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What really happened at the ʻAha, part II

Whitewashed press releases, a sinister state bill and a flippant disregard for the rules of the convention

First-Hand Report
Ka'iulani Milham

Above: ‘Aha participants collaborated in a number of exercises designed by facilitators to elicit values and ideas while also fostering a sense of investment in the constitution; the end product of the four-week convention.

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 second 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 I, part III, part IV and part V

The vivacious Makalehua group’s “In it to win it” mantra came into play in important ways during the second week of the ʻAha.

But what exactly was the “it” they were in it to win?

Setting up shop in a side room off the main meeting hall, Makalehua members installed a pair of privately-owned printers—Naʻi Aupuni officials neglected to foresee that drafting a constitution would necessitate such things as printers and paper—to produce early drafts of documents and hana ka hana (work the work) of the ʻAha.

In the midst of this hurried activity, Makalehua member Makana Paris, the ʻAha’s vice chair,  was overheard whispering that certain participants had been appointed to an ʻAha communications team, which would be in charge of disseminating information about the ʻAha to the public. Having committed to fostering an atmosphere of free prior and informed consent during the nation-building exercise, the fact that the members of this important team seemed to have been decided on without the participation of the plenary was concerning.

I had made sure to announce my interest in participating in the communications team days before via the ʻAha participant’s email list serve. It was no secret that I wanted to be involved. I confronted Paris, asking how these persons had been appointed and by what authority. Paris, who had explained the nuts and bolts of Roberts Rules in a presentation to the largely uninitiated ʻAha participants, claimed this as one of the powers of the elected leadership team.

When I pointed out that he failed to mention such committee appointing power in his presentation, the job of the chair and vice chairs being summed up as one of keeping order, Paris dodged. There are “thousands” of rules in Roberts, he said. In other words it wasn’t his kuleana to explain; buyer beware.

Yet, when the plenary resumed minutes later, the official position of the leadership team had changed. Chair Brendon Lee, contradicting what Paris’ had just insisted on, announced that participation in the communications team was to be determined by “law of the feet.” In other words, anyone who wanted to participate was welcome. As it turned out, this apparent concession to democracy gave only a fleeting relief to concerns over fairness.

At the first meeting of the communications team, Makalehua members Amy Kalili, Nāʻālehu Anthony, Adrian Kamaliʻi and Rebecca Soon, in addition to veteran roll commissioner Lei Kihoi, determined that the daily bulletin from the ʻAha to the media was to be a “good news only” report.

Concerned that this was an attempt at whitewashing the proceedings, I objected and cautioned that maintaining whatever credibility we had within the largely disillusioned lāhui demanded objectivity and balance in our reports to the community. Already aware of the potential news story brewing, given Bumpy Kanahele’s serious concerns regarding the Purpose Statement (see part I), I asked, “What if Bumpy walks out? Shouldn’t we let the community know?” Transparency, I argued, was necessary to gain the trust of those kānaka not present.

My concern fell on deaf ears. In the words of Anthony, a former vice chair of the roll commission, “that’s on Bumpy.”

In the end, the decision was to stick to the bare agenda, a list of motions made and adopted and so forth with a sprinkling of good news in a highlights section. Potentially embarrassing moments, like when Bumpy did decide to resign only a few days later, were omitted from the convention’s news releases.

Walking the Talk

Early in week two, participants were notified of an alarming development at the state legislature, which was in the early throes of its own session. An ominous bill, HB 2046, had been introduced by Reps Yamane, Aquino, Cullen, Ito, Oshiro and Tsuji threatening to transfer public trust lands that currently host U.S. military bases in Hawaiʻi to the state’s Department of Defense.

The sudden threat of the military tightening its control over ceded lands prompted a motion the following morning for the members of the ʻAha to show up en masse at the state capitol in protest.

Though the motion had the support of independence advocates, it failed to win majority support, with opposition largely coming from the federal recognition faction. Their argument was that time taken away from the ʻAha would mean less time to write a constitution. As an alternative to protesting at the capitol, a petition objecting to the bill was dashed off, written by Moku o Keawe resident and independence advocate Kaui Trainer. Circulated around the plenary throughout the afternoon, it was signed by 73 out of the roughly 100 ʻAha participants there that day. The petition was to be presented to the legislature at the bill’s hearing the next morning.

For those who had advocated for the ʻAha to take a firm stance against the bill, the petition felt like a victory; the majority of the ʻAha speaking up against the further obfuscation of the problem of U.S. military control over ceded lands. Or so we thought.

The problem was it wasn’t the “official” voice of the ʻAha and, as someone had pointed out to ʻAha vice chair Paris, it violated the following rule: 

Only those authorized by the ʻAha shall speak on behalf of the ʻAha.

At the end of the day, Paris had offered to “help.” He took the petition to a side-room to apparently rewrite the document so that this problem would no longer exist. No matter that the petition he was altering after the fact had already been signed, the Makalehua member and University of Hawaiʻi (UH) at Mānoa Richardson Law School student was intent on the need to clarify that the document did not represent the voice of the ʻAha.

I found Paris typing away on his laptop and suggested, instead of rewriting the petition, that a simple addition of the word “undersigned” to the sentence reading “We the [undersigned] members of the ʻAha…” would solve the problem without altering the content of a document that had already been signed. When my suggestion was ignored, I insisted that he relinquish the originals. Paris refused, snatching them up and retreating from the room.

When I found him, just minutes later, he claimed that he had only needed to consult with a kupuna, Uncle Kū Ching, who happened to be just outside. He then relented, returning the original documents after having crossed out the words “members of the ʻAha Naʻi Aupuni 2016” on all four copies, and substituting the word “undersigned” instead.

The Rules of the Game

During the first week of the ʻAha, participants had spent many hours over several days debating a long list of “Rules of the ʻAha,” including the “No one speaks for the ʻAha” rule that forced a “rewrite” of the petition objecting to HB 2046. There were many other rules as well, some of the more contentious being those dealing with transparency and non-participant observers. Another rule, and one of particular note, said:

Any threats or harassment, including those on electronic posts, of ʻAha participants are to be reported to the appropriate authorities. The ʻAha may sanction its participants, up to expulsion, by a vote of two-thirds of the votes cast.”

In the third week of the ʻAha, an issue that had begun simmering on the ʻAha email list serve during the weeks leading up to the convention boiled over on the floor of the plenary. Participant Bronson Kaʻahui, a GoPro-wielding video-blogger nick-named “Bronsonto” for his pugnacious support of Genetically Modified Organisms and the companies that research them here in Hawaiʻi, had just published a particularly heinous attack of ʻAha participant Dr. Williamson Chang on social media, as well as in an email that went out to all ʻAha participants.

The bold-faced headline to the lengthy diatribe had been stricken out in an apparent bid to avoid culpability. It read:

A Response to the Delusional Views of a Washed Up Law Professor

The attack on Dr. Chang, the senior law professor at UH Mānoa’s Richardson Law School, was one of several disrespectful emails from Kaʻahui directed at kūpuna and members of the independence caucus over the course of weeks. He called more than one kūpuna “delusional.” He called another kupuna, who bravely came to the ʻAha despite undergoing medical treatment, a “simpleton.” And when he got into a heated discussion with another kupuna, former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Moanikeala Akaka, he had the nerve to mockingly say that he hoped she wouldn’t “have a heart attack.”

Despite the adopted rule against harassment, Kaʻahui’s often long-winded tirades, posted online and designed to defame and undercut the scholarship and spirit of independence participants, continued unabated.

During her 15-minute presentation to the ʻAha the week before, Jade Danner had referenced the Hawaiian cultural response of community rejection and ostracization of those who, as she put it, “make any kine” with kūpuna. But with Kaʻahui, suddenly it was as if we were in an alternate universe. Our rules said harassment would not be tolerated, yet this participant—who happened to be the loudest critic of the independence caucus members—was given a pass.

Citing our adopted rules against disrespect and harassment of fellow members, I made a motion to have Kaʻahui sanctioned with expulsion, the only remedy for such behavior specified in the ʻAha’s adopted rules. But when I began to quote from a sampling of Kaʻahuiʻs vitriolic emails, ʻAha chair Lee cut me off. It was as though a prosecuting attorney was being denied the ability to present evidence to prosecute.

Supported by others who’d had enough of Kaʻahui’s attacks, I held my ground over the next two days while the issue was debated.

The federal recognition faction backed Kaʻahui, praising his intellect and excusing his behavior on account of his youth, as though he could be a serious participant in a nation-building exercise and not be held responsible for his own actions as an adult at the same time. (Kaʻahui is nearly 30, married and a father of young boys.)

The rules we had spent days debating had taken a back seat to what was becoming an obvious federal recognition agenda. Kaʻahui was an effective distraction, and the federal recognition camp didn’t want their marauding agent expelled. And so he wasn’t.

The next day I withdrew my original motion in favor of one asking that the ʻAha at least acknowledge that a violation of rules had taken place and provide Kaʻahui with a warning that further violations would result in expulsion. Again, the idea was strenuously opposed by federal recognition advocates, one of whom even called the motion “hewa” (wicked, sinful). Another federal recognition advocate amended the motion so that, instead of applying only to Kaʻahui, it would apply to all participants. Adding a touch of irony to the ensuing debate, Annelle Amaral, a former police officer, said:

I think we can get a bit carried away with our need to police the action and conduct of everyone. I did not find this conduct to be so terribly offensive … I think this actually trivializes our intent to write rules on proper behavior.

In the end, the majority of the ʻAha voted against even the watered-down version of the motion. With his relentless reviling of the “fantasy” of independence, Kaʻahui had proven himself indispensable to the federal recognition camp, and that seemed to translate into an ability to act with unchecked impropriety. Unchastened by the experience, Kaʻahui published a mocking Youtube video titled “Trial of Bronson Kaʻahui” the following day.

And so, as we approached the critical final week in this topsy-turvy ʻAha world, where rules were now being ignored when it suited the agenda of one particular faction, the unsteadiness was palpable. Something was definitely askew.