The man who thwarted an effort to hold an election for Native Hawaiians is the newest trustee of the public agency that provided $2.6 million for the failed self-governance vote.
Kelii Akina was elected in November as an at-large Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, unseating Haunani Apoliona, who was a trustee since 1996.
Akina’s win came as a shock to some in the Native Hawaiian community who wonder if his views are consistent with the office’s aim to improve Native Hawaiians’ wellbeing.
“I’m a little concerned because of his rhetoric during the campaign,” said Oz Stender, a Bishop Estate trustee in the 1990s and an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee from 2000 to 2014. “The money that OHA gets to carry on its programs to better the lives of Hawaiians, he says should be used for everybody and not only Hawaiians.”
Akina’s campaign slogan was “OHA for everyone.” His campaign material quoted from the 1840 Hawaiian Kingdom constitution: “God hath made one blood of all nations to dwell on the earth, in unity and blessedness.”
Akina, a 1976 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, said his views on Hawaiian issues are often misunderstood. People interpreted his slogan in their own ways, he said, adding that he will protect “foundational Hawaiian entitlements as secured by law,” including Hawaiian Homelands and ceded lands trusts.
He believes OHA’s role in helping Hawaiians embrace self-determination should be limited.
That was the premise of a lawsuit he and a group of Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians filed to stop an election for Native Hawaiians that was to select delegates for a constitutional convention. Their challenge reached the U.S. Supreme Court and prompted organizers to call off the election and send all candidates to the gathering. Lawyers for the plaintiffs withdrew the lawsuit in October.
Akina said the lawsuit doesn’t speak for his thoughts on self-determination for Native Hawaiians. “So long as public funds are not being used, I encourage all fellow Native Hawaiians to take part as they choose in the process of self-determinism, a right … afforded them by the First Amendment of the Constitution,” he said.
Akina is mostly known for his role as president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a public policy think-tank. Before entering Kamehameha in the 7th grade, Akina started his education at Wahiawa Elementary, where his first-grade teacher thought he spoke too much Pidgin. His Chinese-Hawaiian mother put a stop to his Pidgin, yet he still easily slips into the language when talking to a fellow Pidgin speaker.
“It’s part of our culture,” he said, adding Pidgin allows Hawaii speakers to communicate with each other with a unique “warmth.”
After graduating from Northwestern University, Akina spent the early ’80s living on the Waianae Coast while doing educational outreach for Youth For Christ.
He supports the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project. “Losing the TMT will harm Native Hawaiians,” he said.
As trustee, his first priority will be fiscal sustainability, he said.
Even before he was sworn in as trustee, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs adopted a resolution expressing concern over Akina’s position with Grassroot Institute. The resolution calls on him to resign from Grassroot Institute or decline the trusteeship to eliminate any perception of a conflict of interest.
In a written response to the group, Akina said there’s no conflict and that the OHA administration hasn’t taken issue with it. “The Grassroot board’s decision to appoint me as president and to affirm my leadership of their policies going forward is an affirmation of their willingness to support the Hawaiian community in new ways,” his letter said.
The association is concerned because Grassroot Institute has “taken a number of positions against what they call racial entitlements of Native Hawaiians,” said the group’s president, Annelle Amaral.
“The Grassroot Institute only opposes the unconstitutional use of public funds for discriminatory purposes but does not oppose the rights of individuals to pursue different visions of sovereignty,” Akina said.
Michelle Kauhane, president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which supports federal recognition, said she wonders how much of his support came from the non-Hawaiian vote. A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows all Hawaii voters— not just Native Hawaiians— to vote in OHA elections.
“I was surprised that he did win because it’s not easy to beat the incumbent, in any race,” she said.
Akina’s trusteeship may help unify other OHA board members, she said.
Hawaiian sovereignty activist Mililani Trask seemed like an unlikely Akina ally: “We crossed swords on many, many issues,” she said.
While not quite a team, they ran on similar platforms related to OHA’s financial accountability and transparency, said Trask, who lost her trustee race.
While Trask expects disagreements with him in the future, she said, “I think we badly need change.”