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Schatz Conducts Field Hearing on Big Island For Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

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U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawai‘i Democrat, was in Hilo on Thursday to conduct a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs titled “Upholding the Federal Trust Responsibility: Funding and Program Access for Innovation in the Native Hawaiian Community,” focusing on federal resources for the Native Hawaiian community.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawai‘i Democrat, speaks Thursday during a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Hilo. (Photos by Nathan Christophel)

Field hearings can be conducted for a variety of reasons, from raising public awareness about an issue to attracting local media attention and reinforcing a lawmaker’s relationship with their constituents. Schatz came to the Big Island to hear directly from members of the Native Hawaiian community about how best the federal government can support them.

Since becoming chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, Schatz has delivered more than $270 million in direct funding to the Native Hawaiian community for housing, education, health care, food and agriculture, broadband and culture and the arts.

“Hilo is a place where rich tradition and cutting-edge innovation meet,” Schatz said in his opening remarks Thursday. “I’m interested in learning from the panelists about how you use those resources to serve the Native Hawaiian community.”

He said Native Hawaiian voices should always be part of the broader federal conversation about how best to support native communities.

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“That’s why we brought this committee to Hilo, to hear directly from you about the innovative ways you are advancing Native Hawaiian education, tradition, culture, economic development and arts,” Schatz said. “We want to hear about your successes, your challenges and your recommendations for supporting a thriving Native Hawaiian community.”

He wanted to have an informal conversation — to talk story — with leaders of the community to develop an action list they and the committee can work on together for the next several months and years.

“The federal government has a trust responsibility to act in the interest of Native Hawaiians just like it does with American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Schatz said. “And that trust responsibility cannot be fulfilled if the federal government is not hearing directly from community leaders.”

Hosted at Hale‘olelo, the home for the Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, the hearing featured two panels of Native Hawaiian community leaders who spoke about their various organizations, offering information about what they do and the challenges they face. Schatz also asked questions of the panelists after their testimony to learn how the federal government can help them more and encouraged them to reach out if and when they need assistance.

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The panelists who participated Thursday were:

  • Nāmaka Rawlins, senior director of Hale Kipa ‘Ōiwi program at ‘Aha Pūnana Leo in Hilo. The program is an outreach project dedicated to provide assistance to Native American groups who want to revitalize and are interested in the survival of their traditional language.
  • M. Kāhealani Naeole-Wong, head of school at Kamehameha Schools Kea‘au Campus.
  • Keiki Kawai‘ae‘a, director of the Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language at UH-Hilo.
  • Amy Kalili of Kailua-Kona, a partner at Pilina First LLP, a broadcast and media company.
  • Luana Kawelu, president of the Merrie Monarch Festival.
  • Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, adviser for the Hawai‘i ‘Ulu Cooperative; president of the Māla Kalu‘ulu Cooperative; and associated research professor at UH-Hilo.
  • Kūha‘o Zane, creative director at Sig Zane Designs and SZKaiao and member of the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation Board of Directors.
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz speaks with Aunty Luana Kawelu, president of the Merrie Monarch Festival, following Thursday’s field hearing in Hilo of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Schatz also hosted a field hearing Wednesday in Honolulu. Panelists for that hearing were:

  • Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, chairman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees.
  • William J. Aila Jr., chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission.
  • Kūhiō Lewis, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.
  • Sheri Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lōkahi, a health care organization aimed at improving the health and well-being of Native Hawaiians.
  • Dr. Winona Kaalouahi Lee, associate chairperson for medical education at the Department of Native Hawaiian Health of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at UH-Mānoa.
  • Elena Farden, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Education Council.

Schatz said having field hearings like those Wednesday and Thursday are invaluable.

“There’s really nothing like being in the room — with Aunty Luana, Kuha’o Zane, with all the leaders in Native Hawaiian education — to understand not just what they’re doing but how we can help,” the senator told Big Island Now on Thursday after adjourning the hearing in Hilo. “They can send us a letter, we could have a Zoom where they give us their input, but there’s really nothing like being here, being in person.”

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He said that’s how collaboration happens — “you have to do it in person” — and field hearings facilitate that.

“Then we go 5,000 miles away and do the work,” Schatz said. “But we’re pleased to be able to make that personal connection and understand what the needs are on Hawai’i Island and how we can be most helpful.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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