Hawaii Tribes

Native Hawaiians are descendants of the indigenous Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands who arrived in these islands 1500-2000 years ago. Native Hawaiians call themselves Kanaka Maoli.

Congress defines “Native Hawaiian” as “any individual who is a descendant of at least 50% blood quantum of the aboriginal people who, prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the area that now constitutes the State of Hawaii.”

Native Hawaiians are considered a separate ethnic group from the native american tribes of the continental US and they currently do not have any Hawaiian tribes.

Unlike Native Americans, Native Hawaiians were citizens of the United States from the moment of annexation in 1898.

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2007,(NHGRA), is a bill currently before the United States Congress. It was introduced as Senate Bill S. 310 on January 17, 2007 by U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and is commonly called the Akaka Bill.

The House version of the bill, H.R. 505, was passed October 24, 2007.

It is now currently scheduled for debate in the Senate. If it passes, the bill would establish a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity similar to the recognition of some Native American nations.

Hawaii’s Senator Daniel K. Akaka proposed the legislation to reestablish a sovereign nation-state of native Hawaiians within the State of Hawaii.

A great majority of Hawaiians, including those with Hawaiian blood, oppose the idea of granting de facto sovereignty to the 400,000 people who identifed themselves in the U.S. census as native Hawaiians, or “Kanaka Maoli.”

The bill would give the new tribe “complete legal and territorial independence from the United States and provide for the re-establishment of a Hawaiian nation-state.”

However, native Hawaiians and the state’s other ethnic groups have intermingled for generations.

An Office of Hawaiian Affairs survey in 1984 reported that 61% of Native Hawaiians had less than 50% native Hawaiian blood. That same report indicated that only 8,244 pure blood native Hawaiians existed out of the 208,476 total native Hawaiians surveyed.

While about 50% of native Americans on the mainland of the United States who govern themselves live on reservations set aside for them, those who might be declared native Hawaiians under the proposal live entirely among the rest of the population.

Under the proposed bill, they would be governed under a separate set of laws. In addition, the bill would set aside large expanses of land for native Hawaiian sovereign areas.

The Akaka Bill would allow ethnic Hawaiians to sign up for the tribe and vote for the tribal council, receiving federal recognition.

Other native Hawaiians, who decide not to sign up, would not be able to vote about tribal affairs.

(Federal List Last Updated 5/16)


(Not recognized by the Federal Government)



None – See the Akaka Bill Summary or full text.


The history of native Hawaiians, and of Hawaii in general, is classified into four major periods: antiquity (Ancient Hawaii), monarchy (Kingdom of Hawaii), territorial (Territory of Hawaii), and statehood (State of Hawaii).

The Hawaiians were a people without writing, who preserved their history in chants and legends.

Much of the early history has disappeared with the death of the kahunas and other learned men whose function it was to pass on this knowledge, by means of chants and legends, to succeeding generations.

However, enough has survived to indicate Hawaiians believe their history dates back at least a thousand years before American colonization.

Captain James Cook’s expedition made first contact with the Hawaiian people on the islands of Kauai and Niihau in 1778.

Estimates vary from 250,000 to 800,000 Hawaiians may have lived on the islands when the first Europeans arrived in the 18th century.

Over the span of the first century after European contact, the native Hawaiians were nearly wiped out by new diseases introduced to the islands. Native Hawaiians did not have resistance to influenza, measles, and whooping cough, for example.

The census of 1900 identified only 40,000 native Hawaiians. The census of 2000 identified 400,000 native Hawaiians, demonstrating a trend of dramatic growth since annexation by the U.S.

in 1898. In 1974, the Native American Programs Act was amended to include native Hawaiians. This paved the way for native Hawaiians to become eligible for some, but not all, federal assistance programs originally intended for Native Americans.


In the centuries before the arrival of Captain Cook, Hawaiian society was a highly stratified system with strictly maintained castes. 

Like medieval Europe and the other Polynesian nations, each caste had its assigned tasks and responsibilities.

It is the only state in the United States of America that once had its own kings and queens.From 1795 until 1895 Hawaii was a monarchy, but it was not until 1810 that there was a single king over all Hawaii, with the reign of Kamehameha.

Before then, there were a number of small kingdoms that divided the islands and were often at war with each other.

In each of these small kingdoms, the king, headed Hawaii’s social pyramid, assisted by a chief minister and a high priest.

Next in ranking were the ali’i or chiefs, who varied in power depending on ancestral lineage and ability. Persons especially trained in the memorization of genealogies were important members of a chief’s retinue because a chief’s ranking in society was determined by the legitimacy of his genealogy.

Chiefs ruled over portions of the land at the whim of the king, who could remove and replace them according to a system of rewards and punishments.

Below the chiefs in temporal power, but often far above them in spiritual power, were the kahuna, or priest craftsmen. They were specialists in professions such as canoe-building, medicine, the casting and lifting spells, and in other fields.

The majority of Hawaii’s people were commoners (makaainana), subjects of the chief upon whose land they lived. They did most of the hard work: building fishpond walls and housing, fishing, farming, and making tapa cloth.

The commoners paid taxes both to the king and to their chief and provided some warriors for the chief’s army. These taxes took the form of food, clothing and other products.

Below the commoners were a numerically small group of people known as “kauwa” or outcastes. Little is known of their origins or of their true role in Hawaiian society, although they were believed to be slaves of the lowest order.

The Kapu System is what cemented the ancient social structure. The word, known in English as “taboo” meant sacred or prohibited. Violators were swiftly punished by being strangled or clubbed to death.

A commoner had to be careful lest his shadow fall across the person of a high chief, and he had to be quick to kneel or lie down in the presence of such sacred persons.

Birth, death, faulty behavior, the building of a canoe, and many other activities were regulated by the kapu system, which permeated all aspects of ancient Hawaiian life.

The Hawaiian temples (heiau) contained images which symbolized the gods. The four major gods were known as Ku, Kanaloa, Lono and Kane, who represented the universal forces.

Commoners performed their own simple ceremonies to family or personal gods (aumakua) while the complicated religious life of the ali’i required the services of a kahuna in large temple complexes. In some temples, human sacrifices took place.


300 – 900 A.D. – Polynesians arrive by outrigger canoe from Tahiti.

600 or 700 AD – First, from the Marquesas, came a settlement.

1100 AD – A second migration from the Society Islands.

The exact date is unknown and probably will remain so forever. But sometime after the beginning of the Christian era, Polynesians first set foot on these islands.

Linguistic and cultural evidence suggest that the first inhabitants came from the Marquesas Group, to the north of Tahiti.

The language of Hawaii and archaeological discoveries indicate that Hawaii was settled by two distinct waves of Polynesian migration.

Cook himself knew that the original Polynesian discoverers had come from the South Pacific hundreds of years before his time.

First, from the Marquesas, came a settlement as early as 600 or 700 AD, and then from the Society Islands, another migration about 1100 AD.

Lacking instruments of navigation or charts or any kind, the Polynesians sailed into vast oceans. They relied on their knowledge of the sky and its stars, the sea and its currents, the flight of birds and many other natural signs.

They were superior seamen of their time. These travelers came from the South Pacific, across 4,000 miles of open ocean, with only the stars and knowledge of the currents to guide them.

They brought livestock, seeds, tools, food, and fresh water, along with a rich culture, lyrical language, and a well-established way of life. The name “Hawaii” is a form of Hawaiki, the legendary name of the Polynesian homeland.


Article Index:

Future of the Hawaiian Nation-Building Effort

Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana’opono Crabbe urged OHA trustees on Thursday morning to extend the timeline for nation-building and consider opening up a second roll for those Native Hawaiians who disagree with the current process.

CEO recommends extending process and creating a separate roll for those Native Hawaiians who disagree with the current process.

More than 100 people crowded into a hearing room at OHA headquarters to hear an update on the agency’s progress on facilitating Hawaiian nationhood and share their thoughts on the best path forward.

OHA, a semi-autonomous government agency charged with helping to better the lives of Native Hawaiians, conducted an aggressive public outreach campaign over a six-week period from March to May to gather signatures for the Kana’iolowalu Roll.

The list of names, estimated at over 130,000, is intended to serve as a basis for electing delegates and holding a constitutional convention as soon as this October.

But Crabbe recommended that trustees lengthen the process by six to nine months in response to community feedback that there should be more time for public outreach and education.

Kehaunani Abad, OHA’s community engagement director, described the Native Hawaiian community’s comments on nation-building as remarkably consistent, explaining that while most people supported OHA’s goals, many had concerns about the way the agency is managing the process.

Crabbe suggested trustees not only extend the timeline but boost public education about Hawaiian history and the options for nation-building. OHA has already conducted 20 town halls and 11 additional meetings, while also placing newspaper and radio advertising.

Separate roll for Native Hawaiians who have shied away from the current process

Crabbe also urged trustees to consider opening up a separate roll for Native Hawaiians who have shied away from the current process out of fear that its outcome is predetermined because OHA is a state entity.

Abad said a second registration process would “ensure that the nation doesn’t begin with a significant divide within the lahui (nation).”

But there already appears to be widely differing views about what a Hawaiian nation would look like.

Some want the ongoing nation-building process to move forward as planned and believe federal or state recognition is the best option for the indigenous community. Nearly a dozen people held up signs at Thursday’s hearing indicating that they have signed and support the current roll.

But many others want greater independence, citing the current occupation of the Hawaiian Kingdom by the U.S. government.

A popular refrain during public testimony Thursday morning was that Hawaiian sovereignty endures and that federal recognition similar to that of many Native American tribes wouldn’t be adequate.

The disagreement is reflected within OHA itself. Recently, Crabbe sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seeking a legal opinion on whether the Hawaiian Kingdom, overthrown in 1893, still exists. And if it does, what does that mean for OHA and its efforts to rebuild a Hawaiian nation? The Board of Trustees later rescinded the letter.

Trustee Rowena Akana said she was annoyed at Crabbe’s proposal to delay the process and the continuing dissent from many in the community.

“After a while it gets kind of ridiculous,” Akana said. “Why do Hawaiians have to look like we’re such idiots fighting with each other all the time?”

But several other trustees said they support Crabbe’s recommendations. Trustee Dan Ahuna emphasized that the 350,000 Native Hawaiians who chose not to sign the roll deserve to be heard.

OHA may not be the best agency to facilitate the nation-building process

Crabbe told reporters after the hearing that OHA may not be the best agency to facilitate the nation-building process, which he described as a work in progress.

But he said that there is “political will amongst our people to establish or restore our government that is an extension of the legacy of Queen Liliokalani.”

While he wants the agency to proceed with caution, he said, “It’s imperative for us to establish some political protection as soon as possible.”

The question is what that looks like in the 21st century.

About the Author

Anita Hofschneider is a reporter at Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at anita@civilbeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @ahofschneider.