Broken Promise? A Brief Update on the U.S. Role in Native Hawaiian Reconciliation since the 1993 Apology
by Ashley Obrey 2L

What is past is not forgotten.  The pain of the past lives on and justice delayed is justice denied…
From the mountain to the sea, the river of justice must flow freely.
-John Berry at ‘Iolani Palace Bandstand [1]

I.  Trusts Betrayed, Promises Made

The year 1893 evokes images of sadness, loss, and betrayal. For this year symbolizes the end of the Hawaiian nation at the hands of American businessmen and agents of the United States.

It was the beginning of a bitter end. The Hawaiian government as it was once known – recognized internationally as a sovereign and independent country by treaties with every major nation at that timebecame a thing of the past. Queen Lili‘uokalani was arrested and imprisoned in her own palace while being stripped of her power. After the January 1893 overthrow, the Provisional Government took control of Hawai‘i. President Grover Cleveland called the United States’ action an “act of war.” Out of his “desire to aid in the restoration of the status existing before the lawless landing of the United States forces at Honolulu,” [2] he initiated support for the restoration of the monarchy by withdrawing a treaty for annexation and ordering an investigation of the overthrow. But annexation proceeded apace under incoming President William McKinley. Twenty-nine thousand Native Hawaiians – more than half the adult Hawaiian population petitioned Congress to block annexation.  But with Pearl Harbor and the sugar industry at stake, the U.S. annexed Hawai‘i in 1898 via joint resolution.  Native Hawaiians were further separated from their land and culture, thereby altering their economic, social and spiritual way of life. For Hawaiian sovereignty advocates, this occupation continues today. 

The injustices surrounding this illegal overthrow magnified the need for Native Hawaiians to receive reparation for history’s effect on the present. One hundred years later, in acknowledgement of the anniversary of the historic event, the United States took steps towards repairing those harms.

The 1970s Hawaiian renaissance – characterized by vibrant sovereignty protests and movements for land reclamation and cultural resurrection – culminated in the Congressional Apology Resolution. [3]  The 1993 U.S. Apology Resolution laid the groundwork for reconciliation between the U.S. and Native Hawaiians. Through the Resolution, the U.S. apologized for its role in the 1893 “illegal overthrow”, formally committing to reconciliation in light of the resulting cultural devastation, taking of land and continuing socio-economic harms.  Specifically, Congress “express[ed] its commitment…to provide a proper foundation for reconciliation between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people.” [4]  In essence, the U.S. government made a promise to Native Hawaiians – a promise that, 14 years later, remains largely unfulfilled.

II.  E Hō‘ā Kākou i ka Lama Kūpono
(Let us light the torch of justice and reconciliation)

Because of the United States’ promise of reconciliation [5] , the Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice commenced a series of meetings with Native Hawaiians.  In late 1999, representatives of each Department consulted the Native Hawaiian community on Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and in Hilo and Kona on Hawai‘i Island. More than 300 people attended formal meetings on Oahu. Hundreds testified, and 265 submitted written statements. These statements touched on topics ranging from sovereignty to community and economic development, and from health and education to housing. In August 2000, the Departments jointly issued a detailed report on the reconciliation process based on the community input, thus recommitting the U.S. to a reconciliation process. 

The Joint Reconciliation Report encouraged acts of reconciliation to heal the wounds of Native Hawaiians.  According to the Report, “the time has come for the United States Government and Native Hawaiians to join hands to repair the past and build a better future, based upon righteousness and justice, and guided by the spirit of healing and aloha to fulfill the goal of reconciliation.” In acknowledging the 1993 Apology Resolution and formally recommitting to reconciliation, the Departments cast the following recommendations in terms of moral responsibility and justice. These American promises were: (1) Native Hawaiian self-determination over their own affairs within the framework of Federal law, and new legislation to clarify their political status; (2) establishment of an office in the Department of the Interior to address Native Hawaiian issues; (3) assignment by the Department of Justice of an Office of Tribal Justice to maintain dialogue with Native Hawaiians on pertinent issues; (4) the creation of Native Hawaiian Advisory Commission to consult bureaus under Interior that manage land in Hawai‘i; and (5) addressing of past wrongs to promote welfare of Native Hawaiians.

III.   Is the United States Living Up To Its Promise?

But talk can be cheap.  A promise is only as good as the action that follows.  Since the Apology Resolution, the U.S. has taken forward steps, but in light of some backsliding, whether those steps are significant enough to fulfill the promises made is open for debate. 

The following is a brief assessment of government follow-through on each U.S. promise articulated in the Joint Reconciliation report. 

A.  Self-Determination and Political Status

For some advocates of Senator Daniel Akaka’s pending legislation [6] clarifying the political status of Native Hawaiians, the Akaka Bill is a potentially significant step toward fulfilling the first two promises for Native Hawaiian control over their own affairs and the establishment of an office in Interior to address such issues.  Senator Akaka originally initiated this legislation with Hawaii’s Congressional delegation in 2000 to extend the federal policy of self-governance and self-determination for America’s indigenous peoples to Native Hawaiians. Currently before Congress, the Akaka Bill would establish, among other things, a Native Hawaiian Interagency Coordinating Group to be composed of federal officials from agencies that administer Native Hawaiian programs, and would provide a process of reorganization of the Native Hawaiian governing entity. In 2004, a section identical to a provision in the pending Akaka Bill – creating the Office of Native Hawaiian Relations – was enacted by way of an appropriations bill. The office is housed within the Department of the Interior and serves “to effectuate and implement the special legal relationship between Native Hawaiians and the U.S.; continue the process of reconciliation; and fully integrate the principle and practice of meaningful, regular, and appropriate consultation with Native Hawaiians.” Haunani Apoliona, Trustee and Board Chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, deems the creation of this office “one element of the total vision of federal recognition.” 

While the Akaka Bill appears to address certain promises, it does not satisfy everyone.  President Bush’s administration opposes the bill as a simple racial preference. [7] Others in opposition believe that the bill gives too much control to the Department of the Interior and undermines Native Hawaiian self-determination. [8] Supporters of the bill, which include Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle’s administration, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and the Alaska Federation of Natives, seek to protect programs assisting Native Hawaiians, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawaiian Homesteads, and the Kamehameha Schools. Thus, both the Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian communities are split.  Differing interpretations of who benefits, who is burdened, and what is really at stake have transformed an idealistic piece of legislation into a controversial one.

B.  Promoting Native Hawaiian Welfare

The Joint Reconciliation Report also promised to address past wrongs committed by the U.S. by promoting Native Hawaiian welfare.  Since the early 1970s, Congress has enacted statutes reflecting recognition of this special relationship between the U.S. and Native Hawaiians. These laws addressed Native Hawaiians’ economic deprivation, low educational attainment, poor health status, substandard housing, and social dislocation. The enactment and follow through of the Native Hawaiian Education Act, Native Hawaiian Health Act, and Native Hawaiian housing programs appear to address the Joint Reconciliation Report’s fifth recommendation to promote the welfare of Native Hawaiians. 

The purpose of the Native Hawaiian Education Act (NHEA) is “to authorize and develop innovative educational programs to assist Native Hawaiians.” [9]  In 2001, Congress ratified the Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA) Act Reauthorization Bill [10] , a comprehensive education bill that reauthorized Native Hawaiian education programs under the NHEA. Congressional authorization for such programs, which have received more than $114 million in federal funds since 1994, was set to expire in 2002.  Legislative history shows that reauthorizing this legislation has not always been easy. But positive effects remain. The Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law, for instance, was established in 2005 at the William S. Richardson School of Law through a Native Hawaiian Education Act grant to support Native Hawaiian and other law students as they pursue legal careers and leadership roles. [11]  In early 2007, the Federal government allotted $34 million for Native Hawaiian education programs, under the No Child Left Behind Act and $6 million through the Native Alaskan/Native Hawaiian Institutional Aid provision of the Higher Education Act. [12]   

Since its inception, the Native Hawaiian Health Care Act of 1988 (NHHCA) provided $42 million for Native Hawaiian health care programs. [13]  In 2001, five federal grants totaling over $4.5 million were awarded to such programs by the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services’ Native Hawaiian health care initiative originally created under the NHHCA. Senator Daniel Inouye, author and advocate of the bill, said that “the grants awarded…represent a positive step forward in reversing…trends [of high rates of infections disease, accidents, dental problems, mental health problems, and teen births], and improving the overall health of Hawai‘i’s people.” [14]  In 2007, Congress budgeted nearly $14 million for Native Hawaiian health care under pending legislation known as the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act [15] , which was introduced in early 2005.  

The Native Hawaiian Housing Bill concluded that Native Hawaiians face the most severe housing shortage of any group in the nation. [16]  In early 2007, the House voted to reauthorize funding for the Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant and Native Housing Loan Guarantee programs for five years. [17]  These programs would ensure that the Department of Hawaiian Homelands continues to receive $8 million to $9 million annually for roads, water lines, sewer systems and other infrastructure to supplement State contributions.

C.  Failure to Address Issues and Maintain Dialogue

The U.S. government, however, has yet to address its third and fourth promises. It has not assigned the Office of Tribal Justice to maintain dialogue with Native Hawaiians on issues of concern, nor has it created a Native Hawaiian Advisory Commission to consult with the Interior on land management issues in Hawai‘i.  The Office of Tribal Justice acknowledges Native Hawaiians only if lumped in with Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, but there is no evidence of ongoing dialogue with Native Hawaiians. 

III.  Concluding Thoughts

According to the 2000 Joint Reconciliation report, “actions taken in the next several decades may well determine the survival of Native Hawaiian culture.” Since the Departments of Interior and Justice issued the report, however, there has been a sharp departure from the reconciliation process. 

For example, several Congressional representatives object to the Akaka Bill, voicing racial and constitutional concerns. [18]  Republican Senator Jon Kyl said, “To create a race-based government would be offensive to our nation’s commitment to equal justice and the elimination of racial distinctions in the law.” [19]  According to U.S. Representative Neil Abercrombie, the Bush administration is attempting to eliminate Native Hawaiian education and health care projects from its proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Additionally, Congress renewed funding for Native Hawaiian Housing programs despite opposition from a large segment of Republican lawmakers – only 45 Republicans joined 227 Democrats supporting the bill. 

Rice v. Cayetano [20] also cast considerable doubt on the validity of the ongoing reconciliation process. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a measure of Hawaiian self-governance by mischaracterizing Hawaiian history. [21] Despite government agencies’ aforementioned attempts at reconciliation, the Court failed to acknowledge the promise of reconciliation by ruling against Native Hawaiian control over their own affairs.

The struggle to properly frame Hawaiian history has slowed reconciliation efforts.  OHA Chair Apoliona views reconciliation as a long time in coming.

For too long, our ancestors and ‘ohana have waited for the United States…to make right the wrong that was committed in 1893, only to see the small steps taken for our benefit persistently attacked and maligned as being contrary to modern constitutional jurisprudence. Reconciliation has  been an option thus far denied. [22]

Yet whether reconciliation proceeds and for whose benefit is subject to much debate. Does it promote positive change for the Hawaiian people and for larger society, or is reconciliation simply maintenance of the status quo under the guise of change?  Regardless of one’s perception, one fact remains: the Federal government has barely scratched the surface in fulfilling its 14-year-old promise of reconciliation for the benefit of Native Hawaiians.


[1] John Berry, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, Speech at the ‘Iolani Palace Bandstand (Dec. 1999).

[2] President Grover Cleveland, Message to the Senate and House of Representatives at the Executive Mansion in Washington (Dec. 18, 1893). http://hawaii-nation.org/cleveland.html.

[3] U.S. Public Law 103-150, November 23, 1993 (formerly S.J. Res. 19, 103d Cong., 1st sess., 107 Stat. 1510 (1993)).  Hereinafter referred to as the “Apology Resolution.”

[4] Id. Emphasis added.

[5] According to John Berry (Assistant Secretary, Policy Management and Budget, for the Department of the Interior) and Mark Van Norman (Director, Office of Tribal Justice, for the Department of Justice), the Apology was the “first step in the healing process.” See Department of the Interior and the Department of Justice, Report on the Reconciliation Process Between the Federal Government and Native Hawaiians: From Mauka to Makai: The River of Justice Must Flow Freely (Draft Report), (August 23, 2000). Hereinafter Joint Reconciliation Report.

[6] S. 310/H.R. 505, 110th Cong. (2007) [introduced in the Senate by Senator Daniel Akaka on January 17, 2007]. Hereinafter referred to as the “Akaka Bill.”

[7] See Hawaii Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand, Hawai‘i Reporter , available at http://www.hawaiireporter.com/file.aspx?Guid=aefef5f6-a533-486a-9459-69113855dd1.

[8] B.J. Reyes, Hawaiian group rallies at palace against Akaka Bill, Starbulletin.com (July 21, 2005), available at http://starbulletin.com/2005/07/21/news/story2.html.

[9] Native Hawaiian Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 7902 (1988).

[10] U.S. Public Law 107-110, January 8, 2002.

[11] $600,000 grant will fund Native Hawaiian law center, Starbulletin.com (July 5, 2005), available at http://starbulletin.com/2005/07/05/news/story9.html.

[12] See Press Release, Dan Inouye U.S. Senator from Hawai‘i, Congress approves $62.5 million for Native Hawaiian programs for the remainder of the current fiscal year (Feb. 15, 2007), available at http://www.senate.gov/~inouye/07pr/20070215pr01.html.

[13] Native Hawaiian Healthcare Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. § 11701.

[14] Press Release, Dan Inouye, supra note 22. (Emphasis added).

[15] Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization Act of 2005, S.215[109th], introduced January 31, 2005.

[16] Joint Reconciliation Report, supra note 5, at 2.

[17] Dennis Camire, House OKs Hawaiian housing, HonoluluAdvertiser.com (March 29, 2007), available at http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/200/Mar/29/ln/FP703290362.

[18] Jerry Reynolds, Ten ways of looking at the Akaka Bill, Indian Country Today (May 14, 2007), available at http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id-1096415032 (statements made before Congress).

[19] Richard Borreca, GOP Senator Skews the Akaka Bill, Starbulletin.com (June 24, 2005), available at http://starbulletin.com/2005/06/24/news/story4.html.

[20] Rice v. Cayetano, 528 US. 495 (2000) (The Supreme Court held that because the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is an agency of the State of Hawai‘i, funded in part by appropriations made by the State legislature, the election for OHA trustees must be open to all Hawai‘i citizens who are otherwise eligible to vote in State elections). See also Arakaki v. Lingle, 314 F.3d 1091 (9th Cir. 2002).

[21] Sharon Hom and Eric K. Yamamoto, Collective Memory, History, and Social Justice, 47 UCLA L. Rev. 1747 (2000).

[22] Statement by Trustee Haunani Apoliona, Chairperson, Board of Trustees, Office of Hawaiian Affairs.  Testimony offered to the Committee on Senate Indian Affairs, February 25, 2003.