KAHULUI - The last of 15 public meetings hosted statewide by the U.S. Department of the Interior ended on Maui on Tuesday with a resounding message from the Native Hawaiian community: a'ole, or no.
More than 300 residents crowded into the standing-room-only cafeteria at Pomaikai Elementary to tell the federal department that its move to re-establish a government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Native Hawaiian community is not welcome.
"Our kupuna, they been waiting hundreds of years for us to come back and bring the life back to this land, this is not the correct process," said Wailuku resident Claire Apana, one of 154 people who signed up to testify. "You have to first go back to the beginning and correct the wrong. . . . You need to go back and realize you're occupying another nation, illegally."
More than 300 residents crammed into the Pomaikai Elementary School cafeteria in Kahului on Tuesday night for a hearing called by U.S. Department of the Interior, the last of 15 public meetings in the state. The tenor of the testimony was to reject any thought by the federal agency to re-establish a government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Native Hawaiian community.
The Maui News / EILEEN CHAO photo
The Interior Department announced last month that it would be conducting public meetings on all the Hawaiian Islands "in response to requests from the Native Hawaiian community, Hawaii's congressional delegation and state leaders."
"This time is yours, we are here to listen to you, and we are grateful for you allowing us in your communities and being willing to share your thoughts," Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget for the department, said at the start of the meeting.
Suh was one of four panelists from the U.S. Interior and Justice departments.
The overwhelming majority of testifiers in Hawaii, including nearly all who spoke on Maui on Tuesday, have testified against any notion of federal recognition, saying instead, "We are not American."
"These hearings are unconstitutional, the department has no authority to enter into such hearings with our people. You have no business being here because we are not American," said Lesley Iaukea. "The question today is not what the DOI can do for us, but what can we do for ourselves."
What Native Hawaiians have been doing for themselves is perpetuating their culture and traditions that were once forbidden, residents said.
"I'm a Hawaiian, I'm a kanaka, but I can't speak Hawaiian because we weren't allowed to do it," said Frederick Pu'u. "But what touches me so much and is so beautiful and sweet is our keiki kane and keiki wahine, they speak so beautifully, and I love that. I feel shame because I wish I could speak like our little ones, but they are the ones that's gonna come up, they are the ones that will bring the kanaka maoli together."
Critics have said that the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, aims to incorrectly recognize Native Hawaiians as a Native American tribe. Suh replied in an interview last month that the process leaves it up to Native Hawaiians to define themselves, and there would be discussions about whether it makes sense for Native Hawaiians to pursue a similar tribal designation.
Testifiers reiterated that Native Hawaiians are not and were never a tribe and did not wish to be recognized as such, but instead as an independent and sovereign nation. Painted signs raised around the room echoed the testifiers' messages: "DeOccupy Maui," "Hawaiian by blood, American by force" and "A'ole."
"You have come here and asked the kanaka maoli to literally hand over the Hawaiian kingdom. . . . this is not the way to make things pono. A'ole to your questions, come back when you decide how to help the Hawaiian people rebuild what was wrongfully stolen. But for now, go home," said Sheri Maxwell.
The meetings next will be held with Native American groups on the Mainland.
Written comments may be submitted until Aug. 19 online at regulations.gov or by mail to Office of the Secretary, Department of the Interior, Room 7329, 1849 C St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20240. (Use Regulation Identifier Number 1090-AB05 in messages.)
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.