The Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Topic: Public Policies
Words: 903 Pages: 3


There are several Native Hawaiian serving organizations operating on various levels and fulfilling multiple tasks. One of the most significant examples is the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) – a state agency whose duty is to maintain, protect, and enhance “the wellbeing of Native Hawaiians” (Office of Hawaiian Affairs. About. para.1). OHA has accomplished a lot in this field throughout over forty years of its history and continues to implement projects and activities to support the indigenous Hawaiian community.

OHA as an Example of a Native Hawaiian Serving Organization

OHA’s Mission

OHA’s main purpose is to protect and support Native Hawaiians in various spheres of life: politics, economics, education, science, and culture. OHA’s self-proclaimed mission comprises taking care of “Hawaiʻi’s people and environmental resources” and utilizing its assets to preserve the Hawaiian culture and enhance Native Hawaiians’ lifestyle (Office of Hawaiian Affairs, About, Mission section, para. 1). Apo, a former trustee of OHA and a legislator, enumerates a wide range of activities that OHA implements to ensure the development of Native Hawaiian community. It includes granting scholarships, giving out loans for starting a business or improving living conditions, supporting research programs, building “strategic alliances with other Native Hawaiian institutions” and many other projects (Apo, 2015, para.7). All of the abovementioned activities serve one ultimate purpose – national and international recognition of Native Hawaiians’ authenticity and self-determination.

History of OHA

Establishment of OHA

The history of OHA dates back to 1893 when Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani did not willingly surrender to the US colonizers and “was imprisoned during a coup d’état” (Apo, The Origins of OHA section, 2015, para.1). Later in 1898, Hawaii was officially annexed by the United States and lost its sovereignty. Since then, the territory was full of continuous tension between the indigenous population and the colonizers who took over all the political and economic power.

The US government was aware of the tension and attempted to make amends. As Apo (2015) put it, the US generated “somewhat random government initiatives that seemed aimed at achieving some measure of emotional, if not political, reconciliation” (The Origins of OHA section, 2015, para.5). These initiatives acknowledged Native Hawaiians’ status as a separate class and provided them with land and funds to improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians (Apo, The Origins of OHA section, 2015, para.5-11). The federal government tried various ways to show that they were willing to reconcile with Hawaiians.

However, Native Hawaiians were not satisfied with those attempts, and many protests erupted in the 1970s. They were focused on various problems, but one of the main themes was the call for self-determination of Native Hawaiians. These protests led to the Constitutional Convention in 1978, which purpose was to right the wrongs suffered by the Indigenous Hawaiian people (Office of Hawaiian Affairs. History. State Constitutional Convention of 1978 section, para.1). Thus, OHA was established to represent and protect Native Hawaiians’ interests. The establishment of its Board of Trustees, its powers, and its traditional and customary rights are enshrined in Article XII of Hawaii’s State Constitution.

Rice v. Cayetano case

One of the most important points in OHA’s history was the Rice v. Cayetano case. It was based on the criticism of OHA for drawing a line between native and non-native Hawaiians and granting special rights only to the former. In Rice v. Cayetano case, the court considered it “racially restrictive in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment” (Pino, 2020, p.2577). The ultimate ruling was in favor of Rice, a non-native Hawaiian, who demanded the right to participate in the election of Board of Trustees’ members.

The ruling was criticized by Native Hawaiians, as it changed the essence of OHA. Former Gov. John Waihee said that verdict turned OHA from “a Hawaiian agency to an agency that provided services to Hawaiians” (as cited in Hofschneider, A Perpetual Identity Crisis section, 2018, para.12). Pino (2020) is also critical of the ruling for “its neglect of the history of OHA” and view on OHA as solely “a state agency” (p.2578-2579). This case showed that Native Hawaiians’ fight for self-determination is far from over, and OHA needs to remind the US government of its origins and purpose.

Criticism of OHA

Apart from everlasting criticism of being a race-based agency, OHA’s credibility has recently taken another hit due to various scandals. Hofschneider (2018) informs that OHA’s leaders were accused of misspending, corruption, and one of them, Peter Apo, was even charged with sexual harassment. Moreover, some voters no longer feel the connection to OHA’s trustees (Hofschneider, 2018, para.12). Nevertheless, according to Hofschneider (2018), the citizens admit that there is “still a vital need for the agency and its work” (para.13). So, OHA might not be perfect, and, like any other big and influential organization, it might face administrative problems but is still necessary and important for the Native Hawaiian community.


In conclusion, OHA is one of the most famous and successful organizations fighting for the self-determination of Native Hawaiians. This fight is based on the long history of tension between indigenous Hawaiian inhabitants and the US colonizers. OHA’s current mission is to protect the authenticity and wellbeing of the Native Hawaiian community. To fulfill it, OHA represents Native Hawaiians in the political arena, manages its lands and resources, provides scholarships, and funds programs to improve Native Hawaiian wellbeing. Even though OHA has recently become a subject of criticism, its role and significance for Native Hawaiians are undeniable.


Apo, P. (2015). Peter Apo: Why does the Office of Hawaiian Affairs exist? Honolulu Civil Beat. Web.

Hofschneider, A. (2018). OHA inspires hope — and disillusionment — for Hawaiians. Honolulu Civil Beat. Web.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs. (n.d.). About. Web.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs. (n.d.). History. Web.

Pino, L.M. (2020). Colonizing history: Rice v. Cayetano and the fight for native Hawaiian self-determination. The Yale Law Journal. 129(8), 2574-2605.

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