The decision, which comes three days before President Obama convenes his final White House Tribal Nations Conference, is also a symbolically powerful gesture toward his home state. Just last month, Obama created the largest protected area on the planet in Hawaii by expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
“This final rule provides the Native Hawaiian community with the opportunity to exercise self-determination by reestablishing a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Today is a major step forward in the reconciliation process between Native Hawaiians and the United States that began over 20 years ago.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the move was in keeping with a pledge Obama had made at the outset of his presidency.
"Well, the president took office vowing to strengthen the relationship between the United States government and tribal governments around the country, including the Native Hawaiian population," Earnest said, adding, "The president obviously does have his own personal connection to the Native Hawaiian population and the rich, cultural heritage of the Native Hawaiian people."
In 1993, Congress enacted the Apology Resolution, which expressed regret on behalf of the United States to Native Hawaiians for the country’s role in the overthrow of their monarchy. The measure also committed the federal government to a process of reconciliation.
University of Utah College of Law Professor Alexander Skibine said in an interview that given the fact that the number of people enrolled in the Cherokee tribe is much smaller, Native Hawaiians could "be recognized as the largest tribe" in the United States. As recently as 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected Native Hawaiians’ bid for formal federal tribal recognition through Interior's established process.
The rule, Skibine said, "allows Native Hawaiians to come up with their own government and their own identity. It’s going to be a long process."
Robert Lindsey, chairman of the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, noted in a statement, “Native Hawaiians have been the only major indigenous group in the 50 states without a process for establishing a government-to-government relationship with the federal government.”
“This rule finally remedies this injustice,” Lindsey said, adding that his office “will spend the next few days closely examining the rule to better understand how the Native Hawaiian people can — if they choose — pursue a government-to-government relationship.”
University of Colorado Law School Charles Wilkinson, who worked with Native Hawaiians on the issue in the 1980s, said their situation is highly unusual because "in almost all of the cases where tribes have been restored or recognized they have a tribal council, and that tribal council speaks for the tribal members the way governments do."
While Interior did extensive outreach on the issue during the two years it was crafting it, including holding 15 public meetings in the state during the summer of 2014, five sessions on the U.S. mainland and four three-hour teleconferences, the issue of whether Native Hawaiians should even be negotiating with the federal government remains controversial. Some scholars and native rights activists argue that since the occupation and annexation of Hawaii was illegal, Native Hawaiians should seek independence rather than reconciliation with federal authorities.
Jonathan Osorio, a professor of Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii, called the rule "not a sufficient remedy for what took place 100 years ago."
"What was taken from the kingdom and the citizens of that kingdom, it was not just the lands and the property of Native Hawaiians. It was an independent government," Osorio said in an interview. "My deepest worry about all of this is this is the thing that really ultimately divides our Lahui, our nation, is this offer by the United States to return a bicycle when it took an entire estate."
Despite the disagreements about the best path forward, Wilkinson predicted that a formal government-to-government relationship will give native Hawaiians greater power both in Washington and in their home state. "They will find being able to speak with one voice has enormous advantages," he said.
Although the rule does not provide Native Hawaiians with financial compensation for past wrongs or allow them to set up gaming establishments like many American Indian tribes, if they decide to form a government they will have an easier time filing suit in federal court. An official government could provide Native Hawaiians with control over some social programs and greater leverage with federal officials.
Rhea Suh, who served as Interior’s assistant secretary for policy, management and budget and now heads the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the rule is one of the clearest examples of how Obama has elevated indigenous rights during his time in office.
“One of the untold stories of this administration is the president’s leadership and commitment to native peoples,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the title held by Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, when she worked at the Interior Department. Suh served as assistant secretary, not deputy assistant secretary, for policy, management and budget. The text above has been corrected.