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New state agency gives native Hawaiians an ally in government

Just a stone's throw from Hawaii's modern state capitol building stands I'olani Palace, a constant reminder of the Hawaiian monarchy that once ruled these islands -- and which was overthrown by Americans 89 years ago.

It is an act that has never been forgotten here. And today it is at the heart of an increasingly active -- and vocal -- native Hawaiian movement.

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That movement's main thrust is in helping Hawaiians gain access to power in a system created by haoles (whites), from which they have long felt excluded. Activists see the economic and political system as firmly rooted in the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani by pro-annexation Americans in 1893.

''Historically, the participation of Hawaiians in the public process has been nil,'' explains A. Frenchy DeSoto, an outspoken and well-known leader in the movement. ''The Hawaiian community is playing catch-up.''

Perhaps the most important development in Hawaiians' struggle to catch up has been the establishment of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), a government office which Mrs. DeSoto helped create, and where she is now chairman of the board of trustees.

First proposed in 1978 at the state's constitutional convention by the Hawaiian Affairs Committee, OHA became the first and only state office to be established by constitutional amendment when it was overwhelmingly approved by voters in a 1980 election.

Although all residents of Hawaii were eligible to vote on the creation of OHA , only Hawaiians -- the approximately 170,000 individuals in the state containing some percentage of Hawaiian blood -- were allowed to elect the nine Hawaiian trustees who oversee OHA.

Set up to promote the betterment of conditions of Hawaiians, OHA operates, in effect, as a fourth branch of government. Although it is dependent on the state Legislature for some funds, it is not responsible to any government offical or department -- only to the Hawaiian people.

That distinction sets it apart from the handful of nonprofit groups that work with Hawaiians in the legal and educational areas, and from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which oversees the 200,000 acres of land given to native Hawaiians in 1921 by the federal government, and whose chairman is appointed by the governor.

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''Those groups have no accountability, or very little accountability to the Hawaiian people,'' says Mrs. DeSoto, pointing out that OHA does through the elective process.

Not all the Hawaiian people, however, applaud OHA's efforts. Some say the 15 -month-old office has moved too slowly. Others disagree over its priorities. Many eye OHA suspiciously as a part of the government process which they have distrusted for so long.

OHA has set land issues as its main concern, followed by economic development , culture, education, and health and human resources. Its most controversial challenge to date, however, has been over the definition of ''Hawaiian'' and ''native Hawaiian.''

By congressional definition, a native Hawaiian is one whose blood is 50 percent or more Hawaiian; a Hawaiian is an individual who simply has some amount of Hawaiian blood. Although the issue may appear to be one of semantics, it is significant: Money from revenues generated from the leasing of public land can by law be used only for the betterment of ''native Hawaiians'' -- a stipulation which has caused friction for OHA.

Already, the controversy has led to a court challenge. Last fall a suit challenged OHA's legality on the grounds that the state should not spend money bettering the condition of Hawaiians without considering blood percentages. A motion to rehear the case, dismissed last September on grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction, is now pending.

Eventually, says a state deputy attorney general, another legal challenge may be expected on grounds that OHA singles out a racial group for betterment through use of taxpayers' dollars. No such suit has been filed.

In the meantime, OHA staffers say they hope to ease the conflict with a budget request for $2.3 million -- money which would allow the office to launch programs aimed at the entire Hawaiian community. In addition, OHA has asked the legislature to use state surplus monies to establish a $10 million Hawaiian Affairs Trust Fund for all Hawaiians.

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