Courtesy Kevin K. Washburn
Kevin K. Washburn, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs

Working on Acknowledgment – Interior’s New Hawaiian Recognition Initiative

Gale Courey Toensing

This is an Interior Department. It is not an initiative of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. … We have an office for Native Hawaiians in one of the other branches of the Department of the Interior and they’ve long worked with Native Hawaiians. But it is something that we’re interested in and we are the experts – to some degree – on Indigenous Peoples so we’ve been offering guidance and advice from the Indian Affairs’ hallway. We also know that Indian tribes are interested in the issue and we’ve also been following it from that angle and making sure that we represent Indian country’s voice in these issues so we have been involved from the very beginning.

In light of the fact that Sen. Akaka’s bill [to grant federal acknowledgment to Native Hawaiians] failed through the legislative process for 14 years, why is this being taken up by the department now?

I guess the sense is that Native Hawaiians have been interested in doing something – organizing and having a government-to-government relationship with the United States – for a long time and, frankly, I know there are a lot of different interests at the Native Hawaiian level that sometimes go in different directions. Having said that, the purpose here is just to reach out to them and say, ‘How can we be helpful to you in your efforts, if at all,’ and our offer of assistance may be embraced or it may be rejected but we feel that it’s our [responsibility to reach out]. Our purpose here is just to reach out and see if we can be helpful to them.

The first question that popped up when I read the press release was how do you establish a government-to-government relationship with a community, which isn’t a government?

That’s right. I mean, I think that those are relevant issues [but] this is not even a proposed rule yet; it’s an Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making so it’s not even a proposed rule – it’s one step before that. It’ not even an initiative yet. We’re just asking questions here, really. And those are the kind of questions we need to answer, frankly, we need some guidance from that community. They have ben engaged in some organizational efforts and we’ve been watching from the sidelines and the question is should we be more than just on the sidelines as those questions are being keyed up.

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