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Indian Country Legal Experts Help Untangle Sovereignty in Hawaii

“Kamau a Ea” in Hawaiian means “keeping the breath of life.” Ea is life but it can also mean sovereignty, rule, or independence. So the phrase has multiple meanings that in essence equates sovereignty with life. Since the 1970s cultural renaissance that gave birth to the reclaiming of their sovereignty, Hawaiians have struggled to define what sovereignty means for them. A series of meetings since 2012 known as the Kamau a Ea Symposiums have gathered Hawaiians together to hash out the finer details of Hawaiian self-determination, the most recent one held on Nov. 1.

The symposiums have been sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), an organization established by the Hawaii State Constitution in 1978, and governed by a body of elected trustees. According to OHA’s website, the organization functions as both a government agency and trust to protect Native Hawaiian people and their resources. The Kamau a Ea symposiums have convened many leaders in the diverse Hawaiian sovereignty movement after 14 years of congressional negotiations failed to pass the Akaka Bill. The Akaka Bill proposed federal recognition via the creation of a “Hawaiian governing entity,” subject to federal Indian law.

The most recent push for federal recognition has emerged out of the Department of the Interior with the Advance Notice on Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM), which has been consulting with communities throughout Hawaii and Indian country.

Some Hawaiian scholars and activists argue that federal recognition based on federal Indian law is inappropriate in the Hawaiian context because unlike American Indian nations, Hawaii was an independent state when the US military illegally overthrew the Hawaiian government in 1893. Since the overthrow, they argue, Hawaii has been under military occupation and was on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories until 1959 when it became the 50th state, again under illegitimate conditions.

These facts thus call for a different legal remedy, one based on international law applicable to states, not domestic law. And because Hawaii was an independent country with citizens of ethnic and racial backgrounds other than Hawaiian, to restrict a Hawaiian governing entity to Native Hawaiians ignores other citizens affected by the overthrow.

(For an easy-to-understand overview of colonialism in Hawaii, see this video.)

The Kamau a Ea symposiums have taken up these and many other topics. The first four symposiums featured leaders within the Native Hawaiian community, but the November 1 symposium included experts on federal Indian law, federal recognition, and international law. Most notable among them were attorney Robert Williams, Jr. and James Anaya, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples. The purpose of the panel discussions was to consider “pathways to and outcomes of international and federal recognition.”

I spoke with Poke Laenui, long time sovereignty activist and legal expert on Hawaiian independence, and past Kamau a Ea presenter.

DGW: Do you see the ANPRM process as simply another iteration of the Akaka bill approach, or is it different? Isn’t there a problem because of the fact that it still defines a government-to-government relationship based on Hawaiians as an “indigenous people” rather than Hawaii as an independent state?

PL: Yes, I see it as another iteration of the Akaka bill. Yet, it has some areas for potential improvement in that it is not locked into what the Akaka bill calls for. It seems to me it has the possibility for wider variance from the Akaka bill approach. There has been one fundamental flaw in the DOI as well as the Akaka bill approaches, and that is to take the Native Hawaiians as the representative body of the Kingdom of Hawaii or even the Hawaiian nation. In the current case, the DOI went so far as to call it the Native Hawaiian "community," another avoidance of the Hawaiian nation itself. There is also a difference in the passage of time which has seen the change or awakening among the Native Hawaiian population, of the historical illegalities of U.S. action relative to Hawaii, and a greater willingness to participate in public advocacy and outrage.

DGW: Anaya clearly stated in his presentation that any domestic remedy would not necessarily undermine any international claims so long as those rights or claims are not waived, or if the federal government has not settled claims. And Williams provided a powerful example of how rights and powers can be negotiated. Williams was especially adamant that any Hawaiian government entity not allow the United States to extinguish their rights.

PL: I believe that the last symposium essentially turned the corner around the "or" dichotomy and pushed our people to the "and" inclusive option; i.e., we need no longer divide ourselves between the "integration" (Federal Recognition) option OR the "independent nation" option. There is an AND alternative in which we can unite our people around both working within the colonial system while maintaining our struggle for national independence from the U.S. Listening closely to what was said on Saturday, this was very clear to me.

DGW: I'm wondering what you think about the significance of OHA conducting these symposiums on Hawaiian sovereignty? I understand the distrust many Hawaiians have for OHA as a state agency. But it seems to me they have brought out many of the heavy hitters in the sovereignty movement (those who favor independence), giving an appearance of balanced perspectives, or at least the willingness not to foreclose on independence as a possibility. Is this significant to you?

PL: OHA as a State Agency? I don't agree. OHA Trustees and others may use this as an excuse for why OHA should act in one or another way, but if you mean a State Agency as if it needs to tow the line of the State Policy, the Governor's direction, the Legislature's direction, or even the U.S. Federal policy, that is not the case. OHA has the capacity to be autonomous from all of these other "controls." The only thing that controls the trustees is their perception of control and their fear of freedom. This last sovereignty symposium is just the latest in a series of symposiums which OHA has conducted recently. They are now at the furthest position they have so far taken toward looking at Independence. 


111 years after the American coup in Hawaii, restoring sovereignty has been an arduous journey. But Hawaiians are finding out that they don’t have to simply take what they can get (like the Akaka Bill) just because they don’t think they can get a better deal. Self-determination means a peoples’ ability to determine their own political status. Sovereignty is, after all, life.

This interview was edited for clarity.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at