Federal government changes rules to recognize Native Hawaiian government

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The Department of the Interior (DOI), a Cabinet-level federal agency, has finalized a change to its rules that would require the federal government to recognize a Native Hawaiian government, should one be created, and reestablish a "formal government-to-government" relationship. "Today is a major step forward in the reconciliation process between Native Hawaiians and the United States that began over 20 years ago," Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in a statement. "We are proud to announce this final rule that respects and supports self-governance for Native Hawaiians, one of our nation’s largest indigenous communities.”


Reaction from Native Hawaiians, who do not have many of the same rights to self-determination Native Americans and Alaskans do, has been mixed. Robert Lindsey, the chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an autonomous state agency that advocates for Native Hawaiians and oversees some state land for them, released a statement applauding the new rules. "Native Hawaiians have been the only major indigenous group in the 50 states without a process for establishing a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. This rule finally remedies this injustice," Lindsey said. "Having a federal rule available to Native Hawaiians is… an important step towards achieving Native Hawaiian self-determination and self-governance."

However, many Native Hawaiians view any recognition or dealings with the federal government with suspicion. "The DOI should not involve itself whatsoever in a reorganization of any sort of Hawaiian people's government," organizer 'Ilima Long testified during a DOI hearing in summer 2014. "The law of nations tells me that we are the Kanakas, the only people that have a legal right to conduct our affairs. No other entity, whether state or federal government has that authority," agreed Isaac Kaiu at the same hearing.


In 1893, a coup backed by U.S. Marines overthrew Hawaii's monarchist government, and shortly thereafter, Hawaii was annexed by the U.S. and became a territory until 1959, when it achieved statehood. Native Hawaiians opposed every action the U.S. took, signing multiple anti-annexation petitions known as the Kū’e Petitions.

Native Hawaiians have lead many attempts at self-governance before, and were most recently blocked by legal actions taken by conservative legal group Judicial Watch, who filed a lawsuit saying elections that only allowed Native Hawaiians to vote discriminated against other residents.

Sam Stecklow is the Weekend Editor for Fusion.

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