Covid peak reignites sovereignty debate among Indigenous Hawaiians

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Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders have been reeling from a brutal summer of rising Covid-19 cases and a wave of over-tourism crippling resources. The crisis has drawn attention to a controversial decades-old campaign for federal recognition of an indigenous Hawaiian government that has garnered strong political support over the past year.

For supporters and critics of a new native Hawaiian government, the pandemic has become a platform to advocate for much-needed economic relief or complete separation from the United States.

In December, after Democrats gained unified control of the White House and Congress, then President-elect Joe Biden supported legislation to re-establish a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians and Native Americans. Alaska – an effort that gained momentum during the Obama administration, but stalled after the election of former President Donald Trump.

The delegation of four members of Congress from Hawaii expressed support for a government recognized by the federal government. But the issue is more controversial among native Hawaiian activists, some of whom say the effort will allow them to push for more resources while others argue it will thwart the Sovereignty Movement, a popular campaign to establish a Hawaiian nation. independent.

“There is a huge divide between those who literally want to have an Aboriginal government entity with limited autonomy that is subordinate to the American nation-state and those who want the United States to leave Hawaii,” said J. Kēhaulani Kauanui. , professor of American studies at Wesleyan. University and author of “Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity”.

The idea of ​​forming a government-to-government relationship with the United States – a policy of self-determination whereby Indigenous communities deal directly with federal agencies – has long been a controversial issue in Hawaii. In the 2000s, Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka, who died in 2018, repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would give Native Hawaiians the same tribal independence as Native Americans. His efforts, though ultimately unsuccessful, prompted the Obama administration to propose a similar rule in 2016.

The initial reception of this proposal, however, was overwhelmingly negative. According to a study of a series of town halls held in Hawaii in 2014, 95% of Native Hawaiians opposed the idea of ​​federal recognition. (There are currently 700,000 native Hawaiians in Hawaii and the Americas, an increase of almost 30% from a decade ago, according to the 2020 census.)

Central to the issue of Indigenous sovereignty, activists say, is control of the land the U.S. government stole from the Kingdom of Hawaii nearly 130 years ago. In 1893, a group of white sugar planters, backed by the US military, overthrew Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani and formed a provisional government. President William McKinley authorized annexation of the islands five years later, but Native Hawaiian activists say the formal treaty was never ratified by Congress and is therefore illegitimate.

Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpua, an Indigenous scholar and professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said the creation of an Indigenous Hawaiian government does not provide for reparations or “repair the initial damage caused by the invasion, the illegal overthrow and seizure of the national lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom. “

Uahikea Maile, assistant professor of indigenous studies at the University of Toronto, said an indigenous Hawaiian government only offered the community token autonomy because it lacked the capacity to hand over stolen land without go through the federal government first.

“This government would have no land, territory or resources,” he said. “This is a bad deal to which the native people of Hawaii for decades have categorically said no.”

Unlike the symbolic gesture of forming a government entity, Maile said, indigenous peoples are already claiming their independence through other means, such as protesting the construction of the thirty-meter telescope on Mauna Kea, a volcano considered one of Hawaiian culture’s most sacred sites.

“These are all forms of intellectual sovereignty that exist beyond what federal recognition can even capture,” Maile said. “It is the native Hawaiians themselves who are engaged in land reclamation processes. ”

On the flip side, supporters of a Hawaiian sovereign entity claim it can help Indigenous Hawaiians secure federal funding streams at a time when they are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. When Congress passed the CARES Act, the $ 2.2 trillion Covid-19 relief bill with $ 8 billion earmarked for Indigenous communities in March 2020, Indigenous Hawaiians were left out because they didn’t ‘had no centralized government to process federal money.

Establishing a sovereign government is important because it “recognizes that Native Hawaiians are not just a mere ethnic group” but also a political group, said Derek Kauanoe, former head of governance in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Native Hawaiians have been excluded from the relief bill, Kauanoe said, because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in programs funded by the federal government. But as a political group, they would be entitled to rights “based not on race, but on their relationship with the federal government.”

One of the programs at play is a state-run homestead program that aims to bring Native Hawaiians back to approximately 200,000 acres of their ancestral lands. Since its passage in 1921, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act has granted more than 8,400 residential leases to Native Hawaiians with at least 50% ancestry, but 23,000 people remain on a rapidly growing waiting list, according to a survey of 2020 conducted by ProPublica and the Honolulu Star. Advertiser.

“We have issues where the state might not prioritize its goal of housing Native Hawaiians because they also have to look after non-Native Hawaiians,” Kauanoe said. “You can see how a federally recognized government can work directly with the federal government to advance the interests of native Hawaiians. ”

Mahealani Perez-Wendt, former executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, said formal government can be a stepping stone to full sovereignty. It also gives native Hawaiians leverage to reverse a century of economic and cultural decline accelerated by the pandemic and over-tourism.

“One of the biggest sources of our suffering is our displacement off our land,” said Perez-Wendt, noting that the median price of homes in Oahu had reached nearly $ 1 million this summer. “If we had our own government, we would be in a better position to negotiate the return of land that was illegally taken or stolen from Indigenous people.

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