Native Hawaiians could soon have their own government, independent of the United States. Today, polls open for a 30-day voting period during which Native Hawaiians will have the opportunity to elect delegates who will create that government. The delegates will then meet for eight weeks this winter to draft a constitution that—if ratified by the people—will guide them toward self-governance, deciding everything from the structure to how it will interact with folks in Washington, D.C. The 122,000+ Native Hawaiians registered with the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission are currently the only indigenous group in the U.S. that lacks an independent political structure.

Having their own government would restore their freedom to regulate activities on their land, make and enforce civil and criminal laws, levy their own taxes, determine their own membership, and exclude others from tribal lands.

The path to sovereignty was blown wide open in September, with the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a rule that outlines how a Native Hawaiian government could set up a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States. If the delegates opt to create that relationship, the new independent government would join 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. This status would qualify Native Hawaiians for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including healthcare, financial support for administering government program services, firefighting and natural disaster services, road building and maintenance, and loan programs for entrepreneurs. 

“People come to Hawaii and think it’s just a tourist destination,” Rowena Akana, a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs who is seeking a delegate spot told
Aljazeera America. “They know nothing about how the natives here have suffered and still suffer today. This election is very important because it’s an opportunity to seek some reparation. This is our chance to make a comeback.”

Hawaii effectively lost its independence back in 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani was forced to give power to a group of businessmen who threatened to unleash Marine firepower on her people if she didn’t comply. More than 120 years later, Native Hawaiians suffer from increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers as well as high rates of HIV infection; lack of health coverage; relatively low high school graduation rates; and high poverty and housing insecurity rates.

From the website of Na’i Aupuni, the nonprofit that is organizing the election: 

Native Hawaiians have a right to pursue justice for historical and ongoing wrongs negatively impacting them since their government was overthrown. 

Native Hawaiians have a right to protect their traditional and customary rights and their natural and cultural resources. 

Native Hawaiians have a right to choose their own form of government.

“For the first time in over a hundred years, there will be a definitive voice on Native Hawaiian issues,” Robin Danner, who sits on the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, told Aljazeera America. “A definitive and recognized government to speak for our culture, our people, our issues, instead of county or state government attempting to have a sub-committee within their agencies or structures to mouthpiece the value of native viewpoints, which has not worked well at all.”

But not everyone is in support of the measure. A small group of non-Hawaiians and Hawaiians filed a lawsuit and sought to halt the election, calling it discriminatory. But U.S. District Court Judge Michael Seabright ruled that as a private election, it is not unconstitutional for organizers to limit eligibility by race. 

“The real harm of this election is it fosters a kind of racial discrimination that damages our greatest product in Hawaii, the aloha spirit,” Keli’i Akina, president of opponent Grassroot Institute, told Aljazeera America. “The net effect of a race-based election to establish a race-based government will only serve to divide people from one another. Racial tensions are already on the rise in the nation and it’s a terrible thing to also see this becoming the case in the Aloha state.”

(H/t Aljazeera America