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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs


The Establishment of OHA

OHA grew out of organized efforts in the 1970s to right past wrongs suffered by Native Hawaiians for over 100 years. Hawaiians’ newfound activism brought their plight to the consciousness of the general public, leading grassroots leaders to propose, at the time, that income from land taken from the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom be used to benefit Hawaiians.

After voters of all backgrounds agreed, OHA was born in 1978.

The Kukulu Hou video provides a historical perspective of OHA covering its origins up to 2012.

State Constitutional Convention of 1978

OHA was born of a collective and compassionate effort on the part of the delegates to the state Constitutional Convention of 1978. They spoke to a sense of justice, to the righting of wrongs suffered by the Indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands for exactly 200 years. The arrival of Captain Cook in Hawai‘i had brought not only increased contact with the world beyond the islands’ pristine shores, but also diseases that devastated the native population, and a way of life that depressed the circumstances of those remaining.

The terms of statehood had considered the plight of the Hawaiian people, specifically in the Admission Act of 1959. Section 5(f) of the Act refers to the crown and government lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which had been designated “ceded” to the Republic of Hawai‘i and then to the United States. The Act conveyed these lands to the new State of Hawai‘i with the caveat that revenues were to constitute a trust for five purposes. One of these was the betterment of the conditions of Native Hawaiians. By any measure, those conditions were sorely in need of improvement, but, by 1978, they had not changed for the better as the state’s trust obligation went ignored.

Changing Times

The indigenous people of Hawai‘i rediscovered their roots in the context of a rapidly changing environment. Early in the 1960s, jumbo jets began to arrive in Hawai‘i, and they were quickly followed by jumbo hotels. In the next six years, the number of visitors to Hawai‘i doubled and by the end of the decade, the resident population had grown by 25 percent. New resorts, new highways and new subdivisions sprouted on virgin shores and sprawled into valleys and cane fields.

The stress was felt most by rural Hawaiians who were still living in close contact with the land and sea, on the fringe of the expansion. Suddenly, their lives were shaken by eviction notices and “No Trespassing” signs as exclusive condominiums and hideaway resorts reached the most remote and untouched corners of the islands. Lands that had languished for years were suddenly targets for speculation and development. Title to kuleana lands was challenged and lost.

Often farmers and fishermen had no place to go. Some decided to organize and fight eviction. For the first time in almost 200 years the maka’ainana stood up for their way of life. Their tenacious efforts, now legendary, meant Hawai’i would never be the same. Joining in the life-and-death-struggle around them, Hawaiian musicians, dancers and artists rescued a civilization that had almost disappeared, and from its remnants crafted a powerful renaissance.

In this context of emerging social and cultural activism, the seeds for OHA were planted. Some Hawaiians pored over law books, title records and old documents to better understand rights and entitlements. The years of persistent struggle raised the consciousness of the general public and brought the plight of Hawaiians to national attention.

In 1977, at an unprecedented series of “puwalu” sessions, representatives from 28 Hawaiian organizations discussed a wide range of Hawaiian issues and decided to look to the practices of their ancestors for guidance. Ordinary citizens became familiar with the 1840 Constitution, the Mahele, the Kuleana Act, the Annexation Act, the Organic Act, the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and the Admission Act. In later sessions, island representatives were elected to a mini legislature, which prepared a set of proposals called the Native Hawaiian Legislative Package. A new era for Hawaiians had been ushered in.

OHA at the Legislature

As part of its mandate to advocate for Native Hawaiians, OHA annually submits a package of proposed bills to the Hawai‘i State Legislature, and the agency’s Board of Trustees also votes to take positions on a wide range of legislation that affects the Hawaiian community.

The Legal Basis

In 1978, a Constitutional Convention was called to review and revise the functions and responsibilities of Hawai‘i’s government. At the convention, the Native Hawaiian Legislative Package was considered by the delegates. Among provisions incorporated into the new state constitution was the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a public trust, with a mandate to better the conditions of both Native Hawaiians and the Hawaiian community in general. OHA was to be funded with a pro rata share of revenues from state lands designated as “ceded.”

In fact, the public nature of these lands predated the creation of OHA by many years. The ceded lands, consisting of crown lands, once property of the Hawaiian monarchy, and of the government lands of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, totaled 1.8 million acres upon annexation in 1898. Pursuant to the Joint Resolution of Annexation, all of these lands were considered transferred or “ceded” to the United States government “for the benefit of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands.”

Upon statehood in 1959, the federal government returned to the State of Hawai‘i all ceded lands not set aside for its own use. Section 5(f) of the Admission Act, directing the state to hold the lands in trust, listed the following five purposes:

  1. The support of public education
  2. The betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians as defined in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920
  3. The development of farm and home ownership
  4. The making of public improvements
  5. The provision of lands for public use

In 1979, the Legislature enacted Chapter 10 of the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, implementing the changes to the constitution and making OHA a semi-autonomous “self-governing body.” Subsequent legislation has further defined the amount of the revenue stream accruing to OHA. OHA is tasked with addressing historical injustices and challenges. The convention delegates envisioned an agency that provides a form of self-determination for Native Hawaiians and advocate for their overall well-being.

Further, Section 10-4, Hawai‘i Revised Statutes, as amended, statutorily established OHA to be constituted as a body corporate that shall have the exclusive power to manage and govern OHA as an entity separate and independent of the Executive branch of government.

In discharging its duties, the BOT shall function in accordance with applicable state and federal statutes, controlling court decisions, and applicable regulations promulgated pursuant to statute by state and federal agencies. Opinions of the Attorney General shall be used for guidance in interpretation of applicable law. The BOT shall constitute a body corporate and each Trustee shall have the legal responsibility of a fiduciary in the management of OHA funds subject to the BOT’s control and management.

Hawai‘i State Constitution, Article XII

  • OFFICE OF HAWAIIAN AFFAIRS; ESTABLISHMENT OF BOARD OF TRUSTEES Section 5. There is hereby established an Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs shall hold title to all the real and personal property now or hereafter set aside or conveyed to it which shall be held in trust for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians. There shall be a board of trustees for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs elected by qualified voters who are Hawaiians, as provided by law. The board members shall be Hawaiians. There shall be not less than nine members of the board of trustees; provided that each of the following Islands have one representative: Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai and Hawai‘i. The board shall select a chairperson from its members. [Add Const Con 1978 and election Nov 7, 1978]
  • POWERS OF BOARD OF TRUSTEES Section 6. The board of trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs shall exercise power as provided by law: to manage and administer the proceeds from the sale or other disposition of the lands, natural resources, minerals and income derived from whatever sources for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians, including all income and proceeds from that pro rata portion of the trust referred to in section 4 of this article for native Hawaiians; to formulate policy relating to affairs of native Hawaiians and Hawaiians; and to exercise control over real and personal property set aside by state, federal or private sources and transferred to the board for native Hawaiians and Hawaiians. The board shall have the power to exercise control over the Office of Hawaiian Affairs through its executive officer, the administrator of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, who shall be appointed by the board. [Add Const Con 1978 and election Nov 7, 1978]
  • TRADITIONAL AND CUSTOMARY RIGHTS Section 7. The State reaffirms and shall protect all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupua‘a tenants who are descendants of native Hawaiians who inhabited the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, subject to the right of the State to regulate such rights. [Add Const Con 1978 and election Nov 7, 1978]


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