HONOLULU - The Native Hawaiian Roll Commission certified more than 125,000 people on its official register, completing a major first step for Native Hawaiians to form their own independent government that could seek federal recognition and the return of land to the Hawaiian people.
When all of the applications are finalized, organizers expect a total of 130,000 people to be certified, they told state senators on the Hawaiian Affairs Committee on Monday.
Hawaiians who signed up will have a hand in shaping the new government and will vote to elect delegates in September.
By establishing their own government, Hawaiians could seek to negotiate with the federal government to return military lands to Native Hawaiians, said former Gov. John Waihee, chairman of the commission.
"One of the things that could happen immediately would be the return of federal lands," Waihee said. "Instead of going out for public bid, it could be returned back to Native Hawaiians, where it should go anyway."
For example, if Ford Island was returned, that could provide housing for about 2,000 Hawaiians, Waihee said. Ford Island, situated in Pearl Harbor, is currently used by the U.S. Navy for military operations, training and housing, said Bill Doughty, deputy director of public affairs for Navy Region Hawaii. It also is home to a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility.
"Ford Island is an active military installation and an integral part of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam," Doughty said.
The new government also could protect Native Hawaiians' rights to water, land access and education, said Norma Wong, a consultant to the Hawaiian Roll Commission.
"Without the exercise of political action as a self-governing entity . . . we stand essentially to lose everything that we now believe we already have," Wong said.
While organizers of the Hawaiian Roll Commission stated some potential goals, the future direction of the group will be determined through the course of elections and a convention.
The group also could make a fresh attempt to secure federal recognition for Hawaiians, Waihee said.
To register for the roll, Hawaiians have to show Native Hawaiian ancestry, generally in the form of a birth certificate, said Naalehu Anthony, the commission's vice chairman. There's no minimum percentage of ancestry that's considered acceptable, Anthony said.
Registrations came from all 50 states and outside the U.S., but 82 percent of the enrollees were located in Hawaii, Wong said. Many of those who signed up were 50 to 65 years old.
The election will be facilitated by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and voting will be conducted online and through ballots that are mailed around the world.
After the election, the delegates will meet between October and November to draft a governing document, according to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Then those on the roll will vote to approve the document in January. The roll previously closed in January after the anniversary of the 1893 U.S. overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Hawaiians had presented the Kue Petition, stating their opposition to annexation, in 1897.
"Those of us in the room here who are Native Hawaiian are essentially the survivors of the people who took up the cause in 1897," Wong said. "It is not only important for us to say that we survived, but that our history will be a better one in the future than it was in the past."