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Hawaiian Election Continues Amid Concerns

A Native Hawaiian election due to close Nov. 30 is heating up as kanaka ma`oli debate the direction of self-determination and the future of over half a million Hawaiians nationwide.

Starting Nov. 1 for 30 days, nearly 90,000 Hawaiians registered with the Kana`iolowalu Native Hawaiian Roll Commission can cast their ballot for candidates in their district who would represent them at an upcoming constitutional convention of 40 delegates. The Molokai ballot has three candidates who are among more than 200 candidates statewide: Noa Emmett Aluli, Lori Buchanan and Walter Ritte. One of them will represent both Molokai and Lanai at the convention, to be held between February and April of 2016.

The goal of the convention, according to Na`i Aupuni, a nonprofit whose mission is to establish a path for Hawaiian self-determination, is to form a platform for discussion that could lead to the ratification of a constitution or recommendations for future actions.

Yet as the election nears its deadline, concerns are being raised statewide about the legitimacy and wisdom of the process. Though Ritte’s name officially remains on the ballot, he announced his withdrawal from the race three weeks ago, and joins others in urging a boycott of the election.

“It’s rigged, it’s not pono, it’s divisive as hell,” said Ritte of the process. He questions both the validity of Na`i Aupuni to be leading the effort as well as what he calls a “set up” convention and a “continuation of the political powers.”

Yet others remain hopeful this process is the first step toward unity for Native Hawaiians.

“This is an opportunity for Hawaiians to organize themselves,” said Bill Meheula, Na`i Aupuni attorney. “Hawaiians haven’t had a government for 120 years… Hawaiians are such a large group, it’s hard without an organized government… to move forward in unity.”

A Harried History

Two years after Queen Liliuokalani took the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1891, a group of European and American businessmen illegally overthrew the queen and, according to the history books, sought U.S. annexation for Hawaii. Then-President Grover Cleveland denied annexation, urging restoration of the monarchy. However, when William McKinley was elected shortly after, he moved forward with unlawfully annexing the islands.

In the years since Hawaii became a state in 1959, many efforts toward federal recognition of Native Hawaiians have surfaced, most notably through the Akaka Bill, also known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009.

In 2011, the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission was formed through Hawaii state law Act 195 with the goal of enrolling 200,000 Native Hawaiians for the organization of a sovereign entity. However, they were only able to register less than a quarter of that, through $4 million in funding from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). In 2013, Act 77 allowed the Roll Commission to transfer names from other lists, including OHA’s registry.

That’s where things get sticky for those who question the legitimacy of the election.

Shane Pale is one of the organizers of a movement called Protest Na`i Aupuni. Born and raised on Molokai and now living on Oahu, Pale said a lack of community awareness and education about the process is only one of his concerns, according to a press release from the Protest Na`i Aupuni organization.

Protestnaiaupuni.com claims that the consent of individuals who were added to the Roll from other lists following Act 77 was not obtained before inclusion in the Roll, and many of them were not aware their named had been added to the list.

“…Act 77 allowed them to use names from other Hawaiian lists to validate Na`i Aupuni, and that’s very disrespectful of Hawaiians, especially our kupuna,” said Pale in the release. “A lot of the people on that list have passed away.”

Others on the list who have been mailed election ballots have no knowledge of the election, he explained. In addition, the Roll itself represents just a small portion of the more than half a million Native Hawaiians nationwide, meaning the process is excluding over 80 percent of the population, according to Pale.

A representative of the Roll Commission acknowledged that some of the information from the Roll may be outdated, and some registered voters may not have received ballots at all if their address has changed over the decade the list has been collected.

According to the Roll Commission, just under 3,000 Molokai residents are registered to vote.

Belief in the Process

Aluli, a family health practitioner who was involved in the original movement to stop the bombing of Kaho`olawe, is one of the Molokai candidates. He said he was encouraged to run for a delegate seat by fellow Molokai residents.

“In my work for the health and well-being of our Native Hawaiian communities, keeping ‘Molokai, Molokai,’ healing Kaho`olawe, and living on Hawaiian Homestead land, I realize that we need the standing of a Native Hawaiian government to protect our lands, resources and benefits,” he said, via email. “As long as we are not organized as a Native Hawaiian government, all of these could be legally challenged as race-based programs — like Kamehameha Schools, OHA and Hawaiian Homelands.”

In September, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) laid out a procedure for establishing government-to-government relations with the U.S. if the Native Hawaiian community forms a unified government.  While some Native Hawaiians view this as an opportunity for self-determination through federal recognition, others urge steering clear of any ties to the U.S. government and instead, reinstating the Hawaiian Kingdom as a sovereign nation.

Aluli said he supports the DOI procedure because it gives Hawaiians an option to protect their resources up front.

“Having such a pathway for Native Hawaiians will in no way take away the right of Native Hawaiians to exercise our self-determination together with the non-Hawaiian citizens of the Kingdom of Hawaii and choose to be independent of the U.S.,” he said. “We can do both.”

He added he believes such a status will also protect land trusts, Hawaiian programs and benefits from race-based litigations in the future. As an activist and one of the founders of the Protest Kaho`olawe Ohana with George Helm, Aluli said he also wants to see this process move forward for the formerly bombed island.

“The federal pathway for sovereignty is important to open and to fulfill the terms of State law and have Kanaloa Kaho`olawe transferred to a Hawaiian governing entity recognized by the State and Federal governments – ‘the first lands for our nation,’” he said.

Despite what protesters call a growing movement of concern across the state about the process, Aluli said he supports the efforts of the Roll Commission and Na`i Aupuni, and urges Hawaiians remain open to what could come of this process.

“I ask them to keep an open mind and open heart as the convention conducts its work and to be fair in evaluating the outcome,” he said.

Meheula seconded the sentiment.

“I think to discourage voting discredits the candidates,” he said. “To deny them the opportunity to lead and help bring Hawaiians together would be a big mistake.”

Emerging Concerns

Na`i Aupuni, founded in December 2014, was funded through a $3 million OHA grant with the sole purpose of carrying forward the election. Five individuals serve as volunteer directors of the nonprofit, and, according to Na`i Aupuni, are all associated with “three respected Hawaiian alii-founded organizations.”

Ritte said “these four ladies and a guy… go into a room and make all the rules and set up this convention.” When he originally signed up as a candidate, he planned to try to make a change from within the delegation, but thought he would be a minority in his hope for independence from the federal government.

“I didn’t see the value in going inside to stop this thing… So I decided to fight it from the outside,” he said. He announced he was withdrawing his candidacy, though according to a Na`i Aupuni statement, he never officially provided notification of his decision. Thus, his name remains on the ballot and votes cast for him will count toward his candidacy, stated the organization.

Ritte, however, is joined by others around the state who oppose the election. The Grassroots Institute of Hawaii filed a legal attempt to stop the election, though the request was rejected by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

Ritte and Protest Na`i Aupuni are advocating a boycott of the election. But Ritte said even if the elections do move forward, Hawaiians will have to vote on any constitution resulting from the convention. He hopes by then, there will be “enough momentum where we can hopefully stop the end product if it’s saying we should become federally recognized.”

“I’m against [the election] for a number of reasons,” stated Pale in the Protest Na`i Aupuni release. “First, it’s a clear violation of our rights to self-determination, both as an indigenous people and as descendants of our kupuna whose country was illegally overthrown by the United States. Also, this process is being forced on the Hawaiian people by the state. Self-determination initiatives need to come from the people, not the government.”

Ritte echoed his concerns, adding he thinks the process is predetermined.

“I saw it was a done deal, it was rigged for a certain outcome, because the Department of the Interior comes to Hawaii and says ‘we’re ready to recognize you guys, here are the rules,’” said Ritte. “So it’s like, this whole thing is set up. Follow these rules and you’ll be recognized. It was set to go, and I said, ‘this is not right.’”

Meheula said based on the 200 candidates on the ballot, he doesn’t see how anyone could think the outcome of the convention has already been decided.

“If you look at their bios, they’re a pretty broad base and they haven’t made up their mind on the type of government and look forward to debating and deciding with other candidates,” he said. “Our belief is we’re in favor of what the majority of Hawaiians want… You’ve got a number of steps ahead before we can tell what’s going to happen. To say this is predetermined is not understanding of this process.”

Issues of Contention

Both sides point to the issue of ceded lands as a support for their argument. With no clear title to the 1.8 million acres of land that belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy before the overthrow, federal law requires the land be held in trust.

“Without a movement, Hawaiians don’t have entity with standing, and without standing you can’t advocate for things like recovery of ceded lands and other type of governmental benefits and rights,” said Meheula.

However, Ritte warned that federal recognition could mean the end of ceded lands for Native Hawaiians.

“The only things that’s missing for [the U.S. government] to grab all those ceded lands is a governing entity,” he said. “We’re going to create the mechanism to allow the U.S. to get clear title, they’re going to strike a deal over the ceded land, and this entity can strike that deal.”

Regardless of differences of opinion, Meheula said Na`i Aupuni officials understand that first-time elections can be challenging, but said part of the goal of this process is to familiarize both the candidates and the voters with the voting process.

Na`i Aupuni has contracted Elections America to process the ballots, an independent election management and consulting company that Meheula said has a lot of experience managing elections nation-wide.

He said with 89,000 ballots mailed out, organizers are not sure how many of those will be returned as votes. But he said the convention will move forward no matter how many votes come in, and while the convention might only result in recommendations from delegates about how to move forward, “at least you have a group to make decisions.”

In the meantime, Ritte said the facts of history are coming to light and he believes the answer to the question of Hawaiian self-determination will be found in international law.

“If we go back to who are we and what happened, there’s a solution,” said Ritte. “The fact is that we were overthrown, the fact is that we were never annexed…. International law says if that’s what happened, then you’re occupied. The law says you have to de-occupy. It’s not based on what everybody wants, it’s not about your mana`o, it’s law.”

Voting Process

Any Native Hawaiian who has registered through Kana`iolowalu Native Hawaiian Roll Commission and received a ballot can vote. If you registered but have not received a ballot, election officials ask that you call Kana`iolowalu at (808) 973-0099, Na`i Aupuni (808) 543-3554 or Elections America toll-free at (844) 413-2929. If you did not notify the Roll Commission of an address change, your ballot may have been mailed to the incorrect address.

Voters on each island will vote for one or more candidates from their district. Molokai and Lanai combined will be represented by one delegate. The voting deadline is Nov. 30. Mail-in ballots must be received at Elections America in New York by that date. Any ballots received after Nov. 30 will not count.

If you received a mail-in ballot, return it through the mail in time to be received in New York by the deadline (election officials suggest postmarking one week in advance.) Those who signed up for electronic ballots can vote online. Alternatively, those who received a mail-in ballot can vote online instead by entering the election number and voter pin number found on their ballot by clicking the “vote now” link on naiaupuni.org.


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