Federal Recognition of Hawaiian Sovereignty: One People, Many Views


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

On Oct. 19, 2022, the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) announced that it would host its first-ever consultation policy with the Native Hawaiian community. DOI Secretary Deb Haaland stated that the consultations seek to serve as a way to work with the “Native Hawaiian Community…to address concerns related to self-governance, Native Hawaiian trust resources, and other Native Hawaiian rights.”

Since the announcement, the Native Hawaiian community has engaged in two virtual consultations with the DOI. These consultations have the goal of providing the Native Hawaiian people with an opportunity to urge the federal government to address long-standing issues.

Through consultation, for example, OHA and the Native Hawaiian community could directly request the federal government to publish an accurate inventory of the Public Land Trust (PLT).

Another long-standing issue that may be addressed is federal recognition of Native Hawaiian sovereignty. The federal consultation policy “recognizes the right of the Native Hawaiian Community to self-government…supports Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination.”

Yet, federal recognition of sovereignty is a lively debate within the Hawaiian community. Some Hawaiians support it, some oppose it, and others have alternative views.

Although the issue is complex, those who favor and those who oppose federal recognition offer distinct perspectives. Supporters of federal recognition put forth the following arguments: 1) Native Hawaiians are the only Indigenous people in the U.S. that have not received federal recognition of their sovereignty. Federal recognition would end the inequitable treatment of Native Hawaiians compared to other Indigenous groups; 2) Native Hawaiians would have the potential to establish their own government which many believe would be better equipped to address self-determination and the critical needs of the Native Hawaiian community; 3) A Native Hawaiian self-governing entity may have the leverage to negotiate with state and federal entities to pursue policies that prioritize the general wellbeing of the Native Hawaiian community.

Conversely, those who do not support federal recognition make the following arguments: 1) Serious uncertainties will arise regarding which Native Hawaiian entity should lead the sovereignty efforts; 2) Federal recognition may inappropriately characterize Native Hawaiians as “Indians” or “wards” of the U.S. government, which would then subjugate Native Hawaiians to federal legal control; 3) Federal recognition will further divide the Native Hawaiian community based on blood quantum; 4) Many Hawaiians are proud to be both Hawaiian and American and affirm opportunities for advancement as U.S. citizens.

There is much diversity of thought among the Hawaiian people. Not all who support or oppose federal recognition necessarily hold the views mentioned. And many Hawaiians have alternative perspectives on the topic. Some Native Hawaiians believe in a de-occupation policy rather than federal recognition. These proponents argue that Hawai‘i was and continues to be illegally occupied by the U.S. Yet other Hawaiians believe that they can preserve Hawaiian cultural identity and flourish under the rights accorded by the U.S. Constitution.

At the very least, the DOI’s first-ever consultation with the Native Hawaiian community is an opportunity to clarify concerns over the relationship between the U.S. and the Native Hawaiian people. The consultations specifically seek to address issues that have been ongoing for decades.

Although we Hawaiians may have differing views about federal recognition, it is essential that we respectfully engage each other in this important debate and be sensitive to the diversity of perspectives among us. We must communicate with each other candidly and in the spirit of aloha. The journey toward clarity and a solution can only start with a coming together of the Hawaiian community. Let us pūpūkahi i holo mua – unite to move forward.