Why Does the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Exist?
OHA is a well-funded agency with a big and often misunderstood mission on behalf of Native Hawaiians.
OHA is a well-funded agency with a big and often misunderstood mission on behalf of Native Hawaiians.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is often seen as the political go-to institution in dealing with Native Hawaiians. So it is easy to forget that the primary responsibility for the governance and management of the special trust relationship established by the Congress between Native Hawaiians and the federal and state governments continues to lie with the government of the United States, and by extension, authorities in Hawaii.
For all the apparent confusion, OHA is a state instrument of that trust responsibility, but empowered with unique state constitutional authority to function as a semi-autonomous political body. OHA exercises its authority on behalf of its approximately 250,000 Hawaiian beneficiaries living in Hawaii and, to a somewhat nebulous degree, another 250,000 living on the mainland. OHA’s role as a state agency puzzles many people and more than a few wonder why it exists at all.
Here are some other relevant questions. If OHA is a state agency, why isn’t it directly accountable to the governor or the Legislature? How can OHA’s land holdings be considered private lands if they are owned and held by a state agency? How did the state end up owing OHA so much money it had to give the agency Kaka’ako Makai to reimburse the debt? Then there is an overarching question: what do Native Hawaiians mean when they speak of restoring a Hawaiian nation?
OHA is, without question, a state agency. But, it is semi-autonomous and governed by a nine-member elected board of trustees that includes myself. One each from Molokai, Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island, and four at-large. Originally, only Hawaiians were eligible to vote or become a candidate. But, a constitutional challenge, referred to as the Rice-Cayetano decision, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court opening the voting and candidate pool to all of Hawaii’s electorate. OHA has substantial resources. It manages a group of trust assets with a net worth of $550 million, which includes a Wall Street investment portfolio of $350 million. OHA’s annual operating budget hovers around $40 million, which includes an annual payroll for 170 employees of $14 million.
OHA’s broad range of activity includes millions in grants to community non-profit organizations, education scholarships, business and home ownership loans, commercial and cultural property management, aggressive research programs, shaping state public policy development, leveraging resources in joint funded projects, creating strategic alliances with other Native Hawaiian institutions, environmental stewardship, health and social service initiatives, and native rights advocacy.
One of OHA’s highest program priorities is to vigorously pursue Native Hawaiian self-determination initiatives by intensifying its political advocacy at the highest levels of the state and federal governments.
THE ORIGINS OF OHA
The concept of OHA grew out of a century-long political process. OHA’s political ancestry began in 1893 when Queen Liliuokalani refused to relinquish her throne and was imprisoned during a coup d’état led by a group of American sugar planters.
The colonizing forces formed a provisional government and submitted a petition of annexation to the United States. President Grover Cleveland decried the coup-d’état, as well as the provisional government, and the annexation attempt failed. The colonizers then converted the provisional government to the Republic of Hawaii. Then, President Cleveland lost his re-election bid against William McKinley. The new president sympathized with the colonizers, and triggered a second annexation attempt. In mid-1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Newlands Resolution authorizing the annexation of The Republic of Hawaii to the United States. The next day President McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution into law. Six weeks later, Hawaiians shuttered themselves in their homes and joined their queen in mourning as the Hawaiian flag was lowered at Iolani Palace and Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States.
Then in 1900, President Cleveland signed the Organic Act, which provided for the structuring of a Territorial Government of Hawaii. The Organic Act gave “possession, use, and control” of 1,800,000 acres of land to the government of the territory. The fall of the Hawaiian Nation resulted in an abiding tension between the Native Hawaiian community and those who dominated the political, economic, and societal growth of Hawaii.
The political discomfort and a nagging, often irritating, sense of responsibility at both state and federal levels generated a trail of somewhat random government initiatives that seemed aimed at achieving some measure of emotional, if not political, reconciliation. The genesis of such initiatives was the Hawaiian Homestead Act of 1920, which created the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to repatriate Hawaiian lands to Hawaiians.
The stated purpose of this congressional act was “for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.” More important, it provided congressional acknowledgement of Native Hawaiians as a separate class of people and flashed a green light for other Native Hawaiian initiatives. This act also made clear the existence of a trust relationship between Native Hawaiians and the federal government. Another substantial reconciliation initiative came with the 1959 Hawaii Statehood Admissions Act.
The Admissions Act is essentially a trust document and its provisions are mandates to state government that spell out the terms of the trust. A fundamental provision of the act deals with the transfer of “possession, use, and control” of 1,800,000 acres of land. These lands have been historically transferred — or ceded —from the Kingdom of Hawaii to the Provisional Government to the Republic of Hawaii, and on to the United States government, the Territory of Hawaii, and finally to the state of Hawaii. They are referred to as the “ceded land trust.” One of the five purposes for the use of such public lands, and the revenues derived from them is “for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians as defined in the Hawaiian Homestead Act of 1920.” Here the state, as a condition of statehood assumes the trust responsibility with Native Hawaiians. A third important reconciliation initiative came in 1975 in the form of congressional legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye. Out of that came the Alu Like organization, which is charged with providing social and economic self-sufficiency programs for Native Hawaiians.
Alu Like served as a model of a specially funded entitlement program for the “betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.” By the turn of the century over 130 programs in education, health, employment and others were enacted by the U.S. Congress for Native Hawaiians. The 1970s saw a dramatic rise in emotional intensity and Hawaiian activism in the form of street-level protests and civil disobedience encounters with law enforcement. Flashpoints of the activism include confrontations over the bombing of Kahoolawe, the Sand Island evictions, the Hilo Airport runway protests, and the occupation of Makua Valley by the U.S. Army.
Other protest themes congruently pursued included native rights, access to public lands and beaches, and environmental stewardship (aloha aina). From the cauldron of Hawaiian protestation came a significantly heightened call for self-determination. Hawaiians began to insist on being able to directly access resources to which they were entitled, but the state still managed and held them “in trust.”
The public mood of the day was clearly sympathetic and supportive of the Hawaiians’ call for self-determination. The 1978 Constitutional Convention provided a pivotal opportunity to realize political self-determination. Convention delegates envisioned an agency that would provide a form of self-determination for Native Hawaiians that would directly tap into resources and be the primary political advocate for the overall well-being of Native Hawaiians. And so OHA was born.
In crafting legislation that activated OHA, and to provide it with funds, the Legislature referenced the Admissions Act with its five purposes: support of public schools; farm and home ownership; making public improvements; land for public use, and; for the betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians. The Legislature then came up with a plan that gives 20 percent shares of the revenues derived from the ceded lands, by dividing the five purposes into 100 percent, and then assigned 20 percent of the proceeds derived from the use of those public lands to OHA. While it took a number of years for OHA to actually access those ceded lands revenues, funds eventually began to flow and OHA was launched on its journey.
There is a whole universe of political, economic, social and cultural issues that swirl around OHA and its 170 employees. They sail a sea that has never been crossed. OHA’s critics can be brutal and relentless. Can OHA do better? Yes, of course. How, is a subject for another time. The one constant is OHA’s self-declared vision to “raise a beloved nation.”
*THIS ARTICLE IS REPUBLISHED HERE WITH THE PERMISSION OF CIVIL BEAT. Civil Beat published the original version on February 26, 2015 at www.civilbeat.com.
The Hawaiians — Building a Nation and the Road Ahead
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two parts relating to nation building.
Read the first part by visiting Civil Beat.
We have spent much of our time, as Hawaiians, looking backward struggling to see beyond the shroud of pain that is our history. For many Hawaiians the wounds of injustice remain fresh and still burn deep. From this larger group of Hawaiians springs an intense faction of leaders that make up an informal coalition committed to redefining, or even severing, the political relationship with the United States and therefore, the state of Hawaii.
But, for many others the painful history became veiled with the trans-generational march of time, context, and circumstance. They settled on the path of assimilation into the mainstream and resigned themselves to play the cards they were dealt as they moved forward with their lives. They are not less Hawaiian for it and they certainly are not in denial of history. But they seem less engaged and have legitimate concerns that the path to nationhood is dangerously unpredictable and strewn with risks to the socio-economic stability of mainstream life.
Between these two shores lie a vast ocean of uncertainty and distinct schools of thought. Wherever one is perched on the question of a Hawaiian future and nation building, there is one reality that shimmers with anxiety, and it is the realization that the moment is upon us. After all these years we are now caught somewhat by surprise that the call to action has been issued.
So, I will invoke the most commonly used phrase to describe the political call to action that is tumbling through the general Hawaiian community: nation building. To build a nation.
First a nation has to have citizens. There is a somewhat onerous general presumption by the broader public that when Hawaiians speak of a Hawaiian Nation they are speaking of an ethnic nation. I do not believe that is the direction we’re headed, but the question begs an answer and is fundamental to any form of nation building.
An equally onerous question, given that nearly half of the Native Hawaiian population of 527,077, as counted by the U.S. Census, lives on the mainland, is whether you have to live in Hawaii to be a citizen? Another question is will there be a provision for dual citizenship or do you have to give up your U.S. citizenship?
Second, a nation has to be politically recognized by at least one other nation. Under U.S. law scores of Native American Indian Tribes are each politically recognized by the federal government as a “nation within a nation.” Native Alaskan tribes are also recognized. Hawaiians, have yet to be federally recognized as Native Americans much less as qualifying for any form of nation within a nation status. Whether or not to pursue federal recognition — which by the way does not automatically translate to nationhood — is the central dividing question among Hawaiians.
Third, a nation is often defined by a national culture that establish a behavioral norm. This is often acted out by its citizens through cultural practices that relate to food, fashion, music, religion, art and so forth. This might be a complicated construct to navigate for a multicultural Hawaiian nation. While ethnic Hawaiians can proudly claim to exist as a cultural nation, Hawaii as a whole has produced a citizenry of cultural hybrids so how would that national culture be defined? For now I guess we can get away with “local style.”
Fourth, a nation requires economic capacity and the ability to create prosperity for its citizens. What good is a nation if it cannot generate prosperity for its citizens? In the end, Hawaiians are not much different as we strive for a good quality of life: Home ownership, which is the foundation of family wealth in Hawaii; access to health care; safe streets; quality education for our children; and a good job.
When the Legislature passed Act 195 in 2012 it triggered a call to action on nation building. It set in motion what is essentially a voter registration process called Kananioluwalu that, when joined with a couple of other data bases, would serve as a voter pool to elect presumably ethnic Hawaiian delegates from around the state to a Hawaiian Constitutional Convention referred to as an ‘Aha.
The latest proposal is for it to occur in June of 2015. The delegate assembly would be charged with fashioning a set of recommendations, again presumably, to be ratified by the ethnic Hawaiian voter base, that would set in motion a plan or process to create a new governing entity. That entity would succeed the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, assume all of its assets, redefine its mission and proceed to the next steps of creating a nation.
I am oversimplifying the process and the politics here for brevity. There is a kaleidoscope of moving parts. One is a legislative bill that was just introduced that calls for the repeal of Act 195. It would render the voter registration base moot and, in doing so, it would derail the constitutional convention. Separatists, who do not want to pursue federal recognition, would welcome a repeal of Act 195. For supporters of federal recognition alarm bells are already ringing.
Suffice it say, there is a battle raging between the two camps.
On one side, there are those who demand total independence from the United States, arguing that the “overthrow” and annexation of the Hawaiian Nation were illegal and that the Queen never relinquished her crown.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who seek federal recognition for Hawaiians as a Native American group — not unlike American Indians and Native Alaskans. If they gain such recognition, they would, again presumably, seek nation with a nation status.
*The original publication of this column was featured in Civil Beat.
What Does OHA Do?
WHAT IS OHA?
OHA is a semi-autonomous state agency established by the delegates of the 1978 Constitutional Convention. The Hawai’i Constitution charges OHA with a very complicated and sweeping mandate to manage a group of trust assets, on behalf of its approximately 250,000 Hawaiian beneficiaries living in Hawai’i.
Trust assets include a Wall Street investment portfolio, commercial real estate properties, cultural properties such as Waimea Valley (O’ahu), and a number of grants from various sources. These assets have a total net worth that hovers around $550 million and growing. OHA’s annual operating budget of approximately $40 million includes $10 million in contracts that go to every conceivable service such as accounting, law, janitorial, construction, catering, flowers, and more.
About $14 million is paid as wages to our employees, who in turn pay for housing, clothing, transportation, food, education, medicine, and entertainment.
WHAT DOES OHA DO?
- OHA funds the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation (NHLC) which fights for access to land and water. If not for NHLC, working in conjunction with other legal organizations and OHA’s in-house compliance and enforcement team, many of our beaches would be closed to the public, Makua Valley would still be an active firing range, and many historic sites would have been destroyed.
- OHA helped fund the Humpback Whale Sanctuary, and is a co-manager of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
- OHA funds a number of annual flagship events such the Merrie Monarch hula competition, The Kamehameha Schools Song Contest, Nā Hōkū Hanohano music awards, Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival, and many more smaller events throughout the State for the benefit of all Hawai‘i.
- OHA gives out community-based grants totaling about $13 million a year which fall into six broad categories: culture, health, income, education, governance, and land and water.
- OHA’s health grants include supporting services for prevention of diabetes, obesity and heart disease with thousands of participants every year. We also fund programs targeting hundreds of people on four islands to adopt holistic health lifestyles in order to decrease their rates of chronic illness.
- OHA supports 13 Hawaiian-focused charter schools statewide. These schools are preparing the leaders of the future by grounding their education in Hawaiian values. OHA also gives scholarships for post-high education.
- The housing programs we support offer financial literacy and down payment assistance for people who are moving from rentals into home ownership.
- OHA funds programs for people recently released from prison or homeless persons qualifying for low income housing.
- One of OHA’s flagship initiatives is the acquisition of various culturally valuable lands such as 2,800 acre Waimea Valley (Oahu) and 20,000 acres of Wao Kele o Puna Forest lands on Hawaii Island. OHA also manages commercial real estate properties worth several million dollars.
What is not addressed in this communication is the constitutional intent that OHA serve as a placeholder organization to manage trust assets until such time that a “new governing entity” is constituted by the Hawaiian people that effects reconciliation with the federal government. It is assumed that reconciliation would extend political recognition to the new governing entity and bring closure to the long standing Hawaiian claim that independent and sovereign nation of Hawai’i was illegally overthrown the be coup-detat, an interim Republic constituted, and the subsequent annexation of Hawaii to the U.S. was absent consent from the vast majority of the Hawaiian population.
The contentious political navigation between Hawaiians and the federal government since 1893 is steeped in an abiding institutional tension between the two, Hawaiians and the rest of Hawai’i. The path of reconciliation is a slippery one, filled with passion, and a host of competing constituencies, each with their own vision of a Hawaiian future. Until this reconciliation is manifested, Hawai’i can never be whole.