Cover Story

Mahealani Wendt, standing, at Washington Place, as people sign the newly launched Kana‘iolowalul Registry
Image: Joana Gonzalez

Sovereignty Calling

In a year-long process launched July 20, the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission is seeking registrants

After spending 40 years in the trenches of the sovereignty movement, Native Hawaiian Roll Commissioner Mahealani Wendt says she fully understands why some Hawaiians are suspicious of the panel’s efforts to identify who should be involved in forming a self-governing entity.

“I don’t blame Hawaiians for being distrustful of me or any other Hawaiian who presumes to undertake these efforts,” says Wendt, former executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.


One has only to familiarize oneself with the methodical alienation of Hawaiians from their homeland, using the Western legal system, to understand why they have no trust in Western institutions and its sympathizers,” Wendt says. Still, she adds, “I believe we should seize the means at hand to restore our nation, and it begins by identifying who will participate in the process.”

The Commission officially launched that process–a year-long effort aimed at creating a roll of native Hawaiians eligible to participate in activities that could lead to the formation of a self-governing entity–in a ceremony conducted jointly at Washington Place and in Washington, D.C., last Friday, July 20. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka participated by video, while Gov. Neil Abercrombie officiated at the local event.

Hopes and doubts

The prominent endorsement by state and federal officials, coupled with the fact that the Commission and its work was authorized by the state Legislature and funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), has some Hawaiians wondering whether the process is geared toward achieving federal recognition, as opposed to independence.

“I have great respect for everyone working to make things better, even if we have major strategic differences between us,” says community activist Laulani Teale, who has been following the Commission’s work since its inception last year. “It is not wrong to pursue different courses of action in gaining sovereignty. However, there is very real danger in this particular course of action, because the U.S. may use it to try to sell us short. We have a very solid international case for full independence, the groundwork for which was laid by our Queen [Liliuokalani] and our many kupuna. We cannot let fear, economic dependence and addiction to ‘stuff’ steer us away from their wise course of loving resistance. There are some very good people on the Roll Commission, and I hope they represent the opposition to the Roll fairly, with as much aloha, strength and passion as our Queen would have.”

Unbroken sovereignty

Commissioner Naalehu Anthony, who “grew up on a picket line” as the child of activist parents, says the panel is basing its work on a premise shared by many Hawaiian nationals–that Hawaiians never relinquished their inherent sovereignty. It stems from the fact that Liliuokalani refused to give up her throne during America’s illegal overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.

“I think we’re all on a similar path,” says Anthony, founder of Paliku Documentary Films. “It’s just a question of how we get there.”

The Commission has named its effort Kanaiolowalu, which means “the thunderous sound and din heard when many gather.”

Roles and the Roll

In an attempt to broaden the discussion, the Commission will also be reaching out to non-Hawaiians through a petition that Anthony likened to the Kue petitions that were drafted in overwhelming opposition to America’s 1897 annexation of Hawaii.

Those willing to affirm the inherent sovereignty of Native Hawaiians may sign the Kana`iolowalu petition. However, to qualify for the roll, individuals must be over age 18 and able to prove they are related to the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the Islands prior to 1778. They also must demonstrate a significant cultural, social or civic connection to the Native Hawaiian community.

“Those signatures have never seen sought before,” says Soulee Stroud, president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs (AOHCC). “To me, it’s very inclusive of all citizens.”

Though some Hawaiian nationals have dismissed the roll process as a tool of the state, Anthony is encouraging them to participate. “It’s not our job to make a government,” he says, noting that the Commission will dissolve once the roll is published. “Independence, federal recognition, state recognition–all of these things are up for discussion. But we’ve got to know who is in the pool [in order] to have a discussion.” However, the press release distributed by Abercrombie’s office says the process “will eventually lead to federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.” OHA officials on hand for the launch also seemed to think that federal recognition was the goal, and that it was attainable.

Self-determination

Poka Laenui, chairperson of Aha Hawaii ‘Oiwi, the Native Hawaiian Convention, says that the discussion began in the mid-1990s, when the state and OHA gave Hawaiians a voice in how to address the “illegalities instigated” by the illegal overthrow.

“Extensive consultations were carried out within Hawaiian communities throughout Hawaii and across America,” Laenui wrote in an email. “After hearing those voices through the Native Hawaiian Vote, a clear direction was given–have the Hawaiian people elect representatives to meet in a council or convention to propose a form of Hawaiian governance to the Hawaiian people. Elections across Hawaii and the world were held, almost 90 native Hawaiians were elected, and the convention was formed. It produced two tentative proposals–a Hawaiian nation within the United States of America (integration), and an independent Hawaiian nation-state. The first would be limited to native Hawaiians, the second would be an inclusive nation-state of all ancestries.”

However, Laenui wrote, both the state legislature and OHA refused to further fund the work of AHO. “Now, the legislature and OHA have tossed to the Hawaiians the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, designed to integrate the Hawaiians as a ‘nation’ within U.S. superior jurisdiction. This commission violates the dual principles of self-determination and pono. It violates long-established principles of international law, of self-imposed mandates of the United States found in the U.N. Charter and its international bill of human rights, as well as the recently approved U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Other groups, such as Alu Like and the Civic Clubs are supporting the Roll Commission. Stroud says AOHCC, which also endorses federal recognition through the Akaka Bill, voted to support the effort at its convention last October, in part because it recognizes “Native Hawaiians as indigenous to the Islands.”

He says some Native American groups were able to gain federal recognition after first getting state recognition. “Whether that will be the case here has yet to be determined.”

Stroud feels positive about the Roll Commission because it speaks to “unrelinquished sovereignty and a commitment to unification in restoring the Hawaiian nation.” That mission sets it apart from earlier enrollment efforts, such as the Hawaiian Registry and Kau Inoa, he says.

OHA’s investment

Anthony dismissed speculation that the Roll is geared toward creating a process that will [enable] OHA to assume control of any self-governing entity. “I don’t think that’s the case at all,” he says.

Wendt similarly downplayed OHA’s involement. “I also understand and believe that a colonizing state has an obligation to support decolonization,” she says. “On those premises, my efforts in the past have been consistent: I am not averse to using state or federal resources to assist in the process of decolonization, especially when those resources derive from Native Hawaiian national assets.”

Those resources–some $3.4 million–will be used to fund a campaign employing traditional and social media to reach out to Hawaiians. Stroud says AOHCC will use its network to reach “the large population of Hawaiians who live outside the state.”