What does OHA do?

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Ask 10 people what, exactly, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) does, and you will likely get 10 different answers.

For many people – Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike – there is confusion about the specific kuleana of OHA and about the organization itself. For example, many people still confuse OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) even though OHA and DHHL are completely separate, unrelated organizations with different kuleana (see article here).

In light of OHA’s current legislative push to have the state allocate the 20% share of Public Land Trust revenues that it owes to Native Hawaiians by law, it is important that our community understands what OHA does and how the money that OHA manages is spent.

Clarifying OHA’s kuleana – how and why the agency was created and the specific work it performs on behalf of the lāhui – will hopefully address some of the misinformation and misconceptions about OHA.

When and Why was OHA Created?

OHA’s creation in 1978 at the Hawaiʻi State Constitutional Convention was initiated by Native Hawaiian convention delegates like Frenchy DeSoto, Walter Ritte and John Waiheʻe III.

They were motivated, in part, by growing Native Hawaiian activism in the 1970s, exemplified by the historic protests at Kalama Valley, Kahoʻolawe, Mākua Valley and the Hilo Airport.

After decades of marginalization, Native Hawaiians began to rise up and demand that the state address the ongoing historical injustice – and its consequences – that our people have suffered since the illegal overthrow in 1893.

The collateral damage of the overthrow was the disenfranchisement of ʻŌiwi from our land, language, culture and self-determination. Over the years this has manifested in an insidious array of negative socio-economic statistics.

Against this backdrop, OHA was created as a semi-autonomous state agency with the specific kuleana to better “the conditions of Native Hawaiians” – although how, exactly, this was to be accomplished was left to the fledgling agency’s future leaders.

It was made clear, however, that OHA would be funded by a pro-rata share of revenues generated by the State of Hawaiʻi’s Public Land Trust (PLT). Prior to statehood, the PLT lands were known as “ceded” lands – the crown and government lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom that were seized in the overthrow.

OHA’s Foundation and Strategic Directions

OHA Foundations & Directions

Determining how best to “better the conditions of Native Hawaiians” has been the ongoing challenge facing OHA since its creation. The needs of our community are great and the resources few, so OHA’s leadership has focused its limited resources on key areas to maximize its impact. Last year, OHA presented its Mana i Mauli Ola Strategic Plan to the community. The plan can be viewed on OHA’s website at www.oha.org/strategicplan/.

Although OHA’s strategic plan was created to address the ongoing challenges facing our lāhui, the plan is grounded in the intrinsic strengths of our people. Mana i Mauli Ola is founded on three of these strengths: ʻohana (family), moʻomeheu (culture), and ʻāina (land and water).

OHA recognizes that these intrinsic strengths have the power to affect the wellbeing of Native Hawaiians, so they are intentionally integrated into the strategic plan in an effort to affect change in the four strategic directions into which OHA is focusing its energy and resources: Educational Pathways, Health Outcomes, Quality Housing and Economic Stability.

How Does OHA Carry Out its Kuleana?

OHA has prioritized education, health, housing and economic stability in its strategic plan. Over the next 15 years, OHA will be implementing strategies aligned with its foundations and strategic directions to achieve the envisioned outcomes for a thriving and abundant lāhui.

To do this, OHA has taken on four key “roles” through which it supports forward movement and positive change for our lāhui. These roles are: Advocate; Researcher, Community Engager and Asset Manager.

OHA as an Advocate: Advocacy is core to OHA’s work on behalf of the lāhui. When OHA was created in 1978, convention delegates envisioned an agency that would not only provide Native Hawaiians with a form of self-determination, but one that would also advocate on behalf of Native Hawaiian rights and lands.

As an advocate, OHA works to influence policy development that benefits Native Hawaiians at both the state and federal levels. This includes working to change laws, secure funding and implement policies that serve Native Hawaiians, particularly in education, health, housing and economic development. It also includes monitoring, identifying, and attempting to block potentially harmful or ineffective policies and laws.

Here at home, OHA works closely with other Native Hawaiian-serving organizations; at the federal level, OHA works with Native American and Alaska Native organizations, as their needs and challenges are similar to those of Native Hawaiians.

OHA has two teams of public policy advocates. One team focuses on local, mokupuni-based advocacy at the county level staffed by kupa ʻāina of the islands they serve. The other team focuses on state-level issues, such as traditional and customary rights, land, water, iwi kūpuna, language revitalization and so forth. Additionally, OHA has a small office in Washington, D.C., to monitor federal legislation.

OHA as a Researcher: To support policy changes that benefit Native Hawaiians, data is required. However, the specific data needed to successfully advocate for policy changes on issues important to Native Hawaiians is often unavailable. Thus, OHA’s role of researcher is critical to OHA’s advocacy efforts.

OHA’s research work includes gathering, compiling and analyzing data that identifies the needs of our lāhui, as well as the impacts of various policies and practices. The data that OHA gathers does more than inform the advocacy efforts of the agency and other community advocacy efforts, it also helps to determine whether OHA’s actions, initiatives and strategic priorities are effective and beneficial to the lāhui and to the community as a whole.

Over the years, OHA researchers have completed more than 100 studies that are currently available on OHA’s website. Additionally, OHA researchers are responsible for developing the Kīpuka Map Database (a geographical information system), the Native Hawaiian Data Book that provides diverse statistical data on the Native Hawaiian population, and the popular Papakilo Database, a rich online repository of cultural information.

OHA as a Community Engager: OHA works collaboratively with the Native Hawaiian community and general public by sharing information, through its various communication channels (Ka Wai Ola newspaper, websites, e-blasts and social media) in an effort to connect OHA with the lāhui.

The needs of the Native Hawaiian community are great, and OHA cannot accomplish the work alone. Thus, OHA works alongside other Native Hawaiian-serving organizations, particularly those with subject matter expertise in education, health, housing and economic development, such as the Native Hawaiian Education Association, Papa Ola Lōkahi, Hawaiian Community Assets, the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, and many more.

OHA also serves as a co-trustee managing agency for the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, along with the State of Hawaiʻi, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Commerce. A key accomplishment of this collaboration was the development of Mai Ka Pō Mai, a guidance document that uses Hawaiian concepts and cultural traditions to set the foundation for management of the 583,000 square mile area.

Other recent collaborations include OHA’s participation on the Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander Hawaiʻi COVID-19 Response, Recovery and Resilience Team, and OHA’s current partnership with Kamehameha Schools, Liliʻuokalani Trust and Papa Ola Lōkahi to conduct a comprehensive study of wellbeing in Hawaiʻi to inform organizational planning and to improve community services for Native Hawaiians (see related article here).

OHA as an Asset Manager: OHA has more than three decades of responsible land management experience. In 1988, Pahua Heiau in Maunalua was deeded to OHA for protection and preservation. Since then, OHA has acquired more than 28,000 acres of legacy land in an effort to protect Hawaiʻi’s natural and cultural resources. In the process, OHA has become Hawaiʻi’s 13th largest landowner.

OHA’s legacy lands include 511 acres in Wahiawā surrounding the Kūkaniloko Birthstones; 25,856 acres at Wao Kele o Puna, one of the last few remaining tracts of lowland rainforest in the pae ʻāina; the Palauea Cultural Preserve on Maui; and the historic 1,875-acre Waimea Valley on Oʻahu. OHA also owns smaller tracts of income-producing commercial properties, primarily in downtown Honolulu, including 30 acres at Kakaʻako Makai.

In addition to land management, OHA has kuleana for managing its financial resources and making mindful investment decisions to maximize the value of the agency’s portfolio and for allocating its financial resources to support programs and projects that benefit and uplift our lāhui.

“Part of OHA’s kuleana is to advocate for things so valuable they cannot be measured – like gathering rights, community-based subsistence fishing area rights, the right to practice and live our culture, and protecting the rights of our people to protest and engage in civil discourse.”
-Dr. Sylvia Hussey, OHA CEO

How Has OHA Impacted the Lāhui?

OHA does not build houses, operate schools, or provide health care centers. OHA is not a direct service provider. And because people cannot always “see” what OHA has accomplished, some question OHA’s effectiveness.

The fact is that most of OHA’s work on behalf of the lāhui is performed quietly in the background without fanfare or accolades. But quiet does not mean ineffective.

Over the last 10 years, OHA has provided more than $113 million in grants to a variety of Native Hawaiian-serving organizations across the pae ʻāina, and more than $34 million in low-interest loans to help ʻŌiwi start and grow businesses, improve their homes, consolidate their debts, or continue their educations.

Last year alone, OHA disbursed more than $16.2 million in grants – one million more than the agency received in PLT revenues. And since the pandemic began two years ago, OHA has authorized more than $3 million in emergency financial assistance for ʻohana.

“Often, OHA’s contribution to our lāhui is measured only in numbers. And while the dollars spent on programming and event grants, on sponsorships, on loans, and on legal services are significant, so are the by-products of those investments. The ʻreturn on investment’ to our lāhui from the $3.5 million OHA allocated last year to Hawaiian-focused public charter schools is incalculable,” said OHA CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey.

“Part of OHA’s kuleana is to advocate for things so valuable they cannot be measured – like gathering rights, community-based subsistence fishing area rights, the right to practice and live our culture, and protecting the rights of our people to protest and engage in civil discourse,” continued Hussey.

“If OHA had not been advocating on behalf of the concerns of Native Hawaiians for the past four decades, some of the things that we now take for granted – like the Native Hawaiian health care system stewarded by Papa Ola Lōkahi, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that enforces repatriation of our iwi kūpuna – might not even exist.”