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Native Hawaiians debate best path to sovereignty

January 16, 2015

WAIMANALO, Hawaii (AP) — Pookela Rodenhurst lives as if he’s back in the Hawaiian Kingdom. He hunts for sea turtles, watching for the game warden behind his back. He forages for herbs in the Koolau Mountains. He drives without a license because he won’t agree to abide by state laws.

Rodenhurst and other Hawaiian nationalists who long for a return to the days when the islands were ruled by royal families are increasingly dominating the debate about the future of the islands’ indigenous people. And their insistence on someday restoring the kingdom threatens to overshadow a federal proposal that could, after years of lobbying by advocates, offer Native Hawaiians some of the same privileges that have long been available to other native groups.

Many years before Hawaii became a tourist destination, the Hawaiian Kingdom ruled over the islands and held treaties with dozens of countries. It was overthrown by a group of American businessmen 122 years ago, on Jan. 17, 1893, and annexed five years later.

Now, the U.S. government is considering extending to Native Hawaiians the same type of tribal recognition that many American Indian tribes have had for generations, potentially giving special status to more than 200 programs and securing lots of federal money, including nearly $14 million for health care, $32 million for education and $10 million for housing. The issue has reawakened distrust between moderates who generally support the idea and absolutists who want to see the kingdom rebuilt, even if it means chasing an all-but-unattainable goal — dissolving the state of Hawaii.

Rodenhurst insists the American government is “belligerently occupying Hawaii.”

“They have no business to come out here and try to engage us and treat us like Indians,” he said.

Resentment over the annexation is nothing new among Native Hawaiians, but it resurfaced in June, when the U.S. Department of Interior began considering extending tribal status, which moderates believe is a far more realistic goal than somehow reversing Hawaiian statehood.

“People will criticize that federal recognition is not the end-all, be-all for Hawaii’s population, but it is what I believe is achievable in my lifetime,” said Michelle Kauhane, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

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