HONOLULU — The federal government said Wednesday it will take a first step toward possibly recognizing and working with a separate government of Native Hawaiians.
A series of public meetings will be held during the next 60 days with Native Hawaiians, other members of the public and Native American tribes in the continental U.S. to discuss the complex issue, said Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget for the U.S. Department of the Interior, during a conference call with reporters.
“This does not mean we are proposing an actual formal policy,” Suh said. “We are simply announcing that we’ll begin to have conversations with all relevant parties to help determine whether we should move forward with this process and if so, how we should do it.”
Native Hawaiians have been taking steps to form their own government, but the possibility of federal recognition and other questions led some observers to call for a delay in the nation-building process.
The two steps — creating a government and seeking federal recognition — can happen at the same time, said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department.
Some critics have said the path the federal government is pursuing is inappropriate because it appears the end goal is to incorrectly recognize Native Hawaiians as a Native American tribe.
However, the federal government’s process leaves it up to Hawaiians to define themselves, and there would be discussions about whether it makes sense for Hawaiians to pursue a similar tribal designation, Suh said.
“There is nothing in this process that speaks to how the native community should be defined,” Suh said. “This process only pertains to the relationship between the U.S. government and the native Hawaiian community.”
Garett Kamemoto, a spokesman for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hawaii’s four-member congressional delegation issued a joint statement applauding President Barack Obama’s administration for its commitment to open dialogue and its decision to start the process with listening sessions in Hawaii.
“This notice represents an historic opportunity to address years of injustice and marks a positive step forward in the push for Native Hawaiian self-determination,” they said.
Hawaii Island meetings:
Wednesday, July 2 — Hilo – 6-9 p.m. Keaukaha Elementary School
Thursday, July 3 — Waimea – 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Waimea Community Center
Thursday, July 3 — Kona – 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Kealakehe High School
See tomorrow’s West Hawaii Today for more information