HONOLULU (AP) — Dozens of Native Hawaiian speakers expressed anger and mistrust with the federal government Monday during the first of a series of meetings that could lead to the group being recognized similarly to an American Indian tribe.
Interior Department officials hosted the public hearing, prompted by a push to include the ethnic group among the more than 560 tribes that hold such status, with federal considerations on issues from land management to social services.
The discussion didn't cover potential benefits of federal recognition for Hawaiians, as department officials said it was premature to discuss specifics. The main purpose of the hearing Monday, they said, was to listen to Native Hawaiians about whether they want to pursue an official relationship.
"I'm hearing a lot of 'No's' so far," said Sam Hirsch, an Interior Department spokesman.
About 140 speakers opposed the move, with many saying it would be a barrier to their goal of returning the Hawaiian Islands to the indigenous community that ruled before Hawaii became the nation's 50th state.
"We do not need you here. This is our country," said Ao Pohaku Ku, of the Spiritual Nation of Ku Hui Ea Council of Sovereigns.
The emotional hearing at the Hawaii Capitol was punctuated by outbursts from those shouting that representatives from the Department of the Interior weren't welcome.
For more than a decade, former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka pushed in Congress for federal recognition. And many Native Hawaiians have urged for such status, to protect locally established school and land rights.
Colette Machado, chairwoman of Hawaii's Office of Hawaiian Affairs, spoke to "strongly urge the federal government move forward with a process" of recognition. But, she said while detractors shouted over her, "I also urge that it be a pathway that is open to us, but that the decision of when and how to walk down that path is left to our people."
Other speakers, however, voiced suspicion and called for autonomy.
"We're not subservient," said Leona Kalima, who has challenged the state over Native Hawaiian land rights. "We're not stupid anymore. We cannot trust."
Federal officials said after the meeting the feedback was important. They encouraged more participation through written comments and attendance at hearings over the next two weeks.
"We want the broadest possible public input," Hirsch said. "This is just the start of a long and extensive public input process."