Got cash? Want to kick-start a nation?
Contact the folks who were part of February’s Native Hawaiian constitutional convention, or aha. They may be looking for donations soon to underwrite the next stage of the nation-building process.
Cash, perhaps lots of it, will be needed, they say, to pay for a campaign to educate Native Hawaiians about the new governing document, add new Hawaiian registered voters and stage a ratification election.
Key members of the aha say fundraising likely will be necessary to dodge the same potentially lengthy legal delays that led to the cancellation of November’s election of convention delegates.
Na‘i Aupuni, the nonprofit tabbed by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs to oversee the nation-building exercise, discontinued vote counting to duck trouble with the U.S. Supreme Court, which had temporarily halted the balloting in response to a lawsuit claiming public funds were being used to finance a racially exclusive election contrary to the U.S. Constitution.
Na‘i Aupuni responded by declaring it a private affair and inviting all 196 candidates to a seat at the convention table in Maunawili.
While the high court backed off, the suit carried by the conservative Grassroot Institute of Hawaii continues with the same constitutional objections to racial exclusion.
The constitution, approved Feb. 26 with an 88-30 vote and one abstention, calls for a government led by executive, legislative and judicial branches and representing only descendents of the indigenous people who lived in the islands prior to 1778, or Western contact.
The document leaves room for seeking federal recognition by the U.S. government while holding out for the possibility of independence.
The 1978 Constitutional Convention established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to act on behalf of Native Hawaiians until a Native Hawaiian governing entity is re-established, and the 2011 state Legislature reaffirmed that path with Act 195, tapping OHA to fund a self-determination effort with trust funds.
Initially, Na‘i Aupuni, which received nearly $2.6 million from OHA, was assigned to pay for the ratification election under its agreement with the state agency. It’s unclear how much money the nonprofit has remaining in its coffers after switching gears to host a convention with more than three times the number of participants originally planned.
Na‘i Aupuni attorney William Meheula could not be reached for comment last week, and a Na‘i Aupuni spokesman said Friday he couldn’t immediately provide any answers about the organization’s financial situation.
OHA spokesman Garett Kamemoto also declined to comment, citing the lawsuit that also names the state agency.
In any case, aha participants say it appears they will need private funds to underwrite the ratification campaign, and they hope to secure the funds fairly quickly to advance the progress of the monthlong convention.
“We don’t want to lose any momentum,” said veteran Native Hawaiian advocate Davianna McGregor, a University of Hawaii ethnic studies professor who was both a participant and served as an aha expert on kingdom law. “The wave is building.”
A group of young aha participants calling themselves Na Makalehua met last weekend to talk about the next steps.
“Our timeline fell somewhere between six months to a year for the ideal ratification,” said Zuri Aki, a UH law student who served as chief drafter during the aha. “We wanted to keep the momentum going, but we also wanted to take the time to educate about what we created.”
Some participants have already taken a copy of the constitution to Hawaiian civic clubs and it was well received, Aki said.
How much money will be needed?
Asked immediately after the convention, former state lawmaker and participant Annelle Amaral speculated it would cost as much as $500,000 for the election alone. But others suggested new technologies could cut costs.
Another expense will be expanding the voter base. Participants say the convention intentionally wrote its constitution to open eligibility beyond the Native Hawaiian roll, which claims about 90,000 eligible voters.
But how to do that could be problematic. To be eligible, one must be Native Hawaiian and 18 years of age. Verifying ancestry isn’t exactly an inexpensive endeavor, however.
Participant Naalehu Anthony, who is vice chairman of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, said the roll is still open for registration but is operating with the help of only a handful of volunteers. Substantial funding will be needed if a large number of people are to sign up, he said.
Another hurdle to ratification are the independence hard-liners who object to the state-initiated origins of the aha and the appearance that it was designed to usher in federal recognition. They have vowed to campaign against the constitution.
Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘opua, a UH political science professor, said the independence movement should not be underestimated. Opponents of federal recognition, she said, showed their force when they dominated the 2014 Department of the Interior meetings to speak out against the proposed rule to establish a government-to-government relationship with the United States, and when a series of anti-Na‘i Aupuni meetings called “Aha Aloha Aina” were also well attended, including at least 200 people at the Oahu meeting.
Goodyear-Ka‘opua said the aha was flawed in process and rushed — and it shows in the final product. She said she hopes supporters don’t race to ratification and instead open up the process to more scrutiny.
“The danger of it being rushed is low (voter) turnout and leaving people behind,” she said. “This is a serious issue. It deserves time and real deliberation.”
Aha participants counter that the opposition can disagree by voting down the constitution. Anyone opposed to federal recognition can vote for leaders who don’t favor that path.
Not every participant who voted for the constitution necessarily supports federal recognition, Aki noted. In fact, when the convention split into two groups during its second week, nearly two-thirds of the participants found their way to the independence caucus, he said.
It soon became clear that drafters would write a document that wouldn’t preclude either pathway, Aki said.
As the former majority policy director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs under former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who was chairman, Jade Danner was one of the participants who would argue on behalf of federal recognition, saying it would lead to greater access to federal programs that will enhance the well-being of Native Hawaiians.
But even if federal recognition is not achieved, she said, a Native Hawaiian government recognized as legitimate by Hawaiians will have value.
“The government we are proposing in the constitution is directly and exclusively accountable to the Native Hawaiian people, and better accountability always means better outcomes for the people served,” she said.
Danner said that while she was initially disappointed with the clause in the constitution’s preamble that reserves the right to seek independence, she does not see it as a deal-breaker to federal recognition.
“I expect the DOI will see the pursuit of independence as a good thing, especially when it means a desire to provide homes for our houseless, meet the education and health needs of our lahui (nation), and strengthen the vitality of our language and culture,” she said.
McGregor, the UH ethnic studies professor, said many Native Hawaiians view an independent nation as a distant goal.
As for the opposition, “I think they’re afraid federal recognition will provide programs and services and land and will make people not want to push for independence anymore,” she said. “But that’s not a good reason for standing in the way of improving the condition of Hawaiians.”