up to the community," said Kristen Sarri, the department's principal deputy assistant secretary for policy management and budget. "We've heard from many from the Native Hawaiian community that say rule like this would give their community an opportunity to thrive."
The announcement comes as a unique election process is underway in which Native Hawaiians will select delegates to represent them at a constitutional convention to possibly come up with a recommended form of government that will be voted upon by Native Hawaiians.
Here's a look at why this announcement matters to the future of Native Hawaiians and the history that led up to this moment.
WHAT IS THE DEPARTMENT PROPOSING?
The department is giving Native Hawaiians an option to have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. It would be up to Native Hawaiians to "determine whether and how to reorganize its government," according to the proposed rule, which the public will have 90 days to weigh in on.
The plan would extend to Native Hawaiians recognition similar to what many Native Americans tribes have had for generations. However, the department stresses that the Native Hawaiian government won't automatically be eligible for federal Indian programs, services and benefits unless Congress allows it.
WHO ARE NATIVE HAWAIIANS?
Native Hawaiians are members of an ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands. Native Hawaiians can trace their ancestry to aboriginal people who, prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the area that now constitutes the state of Hawaii, according to the Interior Department.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HAWAIIAN KINGDOM?
There has been no formal, organized Native Hawaiian government since 1893, when the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown by a group of American businessmen, with the support of U.S. Marines. Until then, the United States recognized the Hawaiian nation's independence, extended full diplomatic recognition to the Hawaiian government and entered into several treaties with the Hawaiian monarch.
The United States annexed Hawaii five years later. Hawaii became a state in 1959.
HAS THIS BEEN DONE BEFORE?
Many Native Hawaiians have long been clamoring for self-determination. Former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka spent about a dozen years trying to get a bill passed that would give Native Hawaiians the same rights already extended to many Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Efforts to get the bill to the Senate floor for a vote have consistently been blocked. Akaka retired in 2013.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
A process is underway for Native Hawaiians to elect delegates who will attend a constitutional convention scheduled for next year. The delegates will decide whether to offer a constitution or other governance document for Hawaiians to ratify, said Nai Aupuni, the nonprofit organization guiding the election, convention and ratification process.
WHAT WOULD A POSSIBLE GOVERNMENT LOOK LIKE?
It's unclear because the options and opinions are numerous. Options include complete independence from the U.S., a form of dual citizenship and maintaining the status quo.
WHAT DO SUPPORTERS THINK?
"For supporters of federal recognition, this is a huge step," said Michelle Kauhane, president of Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which supports a dual citizenship structure. "This helps us ensure that this is a possibility."
WHAT DO OPPONENTS THINK?
"This is just part of the grand scheme to make us Indians," said Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian activist from Molokai.
It doesn't do anything toward correcting the wrongs of the overthrow, said Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian sovereignty activist. "It won't protect our culture, our traditions," he said.
WHAT IF NATIVE HAWAIIANS DON'T WANT A RELATIONSHIP?
"If the community does not support a government-to-government relationship, no such relationship will be re-established," the department said. "Because the proposal provides for a referendum, broad-based community support will be a precondition for re-establishing a government-to-government relationship."