The Birth of OHA

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In commemoration of OHA’s 40th anniversary, throughout 2021, Ka Wai Ola will feature select articles from the newspaper’s archives. We begin with this piece, reprinted from Volunteers for OHA, Volume 1, No. 1, October 20, 1980. Volunteers for OHA was a single-issue publication and the precursor to Ka Wai Ola, the first issue of which was published in the summer of 1981 under the name Ka Wai Ola O OHA.

By the late John Dominis Holt

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established in the Constitutional Convention of 1978. It came finally into existence as a legally established entity through the efforts of a remarkable coalition of politically determined Hawaiians.

The child born at that Convention had been a long time growing in the restive womb of Hawaiian activism dating back as far as the 1840s and the time of the Great Māhele when David Malo and Samuel Kamakau wrote to King Kamehameha III to point out the dangers inherent in granting foreigners power to determine the destiny of native Hawaiians.

They reminded “the Little King” that his father had never allowed foreigners, including his trusted aikāne John Young and Isaac Davis, to sit with his council when the most important decisions were made. Until his death, the council remained a body made up strictly of native Hawaiians.

Ironically, Hawaiians came to have less and less to say about the life of the ʻāina and the future it held for succeeding generations, as island society moved ever onward and deeper into patterns fitting the democratic ideals of American Society.

Democratic society established along these ideals was not always beneficial to Hawaiians. The free swinging ways of the marketing economy, competition and voting were alien to Hawaiians. For many centuries the foundation of Hawaiian culture was agricultural. Production of crops was based on use. Trading for profit was not known to Hawaiians.

With the coming of Captain Cook and subsequent early visitors, the magic of trading goods for money was introduced. The profit motive hit Hawaiian society like a ton of bricks, but Kamehameha kept a tight rein on trade.

After his death the chiefs went berserk.

They entered a period of frenzied extraction of labor from the makaʻāinana. Thousands of people were sent to the mountains for sandalwood which was bought by American sea captains. The chiefs became wanton consumers of goods offered them by sea captains: mirrors, bolts of cloth, beads and other trinkets were purchased by the ton. Thousands died from despair and overwork.

Although many Hawaiians were elected to public office in the 19th century, many, many Haoles were also elected. They literally controlled affairs of the Hawaiian by virtue of their clever use of the political process, their control of the press and by virtue of their generally stronger hold on a culture that had been shaped along lines of their style of laws, and their teachings, and through the widespread use of the English language in the transaction of daily affairs.

The alienation of native Hawaiians from sources of political power which provided the means of creating legislation specifically concerned with native survival began decades before the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani.

Few provisions were made in the laws during the period of the monarchy to protect Hawaiian culture and art, Hawaiian religion and native Hawaiian ways of living. And saddest of all perhaps, nothing was done to protect the native owners of the soil on their soil, their ʻāina hānau. The first fragile motions of land reform came much later, with Prince Kühiō.

We had been a bewildered people, widely separated and greatly fragmented.

In efforts to find justice, to find one means or another of pulling together all the scattered pieces of Hawaiian concerns, our appeals had not been met with support from a majority. Demands for reparations for lost lands were made, some of us cried out for better education of our people, we asked for help in saving our young from ending up in jail. There was a general awakening among Hawaiians that something had been wrong for a long, long time and something needed to be done and done promptly.

We began to shake a fist at the community and as a result we began to be heard.

There were developments of groups or associations: the Congress of the Hawaiian people, the Aloha Association, the Homerule movement and others, which provided arenas in which Native Hawaiian issues could be discussed and from which certain demands could originate.

The time had come when larger numbers of Native Hawaiians could speak out; questions were raised and thrown out to the public. The whole community began to be concerned about matters that aroused the interest of Hawaiians. Young Hawaiians everywhere began to ask questions. What about the land question? What about Hawaiian culture and values? And yes, what about the future?

The young people went to Kahoʻolawe and put their bodies on the line – earlier than that, people had sat it out in Kalama Valley, in Waiāhole, Waikāne. Large numbers of people fought the building of H-3 and organized to keep it out of beautiful Moanalua Valley. Many of them were Native Hawaiians. And Hawaiians had also participated in the showdown on Sand Island.

The sweet, loving, docile, tractable Hawaiian who would give away his malo as well as his taro patch was a thing of the past. Hawaiians finally became able to say: “We have lost enough. We have hurt enough. We have sat long enough in margins. We are a part of the system and we want to have what is rightfully our share in running the system.”

One of the miracles of protest is that it leads to effective change, and as the historical process moves on, events shape up and remarkable things take place. The Constitutional Convention of 1978 provided a wonderful opportunity to bring into existence a legal vehicle to which some of the major concerns of Hawaiians might be addressed.

The long years of anger, protest and often futile effort had finally led to the beginnings of a solid program of reform. Here at last was an entity which could exist within the framework of government which gave Hawaiians the opportunity to work out solutions to age-old problems from an agency existing for Hawaiians, managed by Hawaiians. At last! At last!

A remarkable coalition of people of diverse personalities came together in the ConCon of 1978 to work out a creation of an office in which major Native Hawaiian issues could be handled. Walter Ritte, Steve Kuna, Francis Kauhane and Martin Wilson rallied round the dynamic, dedicated “Frenchy” Adelaide DeSoto to provide encouragement, emotional support, lobbying skills and legal skills to help “Frenchy” create the instrument that would come to be known as OHA. Their contribution to Native Hawaiian advancement is incalculable.

Others helped: John Waihee and other delegates of the 1978 Convention were helpful. Bill Paty, its resident, was cooperative, and Alu Like provided assistance, and Hawaiians from everywhere kept an eye on proceedings.

Many, many Hawaiians made OHA into a reality. It belongs to all Hawaiians.

The creation of OHA is a major victory for the majority of Hawaiians. It belongs to us all because we are the loʻi, and the taro in which and upon which OHA grows.

Our future is splendidly related to the shape that OHA takes and the works which will it – its life and its character.

PUKA I KA LANAKILA!!!


John Dominis Holt was a noted Native Hawaiian writer, poet and cultural historian. Holt, who was born in Honolulu in 1919, worked as a publisher for Topgallant Publishing Company. He wrote numerous books about Hawaiian history and culture, and was one of the earliest Hawaiian novelists. His 1964 essay “On Being Hawaiian” is credited with inspiring the rise of the Hawaiian renaissance movement. Holt was recognized as a Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi in 1979 and was awarded the Hawaiʻi Award for Literature by Gov. John Waiheʻe in 1985. He passed away on March 29, 1993.