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The Contemporary Pacific 15.1 (2003) 179-183

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Hawaiian Issues

Tracie Ku'uipo Cummings
Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

On 17 January 1893, the monarchy of Hawai'i was deposed by a group who "represented the American and European sugar planters, descendents of missionaries and financiers" (US Public Law 103-150). With the aid [End Page 179] of the United States minister, John L Stevens, and US military forces, they were able to deliver Hawai'i into the hands of the US federal government. In a case of historical déjà vu, it seems the same adversaries from a century ago have now been reincarnated and are attacking what is left of native rights in Hawai'i.

Since the 1970s there has been slow, deliberate progress in raising public awareness of Hawai'i's unique history, culminating in the "Apology Bill" (US Public Law 103-150) of 1993, a formal apology by the US government to the Hawaiian people. However, a shift toward a more conservative political climate under the new Bush administration, beginning in November 2001, and the hyperpatriotism inspired by September 11th, have fueled vigorous attacks on native Hawaiian rights and entitlements. These renewed attacks have prompted leaders of the Hawaiian independence movement to stress the need for a stable, protected path toward self-determination.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) are two of the most highly targeted agencies run by the State of Hawai'i. Since its inception in 1978, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has served as a liaison agency between the native Hawaiian people and the State of Hawai'i. In that capacity, the office manages Hawaiian trust assets and entitlements, such as land and money, and programs for housing and education. As the beneficiaries of this trust, those of Hawaiian ancestry alone elect the OHA trustees and have a say in issues relevant to the trust. The Department of Hawaiian Homelands was established as part of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921, which set aside 200,000 acres of land for native Hawaiian homesteading. Both of these agencies exist in an effort to address the needs and concerns of the Hawaiian people who suffered the loss of a nation.

Prior to the conservative shift in the US federal government, the stage was already being set by local challenges to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In 1996, Harold "Freddy" Rice, a non-Hawaiian rancher and businessman, was turned away after requesting a ballot to vote in OHA elections. On this refusal, Rice sought legal recourse, accusing the state government of violating his civil rights. Claiming that the Hawaiians-only policy reserved for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs by the state government was racist, he sought its abolishment. The infamous case quickly went up the judicial hierarchy and was finally heard by the US Supreme Court in early 2000. This time the justices of the Supreme Court agreed with Rice and his legal team, and in February 2000, the US Supreme Court opened voting in OHA elections to non-Hawaiians. Fortunately, the court confined its ruling to the voting practices of the State of Hawai'i and did not make any further determinations regarding native entitlements. However, any sense of relief over the narrow ruling was tinged with feelings of dread as the case set a dangerous precedent.

Immediately following the Rice v Cayetano ruling various anti-native rights groups filed lawsuits challenging the very existence of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of [End Page 180] Hawaiian Homelands, and more broadly, any programs meant to assist Hawaiians. John Carroll, Patrick Barrett, and most recently, Earl Arakaki are among the plaintiffs rotating the lead on lawsuits threatening native Hawaiian agencies and entitlements.

While these lawsuits originate outside the Hawaiian community, the July 2002 admission of a non-Hawaiian student to the Kamehameha Schools, a private institution that offers quality education to Hawaiian children, seemed to relocate the threat to the boardroom of a Hawaiian trust institution. Citing legal challenges to the school's tax-exempt status as a...