The Contemporary Pacific 17.1 (2005) 142-156
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A Conversation with Mililani Trask
Noe Noe Wong-Wilson
Mililani Trask was born into the world of politics and struggle for Native Hawaiian and human rights. Her grandfather, David Trask, was an early member of the Hawai'i Democratic Party, the first Hawaiian sheriff in Honolulu, and a member of the Territorial Legislature for twenty-six years. Her maternal grandmother, Maui-born Iwalani Haia, was one of the first women to organize the Benevolent Societies on Maui and played a key role in the movement to inform Hawaiians of the events surrounding the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani in 1893. Mililani is the niece ofArthur Trask, well-known orator, lawyer, and politician, and David Trask, Jr, a politician and a key player in labor organizing and collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions for public workers. Mililani is descended from the Pi'ilani line of Maui and the Kahakumakaliua line of Kaua'i.
Born and raised on O'ahu, the fourth of five children of Bernard and Haunani Trask, Mililani was educated at the Kamehameha Schools. Following her graduation in 1969, she attended the University of Redlands and San Jose State University in California. In 1977, Mililani returned home with a law degree from Santa Clara University.
In 1990, Mililani became the first elected kia'āina or governor of Ka Lāhui Hawai'i, a Hawaiian nation formed in response to the United States' colonial dominance. She was a prominent figure in the Hawaiian political spotlight for over eight years during her leadership of Ka Lāhui Hawai'i. In 1993, she served on the prestigious Indigenous Initiative for Peace under the direction of Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu-Tum, the United Nations' Goodwill Ambassador to the UN Decade on Indigenous Peoples. And, in 1995, Mililani became the second vice-chair of the General Assembly of Nations of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organizations, [End Page 142] founded in 1991 by his holiness, the Dalai Lama, as an alternative forum to the United Nations. Then, in 1998, Mililani won a coveted seat on the Board of Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (oha), the quasi-governmental organization formed in the 1978 Hawai'i Constitutional Convention. She was elected by the largest number of Hawaiian votes cast in any election since oha's inception. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is an organization that has been the object of attack by independence-minded Hawaiian nationalists since its creation. In 2000, after the Rice decision forced the mass resignation of the oha board members and opened the election process to non-Hawaiians,1 Mililani lost her bid for reelection. She is an advocate of peace and has studied and worked with Mother Theresa of Calcutta for seven years. She founded the Native Hawaiian nongovernmental organization Nā Koa Ikaika o Ka Lāhui Hawai'i, which worked in the international arena on the Draft Declaration for Indigenous Peoples and the World Conference on Racism for the last fifteen years. Today, she has a reputation as an expert on international and human rights law and is a much sought after speaker on native issues. She is currently serving as the Pacific representative on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, based in New York. Mililani and her sister, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa Professor Haunani-Kay Trask, are outspoken critics of the current movement for the establishment of US federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, symbolized by the "Akaka Bill."2
The original interview took place on 9 July 2003, with follow-up discussions between then and April 2004. Our first meeting took place in Mililani's Hilo office at the Gibson Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 to support housing for Native Hawaiians. She focuses on assisting kūpuna or elders in the community by providing advice and project support for home construction and repair. This, she feels, is her life's purpose, working selflessly, without pay for her community.
The initial interview lasted for three hours and covered a...