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Sovereignty in Motion: An Interview with Uahikea Maile

Uahikea Maile is a Kanaka Maoli scholar and activist from Maunawili, Oahu. Maile’s research focuses on Hawaiian sovereignty, Indigenous critical theory, settler colonialism, and decolonization. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Journal of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and Abolition Journal. Maile’s forthcoming book Nā Makana Ea: Settler Colonial Capitalism and the Gifts of Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi examines Native Hawaiian activism and the development of settler colonial capitalism. Maile is also one of the coauthors behind The Red Nation’s recently released The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth, a practical toolkit and visionary platform for climate justice and decolonial struggle. Maile is an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Neil Sehgal: The Biden administration has made initial moves towards granting federal recognition to a Native Hawaiian government, similar to the recognition that many American Indian tribes currently receive. Yet almost 95% of Native Hawaiians, including you, are against recognition. Why?

Uahikea Maile: At a basic level, federal recognition, as it is defined by US federal Indian policy, is premised around a core tenet — the special trust responsibility of the US Federal Government towards Native American peoples and their nations. This trust relationship hinges on a specific principle: to reinvest in providing territory, land, and resources for Indigenous peoples in the United States who had previously been dispossessed. If that’s the initial principle for the special trust responsibility, then federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, one would assume, would be about providing land back. This is a safe assumption. However, the current offer of federal recognition, which is laid out in the federal regulations on formal acknowledgement, offers no land for a reorganized Native Hawaiian government.

That is why an overwhelming majority of Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Hawai‘i, and I are against federal recognition. The current offer masquerades behind ideas of self-determination, self-governance, and inherent sovereignty. At the same time, it minimizes the fact that under the current offer a federally recognized Native Hawaiian government would not receive a land base, would not have territorial jurisdiction in Hawai‘i, and would not be able to have lands taken into trust by the Department of the Interior. This trust responsibility, which is the pivoting point for this relationship between the Federal Government and Indigenous peoples, would not even be accessible. The ruse of federal recognition is a way to resolve the problem of how the US Federal Government has incorporated the Hawaiian Islands, but is yet to fully incorporate Native Hawaiians.

NS: Advocates for federal acknowledgment argue that recognition would bring about several tangible benefits. For example, institutions that benefit Native Hawaiians like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs would be protected from an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. Native Hawaiians would also no longer miss out on certain federal funds that tribal entities qualify for. What do you say to such proponents?

UM: We cannot not desire protections. We cannot not desire entitlements that we have been authorized to receive by the federal government and state government. It is sensible to understand arguments for federal recognition in the sense that they are arguments to protect our people, our community, and our scarce entitlements that are a product of colonialism. The issue is that it is a small piece of the pie, and I’m not interested in just one piece. I’m interested in the whole pie. That pie is our lands, our resources, our own government and self-governance mechanisms — not those small pieces that are gifted by our colonial government. 

What I would say back to proponents of federal recognition is to look at the fine print of the current offer. Look at how there’s no land back, no land base, no territorial jurisdiction, and no ability to take land into trust. Weigh the potential protective measures that would be afforded through a re-establishing of a government to government relationship with the US against these facts. 

According to the federal regulations for formal acknowledgment, if a federal government like the Biden administration were to recognize a Native Hawaiian political entity that applied for federal recognition, it would potentially be interpreted in such a way that the federal government and the state of Hawai‘i could finally achieve a wholesale acquiescence by the Native Hawaiian people to cede territorial jurisdiction over Hawai‘i. If federal recognition is argued to be a protective measure for language revitalization, for federal monies, for programs and services, for education, and for health, we have to also consider our relationship to Hawai‘i itself and the land, territory, and resources that have sustained our people for generations. That needs to be a part of the conversation when considering how federal recognition offers a level of protection from incursion.

NS: It’s clear that staunch opposition to federal recognition exists. Is the Biden administration simply unaware of this opposition? Or are they aware but simply have insidious aspirations?

UM: I don’t have a crystal ball or a direct line to Joe Biden, but the past two decades have witnessed US senators from Hawai‘i like former Senator Daniel Inouye and former Native Hawaiian Senator Daniel Akaka pushing Congress to pass a bill that would federally recognize a Native Hawaiian governing entity. There has previously been what is known as the Akaka Bill, put forth by former Senator Akaka, which would have reestablished a government to government relationship between the US and the Native Hawaiian community. That bill never got out of Congress.

It’s important to note that Hawaiian politicians are elected by all residents of the state of Hawai‘i, not just Native Hawaiians. That’s an important disparity that’s necessary to highlight because it impacts the way our senators and congresspeople bring issues related to Native Hawaiians to the US Congress. So although Daniel Akaka was a Native Hawaiian senator advocating for Native Hawaiians in Congress, he was flanked by non-Native Senator Daniel Inouye. Today, we see recently elected Native Hawaiian congressman Kai Kahele and non-Native Senator Brian Schatz also pairing up in this advocacy for federal recognition. Interestingly enough, only after being elected did Kahele publicly approve of federal recognition. And Schatz, who trained under Akaka and Inouye, is currently considering the right time to bring a bill back into Congress like the Akaka Bill.

So there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of self-determination in that process. Native Hawaiians should get to decide whether or not we are federally recognized, not Brian Schatz. But these are liberal Democratic politicians, Native Hawaiian or not, who see the importance of protecting Native Hawaiian entitlements, protecting our community, etc. They have a lot of good intentions, but the impact is still problematic and objectionable.

On the flip side, one reason why this hasn’t received approval by the executive branch is because conservative Republican politicians, especially in Congress, have decried for decades that Native Hawaiians are not Indians. This is a discourse that came into play as recently as Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in 2018, when Hawai‘i Senator Mazie Hirono brought an op-ed into the hearings that Brett Kavanaugh had written, literally titled “Are Hawaiians Indians?” It goes through a very ahistorical understanding of Hawaiian history and governance, and describes the legal responsibility of the Federal Government to engage in a relationship with Native American peoples as Indian tribes. Kavanaugh essentially argues that Native Hawaiians do not constitute the same political status that would allow them to be recognized for tribal governance and sovereignty.

Although it is an imperialist story of racism that Kavanaugh produces, it tells us how the question of whether or not Native Hawaiians are Indians works. On one hand, Democrats like Schatz, Kahele, Akaka, and Inouye are suggesting that Native Hawaiians should be afforded a level of tribal self-governance in accordance with federal Indian law and policy. This is clear and well-intentioned. Republicans, on the other hand, attempt to cordon off and contain tribal sovereignty as it’s instituted by the US Federal Government, and argue that Native Hawaiians don’t qualify. And this rests on an age-old form of colonial racism that, at the end of the day, seeks to eliminate the “Indian problem.” To start to bring Indigenous peoples into the fold of tribal sovereignty is scary and anxiety-producing for conservative politicians because it is an assault on settler state power and sovereignty.

NS: You mentioned that Kahele came out for federal recognition only after being elected. What explains his shift?

UM: There is an intense realigning in the Biden administration, which is appealing for someone like Congressman Kahele. There is an opening in the Congressional Native American Caucus in the House with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s seat as co-chair being vacated. I’ve heard Kahele has been courted by Haaland herself to take over that co-chair position. These political forces can transform one’s political agenda. I do believe that Kahele is a Native Hawaiian politician who wants the best for his people. We see that and we feel that, but at the end of the day, when you’re sitting in your office in Washington, away from your people, it’s a bit difficult to hear the overwhelming majority of folks on the ground saying “no” to the ruse of federal recognition.

NS: In the short term, what are the key obstacles to decolonization and sovereignty?

UM: Rather than the Hawaiian Kingdom’s government, having a new Native Hawaiian governing entity be federally recognized by the US could damage our ability to bring claims in international courts, as those claims could be adjudicated on the basis that a Native Hawaiian political entity has ceded authority to the US. This would be the first time in the history of the US-Hawai‘i relationship that anything could be interpreted this way. In fact, in Bill Clinton’s 1993 Apology Resolution, the US not only apologized for its illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s government, but also acknowledged that the Native Hawaiian people have never relinquished our sovereignty over our national lands.

Now, I’m not one for accepting apologies at face value, but I am one for paying attention to legal rhetoric. If we know that the Native Hawaiian people have never relinquished sovereignty over their national lands, and it’s enshrined in the US political order, then having a new Native Hawaiian government recognized by the US could be the final nail in the coffin for Hawaiian sovereignty.

While it’s a main obstacle, it is not the most pressing material obstacle that our people face at the moment. There are other obstacles like housing, poverty, and overdevelopment that are everyday forms of slow violence. And while federal recognition is slowly unfolding, these forms of slow violence taking place on the ground in Hawai‘i are visceral, painful, and death-dealing. Two of the richest men in the world, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg, own an inordinate amount of private property in Hawai‘i. Zuckerberg has used state legal mechanisms to traffic in the dispossession of private land through a quiet title process which has been incredibly toxic to the local community.

We’re also dealing with the overdevelopment of public land with the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) observatory on Mauna Kea, our sacred mountain. The TMT has not been built despite the fact that it is now a $2.4 billion project. Native Hawaiians have stopped the construction, and we have been criminalized, detained, and arrested. In July 2019, 33 of our kūpuna, our elders, were carried into police vans because they were exercising their territorial jurisdiction over the land at Mauna Kea. Some of them were 90-year-old wahine (women) in wheelchairs, and they are still facing charges for obstruction. This history of Native Hawaiian counter-dispossession is incredibly robust and rich. It was not the Office of Hawaiian Affairs or any Hawaiian political organization, but we as a community that came together to assert our territorial jurisdiction and to stop this project. This is a form of decolonization and part of an active movement of counter-dispossession that is over 130 years in the making in our tradition as an Indigenous people.

NS: Are you optimistic that full decolonization and true sovereignty could be achieved in your lifetime?

UM: The question itself betrays the reality, which is that sovereignty is already in motion, exercised, and practiced by our people. There are a few different Hawaiian sovereignty groups, such as the Acting Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi, Lawful Hawaiian Government, and Nation of Hawai‘i,. These are all collectives of Native Hawaiians that aren’t asking for federal recognition or some quasi-form of sovereignty to be bestowed on them. They are not simply waiting for some future court to reinvest sovereignty. They are practicing it on the ʻĀina, on the land. These are groups that are doing so unapologetically, knowing that our history is not just in the past.

As a personal example, I am Kanaka Maoli, a Hawaiian national, who lives in Canada and has taken up a post at the University of Toronto. In that sense, it is even more obvious to me how politicized my being here is, as well as how politicized my engagement is with other Indigenous peoples and nations in what is now called Canada. Canada actually confederated as a nation after the Hawaiian Kingdom was internationally recognized as an independent nation state by Britain and France in 1843. Canada’s government has invested $300 million into the TMT observatory project. When I engage with TMT administrators and Canadian astronomers, and with the National Research Council of Canada at the federal level, I’m engaging them as a Kanaka Maoli who is also representing our Hawaiian polityin a nationalist sense, because the land in Mauna Kea that Canada has invested $300 million in is unceded Hawaiian national land. When I present cases for divestment, which are cases for decolonization in Hawai‘i, these are discussions that are international forums of diplomacy and negotiation. These are discussions that take place between the federal officials of the Canadian settler state and me, not as a US citizen, not as a Canadian citizen, but as a Hawaiian, and that is sovereignty. These are forms of sovereignty that are not idealistic, but are everyday, dynamic, and embodied. I’m optimistic in the sense that this is an ongoing practice, to live and to engage in politics as a sovereign people.

NS: Due to COVID-19, Hawai‘i is facing the largest economic recession in its history. With the end of the pandemic in sight, are you optimistic that Hawai‘i will be able to reorient its economy and shift away from real estate and tourism?

UM: I believe that people in Hawai‘i are taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously for transforming the economy in Hawai‘i. Every day, Native Hawaiians are working on restoring streams, restoring taro patches, and restoring their farms and agricultural land. Every single day, Native Hawaiians are reclaiming and reoccupying their lands. The lands that were previously authorized for their family members by the Hawaiian Kingdom’s government. During the pandemic, I have seen my friends and family doing the work to take our relationship with the ‘Āina of Hawai‘i seriously.  I have also seen non-Native Hawaiians and Native Hawaiians building amazing coalitions in response to the compounding issues of policing in Hawai‘i, the toxic relationship that the state has with US militarization, and global tourism.

But I do not see the same with the state of Hawai‘i. The economy of the state of Hawai‘i is not diversified at all — it is fundamentally animated through the US military and through tourism. Military and tourist spending are the main sources of expenditure in the state. Without diversifying the state’s economy, the state and thus its residents, Native Hawaiians and non-Native Hawaiians alike, are at the will of the US military and of tourism. When the pandemic hit and the state of Hawai‘i closed for tourism, we saw bays, reefs, mountains, and hills flourish again in the places that tourists have destroyed. Since the state reopened the economy for tourism in October, there have been a million travelers to Hawai‘i— that’s not even matched the numbers from former years.

There’s a reckoning in place for the state of Hawai‘i. We saw that take place in how it managed CARES Act money and how poorly the Department of Health managed to track coronavirus cases in the state. We saw them blame local residents and turn a blind eye to tourists, so much so that there were tourists with coronavirus arriving in Hawai‘i and trying to go on vacation. I’m not hopeful about the state of Hawaii’s ability to transform its economy because that economy is exactly what authorizes the state of Hawai‘i to exist in the first place, military and tourism. But I’m incredibly heartened to see that there are people in Hawai‘i doing the hard work of transforming economic relations on smaller levels than the state’s political economy.

NS: Pacific Islanders have been in the news a lot lately as a group, not for reasons like being disproportionately affected by COVID or any of these forms of slow violence that you mentioned, but because the recent spike in anti-Asian violence has led to discourses like Stop AAPI Hate. What do you think of this grouping, this political coalition of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI)?

UM: I think two things about it. On one hand, the category itself is a kind of smashing together and homogenizing of very distinct peoples, communities, and cultures under one rubric: Asian American and Pacific Islander. There are significant consequences for Kanaka Maoli in our claims to Indigenous and national forms of sovereignty in Hawai‘i that are stripped away and rendered illegible in this monolithic category that is “Asian American Pacific Islander.” That’s a criticism that I have and share with many other Kanaka Maoli researchers and scholars of that category. I have to shout out my friend and colleague Lisa Kahaleole Hall, a professor at the University of Victoria, for writing some beautiful research that has helped inform my thoughts on the AAPI category.

On the other hand, there is a very significant form of coalitional relationality that the category can produce by aligning Asian, Asian American, Pacific, and Indigenous Oceanic peoples. It does not inherently produce it and is still a highly objectionable category, but it can. US immigration policy stands on a history of anti-Asian exclusionary tactics and we are currently seeing an intensification of xenophobia, Sinophobia, and racism through the neo-conservative discourses of the COVID-19 pandemic championed by former President Donald Trump. This is a historical pattern and we are seeing an intensification of it in this particular moment. I want to make clear, however, that this is not an exceptional moment, but simply a different moment for this pattern.

In Hawai‘i, this isn’t different. Recently, a 16-year-old Chuukese boy, Iremamber Sykap, was shot and killed by Honolulu police. There were suggestions of armed robbery, a stolen car, and a police chase. He had no weapons, but the police shot him multiple times. It’s a case of police brutality, and a case of violence against Asian American Pacific Islander people. In Hawai‘i, there is a significant problem in how Micronesian people are treated in racially discriminatory terms and viewed as highly disposable. The local community is in pain, grieving, and providing assistance to the Sykap family. But the community is also working hard to use this moment to transform the way we relate to, protect, and prop up racialized people in Hawai‘i like Iremamber Sykap, who did not have to be murdered by police for simply stealing a car. I hope those three police officers think a lot about their actions. I hope that the state of Hawai‘i produces a comprehensive investigation. I hope that this doesn’t serve as support for racist misunderstandings of Micronesian people. And I hope that it serves as a lesson to remember our collective shared humanity as Pacific Island, Asian, and Asian American peoples.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.