Opinion
Thousands of native hawaiians and local supporters wearing red shirts carry large Hawaii state flags overflowed Kalakaua Avenue as they marched along side Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, Sept. 6, 2004. Hawaiian clubs, trusts, agencies and schools, marshal over 5,000 to protest threats to native Hawaiian entitlements and land trusts as well as U.S. military expansion on the islands. For the second year in a row, trustees and representatives from alii trusts, state and civic organizations, and native and non-Hawaiian supporters joined together in a march for "Ku I Ka Pono," or "justice for Hawaiians." (REUTERS/Lucy Pemoni) Thousands of native hawaiians and local supporters wearing red shirts carry large Hawaii state flags overflowed Kalakaua Avenue as they marched along side Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, Hawaii, Sept. 6, 2004. Hawaiian clubs, trusts, agencies and schools, marshal over 5,000 to protest threats to native Hawaiian entitlements and land trusts as well as U.S. military expansion on the islands. For the second year in a row, trustees and representatives from alii trusts, state and civic organizations, and native and non-Hawaiian supporters joined together in a march for "Ku I Ka Pono," or "justice for Hawaiians." (REUTERS/Lucy Pemoni)  

Hawaiians Are Not A Tribe

Photo of Keli'i Akina
Keli'i Akina
President, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
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      Keli'i Akina

      Keli’i Akina, Ph.D. is a recognized scholar, educator, public policy spokesperson, and community leader in Hawaii. Currently, he is President/CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government. An expert in East-West Philosophy, Dr. Akina has taught at universities in China and the United States and continues as an adjunct instructor at HPU and the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa. A political philosopher with degrees in both Eastern and Western philosophy, he has led a team of consulting academics in Beijing focused on developing solutions for human rights and business ethics. Now as head of Grassroot Institute, Akina is devoted to uniting Hawaii's people to work for a better economy, government and society.

On the surface, Hawaii is a melting pot of all races and national origins. Beneath that surface, there is brewing an attack upon Constitutional protections against racial discrimination which could have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the nation. The Department of Interior’s advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) is the latest move in its process of paving the way for federal recognition of a race-based government of Native Hawaiians. This represents an egregious overreach of executive power.

From a sentimental point of view, Americans can easily feel sympathetic toward the idea of righting the supposed wrongs done to Hawaiians as a tribe. The problem with this thinking is that Hawaiians never were and certainly are not today a tribe. From the time the Hawaiian Kingdom was established by its first monarch King Kamehameha through the 1895 abdication of the throne by its last monarch Queen Lili’uokalani, citizenship in Hawaii was never based upon race. If the Hawaiian Kingdom were somehow to be reinstated today, there would be no racial tribe to give anything back to, as the Hawaiian citizenry consisted of Polynesians, Caucasians, Asians, and others who lived under a constitutional monarchy.

The executive branch is using the construct of a native tribe to attempt an end-run around both the Supreme Court and Congress. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Rice v. Cayetano case that Native Hawaiian is an ethnicity (like, for example, Portuguese or Hispanic) and not a tribal or political category. Congress, from 2000 to 2012, rejected all attempts through the numerous versions of the Akaka Bill to redefine ethnic Hawaiians as a political tribe with a “government to government” relationship to the United States. That having failed, in 2012 the executive branch, through the Department of the Interior, began laying the groundwork for administrative rules to officially recognize a Native Hawaiian tribal government, again, something which does not exist. That effort coincided with the passage in the same year of the State of Hawaii’s Act 195 which established the Native Hawaiian Roll within the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for creating a roll of racially Hawaiian citizens (i.e., tribe members).

The effort of the Native Hawaiian Roll to redefine Hawaiians as a political tribe has met with little support. The commission responsible for administering the roll, which was open between July 20, 2012 and May 1, 2014, claims that approximately 125,631 Native Hawaiians have “signed up.” In fact, most never “signed up,” as official registration requires enrollees to endorse an affidavit which states: “I affirm the unrelinquished sovereignty of the Hawaiian people and my intent to participate in the process of self-governance.”  The majority of names on the roll were transferred from non-political lists of ethnic Hawaiians who have not affirmed such a statement.

Yet the executive branch is undeterred. So obvious are its efforts to create a tribe by fiat that four members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights were moved to send a letter to President Obama, dated September 16, 2013, telling him that, “Executive action implementing provisions of the Akaka bill would be … unwise and unconstitutional.” They also reiterated that “whatever the perceived or actual wrongs that were done to native Hawaiian rulers in the late nineteenth century, there was not then a distinct ‘tribe’ of native Hawaiians living separately from the rest of society, and there certainly has not been any in the 120 years since.”