The Interior Department announced Friday it had finalized a rule to allow for the reestablishment of a formal government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community, a status Hawaiians lost more than 120 years ago with the overthrow of their kingdom.
While it would take years for the relationship to resume — native Hawaiians would have to form a unified government through a ratification referendum — the new rule could ultimately deliver a form of self-governance to one of the nation’s largest indigenous communities. That power dissolved when a group of sugar barons and businessmen overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893, a move that led to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii in 1898 and, eventually, its admission as America’s 50th state in 1959.
The decision, which comes three days before President Obama convenes his final White House Tribal Conference, is also a symbolically powerful gesture toward his home state. Just last month, Obama created the largest protected area on the planet in Hawaii by expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
“This final rule provides the Native Hawaiian community with the opportunity to exercise self-determination by reestablishing a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Today is a major step forward in the reconciliation process between Native Hawaiians and the United States that began over 20 years ago.”
In 1993, Congress enacted the Apology Resolution, which expressed regret on behalf of the United States to Native Hawaiians for the country’s role in the overthrow of their monarchy. The measure also committed the federal government to a process of reconciliation.
There are 527,077 Native Hawaiians living in the United States, according to the 2010 Census, making it the second largest indigenous group in the nation. According to Americans’ self-identification of their ancestry in the 2010 Census, there are 819,015 Cherokee and 322,129 Navajo.
Robert Lindsey, chairman of the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, noted in a statement, “Native Hawaiians have been the only major indigenous group in the 50 states without a process for establishing a government-to-government relationship with the federal government.”
“This rule finally remedies this injustice,” Lindsey said, adding that his office “will spend the next few days closely examining the rule to better understand how the Native Hawaiian people can — if they choose — pursue a government-to-government relationship.”
Although the rule does not provide native Hawaiians with financial compensations for past wrongs, or allow them to set up gaming establishments like many American Indian tribes, if they decide to form a government they will have an easier time filing suit in federal court. An official government could provide native Hawaiians with control over some social programs and greater leverage with federal officials.
Rhea Suh, who served as Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget and now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the rule is one of the clearest examples of how Obama has elevated indigenous rights during his time in office.
“One of the untold stories of this administration is the president’s leadership and commitment to native peoples,” she said.