As Robin Danner skimmed the booklet from the first Native Hawaiian Convention 20 years ago, she experienced an unexpected flood of emotions. As a founder and the first CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, which hosts the annual conventions, she said she hadn’t looked at the booklet for years and still remembers some of the initial discussions about the inaugural gathering.
As CNHA approaches the 20-year milestone this year, Danner said two words come to mind: immense love.
“It’s incredible,” said Danner, who served as CEO through 2015 and is currently chairwoman of the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, the largest statewide organization representing all Native Hawaiian homestead beneficiaries. “CNHA’s mission was to create a place and set the table for different disciplines to convene together and to serve organizations.”
Founded in 2001, CNHA, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the cultural, economic, political and community development of Native Hawaiians through programs and other resources, will commemorate its 20th Native Hawaiian Convention Monday through Wednesday. The three-day conference, hosted virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will feature workshops on various topics, including hooponopono, economic development, a gubernatorial candidates panel, hula and housing.
CNHA President and CEO Kuhio Lewis said some new and exciting additions to this year’s convention include a keynote speech by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary; Krystal Ka‘ai, a Kamehameha Schools graduate and new executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders; a panel of investors who will consider and potentially fund participants’ business and community pitches; and an update from the U.S. Census Bureau about its most recent data.
Lewis said about 1,000 participants are expected.
“The Hawaiian community is very diverse, so keeping people united is critical,” he said. “If there’s any one thing that CNHA should never give up, it’s this convention. It’s important culturally and to be together. It’s a platform to talk about our future, and without it, we go back into silos.”
Ray Soon, one of the founding members of CNHA, said in the early 2000s, there were disagreements on several key issues, but the convention was one tool among many to set aside differences and focus on ways to advance the Native Hawaiian community.
Lewis added that he couldn’t think of other similar conventions that are open to the public. He said that past conventions have also yielded important ideas and initiatives, such as the popular Pop-Up Makeke, an online marketplace that sought to support local artisans and businesses.
Danner said about 500 people attended the first convention at the Sheraton Waikiki. The theme was strength through unity, and she still remembers discussions with the other founders about where to hold it.
“The result of that discussion was it should be in the heart of Waikiki,” she said. “Hawaiians need to be visible in our homeland and in … the economic power center of our state, and to not shy away from that. Every CNHA convention has been in and around Waikiki.”
Flipping through the first convention booklet, Danner said CNHA hosted workshops on education, affordable housing, genealogy, health, Native Hawaiian rights, college resources, arts and culture, and more.
A special moment from that first convention, she said, was that American Indian and Alaska Native community leaders attended to lend their support. Danner, who had worked as a tribal housing authority executive prior to founding CNHA, said the leaders treated them “as beloved younger siblings. They knew because we were embarking on a journey they had already taken.”
She said she is looking forward to many more milestones to come.
“The Native Hawaiian community is continuing to contribute to the well-being of Hawaii,” Danner said. “It’s about elevating that and raising awareness. CNHA belongs to the many. I’m proud of our community.”
To register for the convention, visit hawaiiancouncil.org/convention. Registration is open to the public; the cost is $150 for nonmembers. CNHA is also offering convention scholarships for those who need help covering the registration cost.
Jayna Omaye covers ethnic and cultural affairs and is a corps member of Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues and communities.