“It’s disgusting to see what they’re doing to my people,” said a Home Depot worker helping find me zip ties for campaign signs, “OHA is wasting so much money just to make themselves Ali’i and they are forgetting about every day Hawaiians.” I was appointed the Field Director for Keli’i Akina’s 2016 run for a trustee-at-large seat at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and was surprised that the worker knew why I was there. It was then I realized that I was wearing the campaign t-shirt which was emblazoned with “AKINA: Uniting Hawaii”; an occurrence which had by this point become second nature. I was nervous at first to wear the campaign shirt around, as much negativity surrounded our campaign and our candidate. No matter how many times I try to convince people that I am half Japanese, I was nothing more than a dumb Haole colonizer wearing the shirt of someone who some Native Hawaiian’s compared to the Anti-Christ.
I had never paid any mind to OHA races in the past and never bothered to learn about current Native Hawaiian issues past the required curriculum in high school and college because it never affected me directly. I am not Native Hawaiian and I could count the number of Native Hawaiian’s in my neighborhood with just my fingers and toes. With Dr. Akina being my first tangible exposure to current Native Hawaiian issues, it would be fair to say that I bought into it completely. Everything he said, from ending government funding for sovereignty schemes and boosting OHA’s revenues to properly funding programs for housing, education, and healthcare, sounded fantastic and something I could definitely get behind.
It was surprising then to see the level of opposition we got. People of seemingly all political persuasions poured support favoring who we called in the campaign the “Old Guard Trustees”, or the source of OHA’s problems. Dr. Akina’s connections with Grassroot Institute surely didn’t help our case. We were attacked for wanting to open Kamehameha Schools admissions to non-Hawaiians, put an end to Hawaiian land trusts, and generally give non-Hawaiians the same benefits that Hawaiians are now afforded for having been subjugated to colonization by the United States — all assertions that were unequivocally false. Over the course of the campaign, however, I spoke with thousands of people about these issues. I spoke with both Native Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians, poor and wealthy, old and young, supporters and detractors. These interactions have afforded me a special insight into what exactly many Native Hawaiian’s want and how that fits (or doesn’t) into a modern society dominated by non-Hawaiians.
According to a 2005 study by Kamehameha Schools, Native Hawaiians are clearly the most socioeconomically disadvantaged community in Hawaii. A lower per capita income coupled with larger than average family sizes means Native Hawaiians struggle to feed, clothe, and house more people on less income. When cost of living is considered, the situation only becomes more dire. Native Hawaiian’s spend an average of $1800 more per year than African Americans, Native Americans, and Native Alaskans on rent alone. One of every 6 Native Hawaiians are impoverish, a rate 50% higher than the state average, and Native Hawaiian single-parent families are four times more likely to fall into poverty than any other race. Native Hawaiians are also disproportionately represented among homeless and incarcerated populations. With all these problems, it isn’t hard to understand why so many have become disenfranchised with the system that has so clearly failed them. What’s worse is that none of our community leaders have offered real solutions to these problems, hence the popularity of the sovereignty movement and the desire to self-govern. The people who opposed Akina on the basis that he was against government support of sovereignty were therefore the most disenfranchised members of this community and we knew they were the ones we needed to reach the most.
Interestingly, it seemed that for every detractor who opposed us because of our sovereignty stance there were five supporters — even if only because we were a vaguely better alternative to the status quo. The most striking of the testimonies I heard from the Native Hawaiian community were from the Kupuna, or seniors. Armed with years of wisdom and experiences, some came to us with comments expressing distaste that their grandchildren had become involved in the movement to secede and others came with a wealth of knowledge arguing that history cannot be changed and wasting money and energy on something so futile isn’t helping their community. Whatever the actual articulation was, the sentiment was always the same: The problems with the Native Hawaiian community are vast and frequent but sovereignty wasn’t the answer. Even people who didn’t totally buy into our message recognized that the deplorable levels of poverty and underprivilege within the Native Hawaiian community was a bigger issue than anything else and one that couldn’t be solved by autonomy.
Most Native Hawaiian’s want the same thing for their people but differ in how best to achieve it. Those that cry for sovereignty believe that if only they had more control of their affairs and their resources, they’d be able to guide their own communities out of poverty and towards prosperity. Those that believe that self-governance isn’t the answer recognize that not only will they lose vast amounts of financial support from the US and State governments but that spending money and energy fighting for a solution that may not work and may not even happen — money and energy that could be used to fund programs that solve current problems — is actually a detriment to their communities.
Many people recognize that these problems, like most problems in Hawaii, exist not from a lack of resources but rather a lack of political will. And this lack of political will has led directly to significant dissatisfaction in the system so deep that any politician, even one with the right message, was not going to reach them. It has led to the belief that there is no hope for the children of a single-mother in Kohala to go to college, no hope for the grandchildren of a man who waited decades for his homestead to inherit the land on which he lives because their blood quantum had been diluted, and that sovereignty — a complete disconnect from the American system that failed them so badly — is the only recourse.
I’m proud to say that thanks to the support of over 160,000 people, we won. But winning the election was less than half the battle. Only one trustee on a board of 9 was replaced last year and now the new majority fighting for progress, which was already fragile at the start of the session, is faltering with the board’s new chair losing a vote of no confidence less than two months into her tenure. Deviation from the status quo is even fought at the state level with Representative Kaniela Ing introducing legislation meant specifically to prevent Akina from running for reelection. All this on the heels of calls by Akina for an in-depth audit into OHA’s finances. But we always knew there would be a fight and that’s what we were hoping would happen: for the sources of the problem to reveal themselves by hindering the progress of their own people. We finally found what we were looking for. “I really hope you guys win,” the Home Depot Man handed me a giant bag of zip ties, “because something has to be done.”
UPDATE: 9 February 2017
Trustee Akina’s special audit was approved by OHA’s Resource Management Committee chaired by Trustee Carmen Hulu Lindsey. Akina was also appointed to lead an ad hoc committee created to manage the audit.
Views expressed here are of my own entirely and do not reflect those of any candidates or organizations mentioned.