Trustee Apoliona is also a Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner who performs with Olomana
Image: Haunani Apoliona

Q&A / When Haunani Apoliona was first elected to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 1996, the Honolulu Weekly reported that she “handpicked” a coalition of OHA candidates–Colette Machado, Hannah Springer and Warren Perry–“to bring the spirit of cooperation to the notoriously dysfunctional agency.” Apoliona, who holds a master’s degree in social work, left her position as president of Alu Like, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping native Hawaiians, and became OHA’s longest-serving chair, from 2000 to 2010. Her tenure, she says, has helped foster “OHA’s reform and maturation into an entity of focus, discipline and accountability in service to our Native Hawaiian beneficiaries,”

Now that Apoliona is up for re-election, the Weekly caught up with her to discuss OHA’s past and future.

Haunani Apoliona

How have you seen OHA change since you came aboard?

OHA has come of age, from its first decade of birth and infancy through its second decade of struggle and growing pains. OHA’s third decade, 2000-2010, fine-tuned policy oversight, fiduciary management, fiscal accountability and increased funding to communities. Strategic plans were updated through 2016, and now through 2018, with focus on research, asset and resource management, and advocacy.

Grant funding from OHA to communities totaled approximately $95 million from FY 2003 through December 2010. As a reformed and refined tool, OHA now moves into its fourth decade to address native Hawaiian social and economic self-sufficiency through systemic change and native Hawaiian governance.

What are the most pressing priorities right now?

[The] Strategic Plan identifies six strategic priorities for the native Hawaiian community: economic self-sufficiency, land and water, culture, health, governance and education.

OHA is focused on the roles of advocate, researcher and asset manager in order to achieve our priorities and strategic results to improve conditions for all native Hawaiians.

What’s your opinion of the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission (Act 195), which will determine who is eligible to participate in a process that could lead to the formation of a self-governing entity?

OHA Trustees never held a formal agenda vote on the 2011 Senate measure that became Act 195. While such a commission or oversight group should have been determined by the native Hawaiian community at the outset, the state-prescribed role outlined by Act 195 is still unfolding. I look forward to a process that reaches out to Native Hawaiians, both in Hawaii and across the continent… [that is] inclusive rather than just politically expedient.

What are your thoughts about the “ceded lands” settlement with the state that gives OHA land in Kakaako?

While not perfect, the 2012 Kakaako Settlement Bill is the culmination of an OHA-state effort to resolve this longstanding matter of over two decades. We executed a 2008 settlement with the state for $200 million that was killed in the State Senate, but served as the template for the Kakaako settlement. OHA, as landowner and title-holder to 30 acres in Kakaako, must now turn our attention to developing our Master Plan, to maximize financial, community and beneficiary value.

Is there any truth to the rumors that OHA wants to build residential towers there?

No formal position on residential towers has been discussed or voted upon by the OHA Board.

Would it be feasible to provide affordable housing for Native Hawaiians on that land?

Any idea is feasible. Due diligence and master planning will determine if the idea is probable.

How do you feel about Walter Ritte running for the OHA Board, and apparently targeting your seat?

Mr. Ritte has been an opposition voice in Hawaii for decades. He has used, and still uses, many venues to express his opinions on issues. I suspect he is choosing to use his OHA candidacy as another platform for dissent. I welcome responsible and conscientious voters to compare his methods of problem-solving to mine.

Ritte has characterized you as a peacemaker who will maintain the status quo. Is that an accurate characterization?

Mr. Ritte served on the first OHA board, from 1980-1984. He chose to leave before the real work began. While I prefer calm, deliberate problem-solving–peacemaking–rather than fighting, I will not abandon ethics, principles and Hawaiian values in attempts to compromise. As an opponent of inertia, I do not wish to maintain the status quo. I think that became obvious by my stands in 2011 on filling the Maui Trustee vacancy. [Apoliona urged choosing the best qualified candidate, rather than naming someone simply to keep the appointment out of the governor’s hands.]

What particular accomplishments have made you proud?

Ceded revenue payments were completely cut off in 2001. By 2003 we were able to restore revenue payments to $9.5 million annually, and revenues were up to $15.1 million annually by 2006. We’ve also increased grant funding for community-based projects from approximately $284, 875 in FY 2003 to $11.6 million by 2010.

OHA added to its land base by acquiring Wao Kele O Puna, approximately 25,855 acres on Hawaii Island,the first parcel of Crown lands to return to native Hawaiian control since the overthrow of the monarchy. OHA also acquired 1,800 acres at Waimea Valley.

OHA approved a $90 million loan to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands in 2008; established OHA LLCs (Hi`ilei, Hi`ipaka etc.) and has soundly and steadily grown the OHA trust fund portfolio to provide for operations and community funding. As of May 2012, the Trust Fund value estimated was $334,790,374. Over the past decade, OHA expanded outreach to Native Hawaiians in Hawaii and across the continent to prepare for Native Hawaiian governance, and in the process encouraged and supported the creation of a number of newly chartered Hawaiian Civic Clubs.