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U.S. may pursue relationship with Native Hawaiians

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    Emerging from the doors of the board room of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs after an all-day session with CEO Kamana'opono Crabbe

The federal government is considering re-establishing a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians, just weeks after the head of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs sought clarity on whether the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists in the eyes of the United States.

The Department of the Interior wants to hear from the public to help decide which way to proceed, Mark Lawyer, deputy director of policy and regulatory affairs, said Wednesday.

"We’re not committed to anything at this point. We just want to hear from the public," Lawyer told The Associated Press.

The advanced notice of proposed rulemaking is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget before it is distributed, he said. Then, if it is approved, public comments will help determine whether and how the federal government will proceed.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs said it applauds President Barack Obama’s administration for reaffirming the special political relationship between the federal government and Native Hawaiians.

"For decades, OHA and other Native Hawaiian organizations and individuals have advocated for the creation of a pathway to re-establish a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States and to protect existing Hawaiian rights, programs and resources," said Colette Machado, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and Kamanaopono Crabbe, the office’s CEO, in a joint statement.

The potential federal recognition does not change their commitment to leaving all options open in the nation-building process, and they still plan to elect delegates to draft a proposed constitution, they said.

Crabbe and other Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees had been at odds after the letter he sent May 5 to Secretary of State John Kerry. In the letter, Crabbe said the U.S. government had acknowledged that the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaii Kingdom in 1893 was illegal. The letter also questioned whether the Office of Hawaiian Affairs might be violating international law as it pursues the creation of a Native Hawaiian governing entity if the kingdom continued to exist.

Critics said the move by the Department of the Interior could undermine recent efforts by Native Hawaiians to create an independent government.

The department’s actions appear to mirror the process that the U.S. government uses to recognize Native American tribes, said Williamson Chang, law professor at University of Hawaii.

"A federal Indian tribe doesn’t have very much sovereignty, very much power, and the U.S. has full say as to what it can and cannot do," Chang said. "If this is going to be the end result of what Hawaiians get, it’s not very satisfying."

A new tribal government could potentially build casinos or develop land without following typical state regulations, said Kelii Akina, president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a think tank.

"Hawaiians are not and have never been a tribe, and to be put under a tribal government could hinder their freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights,"Akina said.

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