Native Hawaiians have not had a formal government since the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893 by a group of American businessmen, with the support of 300 U.S. Marines.
But that may soon change.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a framework for the Native Hawaiian community to re-establish a unified government if it wishes, and to decide what relationship it would have with the United States -- if any.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in an announcement Tuesday that the proposal is a testament to the Obama administration’s strong support for Native peoples’ right to self-determination.
"The United States has a long-standing policy of supporting self-governance for Native peoples," she said. "Yet the benefits of the government-to-government relationship have long been denied to Native Hawaiians, one of our nation’s largest indigenous communities."
Tuesday's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking comes more than a year after the Department of the Interior held a series of public meetings across the state on the topic. For the most part, the meetings were dominated by Native Hawaiians who opposed federal recognition, saying it would do nothing to right the wrongs of history, particularly the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
"This is just part of the grand scheme to make us Indians," Walter Ritte, a Native Hawaiian activist, said this week of the new DOI proposal.
But more than 5,000 pieces of written testimony "overwhelmingly favored creating a pathway for re-establishing a formal government-to-government relationship," according to the DOI.
“We’ve listened to the feedback we received during the public meetings and in writing and worked to improve the proposal to reflect those comments,” Jewell said Tuesday.
The DOI stressed that under the new proposal, the Native Hawaiian community, not the federal government, would decide whether to reorganize a Native Hawaiian government. It would also decide what form that government would take, and whether it would seek a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
The DOI says such a relationship could provide the community with greater flexibility to preserve its distinct culture and traditions, as well as special status under federal law to exercise powers of self-government over many issues that directly affect the community.
For members of Hawaii's congressional delegation, the proposal came as welcome news.
“Native Hawaiians have the right to reorganize a government that they determine is best for them,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a statement Tuesday. “With today’s publication of proposed rules from the Department of the Interior, I urge Native Hawaiians and other interested individuals to stay engaged and to contribute their comments and concerns as the process moves forward.”
“The Native Hawaiian community’s ongoing work toward self-determination takes a significant step forward today, and I applaud the Obama administration for its commitment to this effort," Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said in a statement Tuesday.
Tuesday's announcement, which kicked off a 90-day public comment period, comes in the midst of a unique election process in which Native Hawaiians will select delegates to represent them at a constitutional convention, where they could possibly come up with a recommended form of government that would then face a vote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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