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What really happened at the Aha, part I

A look at what went on behind the closed gates of the Royal Hawaiian Golf Course last month.

First-Hand Report
Ka'iulani Milham

Above: Members of the independence caucus gather to pay respect to nā aliʻi whose ʻiwi are still in the burial mound, Pohukaina, at ʻIolani Palace. This was one of a number of activities the caucus engaged in during the weeks of the ʻAha that served to connect members with kūpuna ancestors and sacred sites and objects at the palace.

Editor’s note: As one of the 154 kānaka maoli who agreed to participate in the state-sponsored, Naʻi Aupuni-initiated Native Hawaiian ʻAha, Kaʻiulani Milham had a front row seat at the month-long proceedings. What follows is the first installment of a multi-part, first-hand account that highlights various and consistent affronts to democratic processes that ruled during the ʻAha proceedings. Read part II, part III, part IV and part V

Despite heavy opposition from federal recognition advocates and an agenda deliberately primed to produce a federal recognition-friendly constitution, Hawaiian independence advocates at the Native Hawaiian Convention, better known as the ʻAha, succeeded in planting a stake in the ground for the “pursuit of independence.”

For Jade Danner, a staunch proponent of federal recognition, those three words—hard won additions to the draft constitution’s preamble—were a stake to the heart. According to Katie Kamelamela, one of two appointed sergeants-at-arms during the ʻAha, the words sent her “crying like a little bitch” to the parking lot.

Independence advocates knew the stakes going in.

They knew that independence is an option in diametric opposition to the interests of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and they knew that, after a decade of failure to secure federal recognition through the Akaka Bill, OHA was desperate for a win.

Twice in recent years, at the 1999 ʻAha Hawaiʻi ʻOiwi (AHO) and again at the 2000 Ha Hawaiʻi conventions, OHA had withheld funding after the elected delegates determined to pursue independence.

Despite declaring their neutrality this time around, OHA’s continued commitment to federal recognition became evident through the creation and promotion of Naʻi Aupuni, a nonprofit tailor-made to promote the federal recognition agenda. The group is comprised of a handful of volunteers, including Pauline Namuʻo, the wife of former OHA Chief Executive Officer Clyde Namuʻo, who was himself an ʻAha participant. In the months preceding the ʻAha delegates election date, Naʻi Aupuni directors explicitly stated that the ʻAha was to be a venue for pursuing all options, including independence. But independence advocates had repeatedly witnessed the depths to which the state and its sponsored agencies were prepared to stoop to achieve their goal of federal recognition for Hawaiians.

They had traced the trajectory of this latest push for federal recognition, which—like its predecessors—has struggled to gain traction within the lāhui, from its insemination at the state legislature in 2011 when Senator Brickwood Galuteria introduced SB 1520, the-soon-to-become Act 195, or the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act. They knew that, after spending three years and more than $4 million, only about 21,000 kānaka maoli had registered for Kanaʻiolowalu, the Native Hawaiian Roll. They saw how, after failing to gain buy-in from the lāhui, Kanaʻiolowalu’s commissioners had gone so far as to threaten members of the lāhui with excommunication in OHA’s newspaper, Ka Wai Ola, saying those who failed to sign up risked “waiving their right, and the right of their children and descendants” to citizenship, voting and potential benefits including payment and scholarships.

Determined to carry on with their convention, despite a stay on the election of delegates imposed by the United States Supreme Court, the Naʻi Aupuni directors invited all delegate candidates to participate in the ʻAha under a new scheme wherein the newly designated “participants” would meet for just four weeks, instead of the original eight.

State Representative Kaniela Ing had considered participating in the ʻAha, but elected to focus on his duties at the capitol with the legislative session in full-swing. Nevertheless, he expressed his concerns about the hurried nature of the revised schedule in a Dec. 23 email to Louis F. Perez, a liaison between Naʻi Aupuni’s fiscal sponsor, the Akamai Foundation, and its directors and the ʻAha candidates:

Bill Meheula made it clear to candidates, in every info session, that delegates will have full authority and control over the meeting dates, timeline, and the ‘aha at-large. He told us directly that delegates could change the start date. You are now saying that this is no longer true…

The retracted authority of delegates and the disregard of our conditions are very disappointing and lend credence to the narrative that nai aupuni [sic] is ramming this forward by any means necessary.

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. And so, on Feb. 1, 2016, the ʻAha began.

An Inauspicious Start

Though largely devoted to educational presentations—on constitution building, federal Indian law/federal recognition, international law/de-occupation, decolonization, U.S. constitutional law and ceded lands, as well as Hawaiian kingdom law— the first week of the ʻAha saw inklings of the discord to come, as calls for increased transparency and the admission of non-participant observers were vehemently rebuffed by federal recognition proponents.

(Related Video: Hawaiian activists arrested outside Nai Aupuni Aha)

The ruckus over transparency and non-participant observers carried on over days and included a Washington state participant who explained that she already felt “like a hostage” and said: “pay me my $5,000 and I’ll go home,” referring to her Naʻi Aupuni stipend.

A more intense skirmish over transparency erupted when a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha became incensed, stalking forward to confront a transparency advocate face to face after the man had trained his mobile phone camera on him only minutes before while he delivered a tirade of anti-transparency rhetoric.

Just a day later, the same participant once again became the focal point of a commotion. Carrying ti leaves and dressed in a red and yellow ʻahu ʻula (royal cloak), he became overwrought after the usual morning protocol of singing the Hawaiian doxology, breaking out into an emotionally charged solo performance of “Hawaiʻi Ponoʻi” until he was escorted away by the sergeants-at-arms as he repeatedly shouted “don’t touch me!”

As police officers attempted to respond to the altercation, Bumpy Kanahele kept them at bay by standing in the doorway and persuading them that all was under control, demonstrating a sometimes generous-to-a-fault urge to aloha one another that triumphed over the rules of conduct adopted by the ʻAha throughout the four-week proceedings. The troubled participant was nevertheless banned from the premises by the Royal Hawaiian Golf Club management the following day and did not return to the ʻAha.

Working under the guidance of hired facilitators Peter Adler and Linda Coburn (of the Mediation Center of the Pacific), and assisted by Kuʻumeaaloha Gomes, director of Kuaʻana Native Hawaiian Student Development Services at the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) at Mānoa, the ʻAha adopted consensus-building as its overarching Golden Rule, along with ʻAelike—a collaborative process by which participants are permitted to speak a second time only after all others who wish to speak have spoken once.

Though it had sounded good on paper when Adler and Colburn proposed it to the ʻAha participants via a January 8th email survey, in practice the ʻAelike was proving to be an awkward tool for a group so large. By the end of the first week, the ʻAha plenary of more than 100 unelected participants had devolved into a chaotic and frustrating atmosphere.

Despite the consensus-building rule, the facilitators’ plan encouraged participants to work within their respective federal recognition or independence caucuses. The plan was met with protest from participants who felt such a strategy would be divisive, creating entrenched positions rather than lōkahi (unity). Amidst the existing atmosphere, in which the facilitators struggled to manage the unwieldy group, members of the ʻAha were eager for rules and structure.

Adopting Robert’s Rules of Order, 11th edition, as the ʻAha’s new procedural foundation, participants elected Brendon Kaleiʻāina Lee, a currency trader and longtime Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs (AHCC) member, as interim chair on a motion by fellow AHCC parliamentarian Makana Paris. Within hours of being nominated interim chair, Lee telegraphed his desire for power, declaring that, “Interim is whatever we decide.” As interim chair, Lee supported the facilitator’s plan to separate the Federal Recognition and Independence factions, arguing that each group could better define its own positions separately before coming together again as a whole to determine commonalities.

“This isn’t how weʻre going to decide, it’s just a conversation,” said Lee.

Later that same day, in anticipation of the facilitators’ departure at the end of the second week, the ʻAha voted to create a leadership team with a chair, two vice chairs, two appointed sergeants-at-arms and two secretaries.

Just who would fill those key positions would become an important factor in the weeks to come.

The Young and the Restless

Closely tracking the agenda of the comparatively older federal recognition camp was Nā Makalehua, a caucus describing itself as comprised of “young Hawaiians,” and a “new generation of humble and prepared warriors.”

With a youthful zeal and a desire to make their mark on the nation-building gathering, the members of this group nevertheless included a sprinkling of middle-aged members; a 40-ish Keoni Kuoha (Kamehameha Schools, 1994), as well as the greying OHA community outreach coordinator Shane Nelson.

In addition to Nelson, at least four other Makalehua members (Catelin Aiwohi, Kūhiō Lewis, Jocelyn Doane and Davis Price) are or were OHA employees. Other Makalehua members included former Native Hawaiian Roll commissioner Nāʻālehu Anthony and ʻŌʻiwi TV’s Amy Kalili. Kalili is also executive director of Makauila, a Hawaiian language nonprofit that has received more than $673,000 of OHA beneficiary funds, according to the Roll Commission check register.

Meeting to strategize in advance of the ʻAha, Makalehua members—the majority of whom are lawyers (Price, Kaʻili, Doane, Matthew Kaʻaihue, Tyler Gomes, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Olu Campbell) or law students (Paris, Zuri Aki and Rebecca Soon)—gathered in mid-January at Punaluʻu. Makalehua’s game plan came into play at the end of the first week when Lewis attempted to quash any discussion of independence by introducing a motion to adopt a “Statement of Purpose” that was worded to limit the business of the ʻAha to “establishing a Native Hawaiian government” using only federal recognition-preferred terms:

The Purpose of our ʻAha is to draft a constitution that establishes a Native Hawaiian government to affirm our identity as Native Hawaiians with rights to self-governance, to advance the hopes of our lāhui, and to support our kuleana to mālama ʻāina, perpetuate our language, culture and ʻōʻiwi identity and provide for the needs of our people.

Seconded by fellow OHA staffer Shane Nelson, the Purpose Statement became a serious bone of contention. After lengthy debate among the plenary, it was tabled “to a time uncertain,” to be hashed out later by a task force over the course of several hours in a jam-packed side room where independence advocates, including Bumpy Kanahele, fought to have their interests preserved.

As Kanahele put it, “I still get one hard time if ‘national identity’ not in deah … I no like go further because, if ‘national’ not put in deah, it gonna be one problem for me ... it’s one big problem for me.”

When the dust settled, Kanahele’s push to include “national identity” in the Purpose Statement language had succeeded. But the final wording included Lewis’ original federal recognition-friendly language as well, calling for the establishment a “Native Hawaiian government.” A few days later, Kanahele resigned from the ʻAha.

Even after its adoption, the Purpose Statement continued to dog the ʻAha as Chair Lee ruled that discussion that did not fit within its strict definitions would be ruled “out of order.” (In the Groupshare archives of the ʻAha, which only participants have access to, the adopted Purpose Statement has been stripped of wording specifically defining the intention of the various points independence advocates fought for and that were adopted by the body.) Under the guise of adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order and bringing a sense of control to the unruly body, Lee used his position as chair to ensure debate inside the closed-door plenary sessions stuck to the federal recognition agenda while keeping pro-independence voices in check.

Coming out of left field, former Roll Commissioner Lei Kihoi’s motion to allow veteran sovereignty advocate and attorney Poka Laenui a 15-minute presentation was followed by a volley of motions to add more independence presenters to the agenda. Motions to allow presentations by independence advocates Keoni Agard and UH Mānoa Richardson Law School professor Williamson Chang were vociferously opposed by federal recognition advocates and just as passionately supported by the independence proponents.

Using a tactic that would be repeated on the final days of the ʻAha to squelch debate over the final draft of the constitution, federal recognition proponents passed an amendment limiting the time for presentations from 15 minutes to 10 minutes, with a mandatory five minutes reserved for Q&A.

As expressed by Makalehua member Kaʻaihue, one of the group’s UH Richardson Law grads, they were “in it to win it.” It was an attitude that would be seen again and again over the coming weeks as Makalehua members pushed to write a constitution in a mere 20 days.