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Feds’ consultation process will put Native Hawaiians on par with Indian tribes

The Department of the Interior announced Tuesday it will require a process of formal consultation with the Native Hawaiian community on any actions it proposes that have a substantial direct effect on the community.

The effort, described in a set of proposed policies and procedures, is a first for the federal agency and puts Native Hawaiians on par with Indian tribes without requiring the community to be a formal tribe.

“New policies and procedures, subject to formal consultation, will further affirm and honor the special political and trust relationship between the United States and the Native Hawaiian Community,” the department declared in its announcement.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the department is committed to working with the Native Hawaiian community on a government-to- sovereign basis to address concerns related to self- governance, Native Hawaiian trust resources and other Native Hawaiian rights issues.

“A new and unprecedented consultation policy will help support Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination as we continue to uphold the right of the Native Hawaiian Community to self-government,” Haaland said in a news release.

The proposal, according to the department, is in line with President Joe Biden’s “Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships,” which outlines the administration’s efforts to engage Indigenous communities in federal decision-making “early and often.”

To hear about what Native Hawaiians think of the proposal, Interior’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations will host virtual consultations 9-11 a.m. Nov. 10 and 6-8 p.m. Dec. 5.

The announcement was welcomed Tuesday by Native Hawaiians.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey called the news “historic” and “an important step in our people’s struggle for self-governance.”

The department’s commitment to work with Native Hawaiians on matters of mutual interest acknowledges the special political and trust relationship between the United States and the Native Hawaiian community, Lindsey said in a statement.

“This is very welcome news and we mahalo Secretary Deb Haaland and President Biden for their continuous efforts to involve and engage Indigenous communities and provide us a voice in federal decision- making. We have much to contribute when discussing Native Hawaiian trust resources and Native Hawaiian rights, and we look forward to the work ahead,” she said.

Honolulu Council member Esther Kia‘aina said formal consultation puts the ability of the Native Hawaiians to communicate with the federal government on a whole new level.

“I’m excited for this,” said Kia‘aina, who previously served as assistant secretary for insular affairs in the Interior Department.

With wording about sovereignty and self-determination, Interior’s news release evoked memories of the series of meetings held in the islands eight years ago, when the department asked Hawaiians what kind of a relationship the U.S. government should have with a future Native Hawaiian government.

Thousands turned out to essentially tell the department to butt out, loudly saying any involvement by U.S. officials to create a new relationship with a future Native Hawaiian government violated Hawaiians’ right to self-determination.

This time it’s different, said Healani Sonoda-Pale of Ka Lahui Hawai‘i.

“This is not about federal recognition,” she said. Rather, it’s coming from Biden’s executive order that calls for consultation with all Native tribes, she said, and the Interior Department is including Native Hawaiians.

“Any time there is a federal endeavor on Hawaiian lands, Kanaka Maoli should be consulted,” Sonoda-Pale said.

The state government, she said, has shown it is not looking out for Native Hawaiians’ best interest.

“On the contrary, Kanaka Maoli are struggling in Hawaii,” she said. “This is another avenue or arena where the Kanaka Maoli people can voice their concerns to the U.S.”

The draft consultation policy requires the department to engage in an early, robust and transparent consultation, notifying any number of Native Hawaiian organizations on a list with some 120 groups.

It requires department staffers to undergo training before participating in consultation and calls for biannual meetings between the secretary and Native Hawaiian community leaders to consult on matters of mutual interest.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, released a statement regarding the proposed consultation policy.

“This is a very big deal and a vital first step,” he said. “One of the most important principles in policymaking, especially as it relates to Native communities, is: ‘nothing about me, without me.’ This policy update recognizes that consultation with Native Hawaiians is an essential aspect of decision-making for the federal government and key to upholding its trust responsibility. We have long way to go, but all progress starts with listening.”