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Rubin, Winona (on native movements and politics)

Camille Naluai
March 2004

Winona Rubin has been at the forefront of the Native Hawaiian movement since its beginnings. Rubin is a well-respected leader in the Hawaiian community and sits at the head of Alu Like, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to assisting Native Hawaiians achieve social and economic self-sufficiency. In the following article, Rubin explains her role in the movement and where she hopes the future will lead for the Hawaiian people.

Camille: First let’s start with a little about who you are and what you do.

Winona Rubin: [Laughs] I hate to talk about myself. Let’s start with, I was born on Kaua‘i and I’m proud of being raised on that neighbor island. I came from a family in which Hawaiian was spoken by my parents. My father took the time to be sure that we were aware of our culture and every spot on that island and its history. Our background, for our family anyway, was rich in Hawaiian culture and traditions and ‘ohana.

My father being the oldest male in the family meant that the convening of the family at Christmas time was at our home. They came from all over the islands. He was one of 14 children, seven boys and seven girls. So, ‘ohana was very important. With that base, I grew up, I guess, integrating the Hawaiian culture into the education I received in the western world.

Camille: Where did you go to school?

Winona Rubin: I went to the public schools of Kaua‘i. I graduated from Kaua‘i High School. I went to University of Hawaiʻi and transferred to the mainland and finished my baccalaureate degree, then returned. When my husband was in San Francisco, becoming a lawyer, I taught at the public schools there in San Francisco. I received my masters there at San Francisco State. I have had the opportunity to be part of the Hawaiian movement early on when sovereignty was not the term that people looked at with favor. The community didn’t understand what that was all about. Therefore most of the people, at that time, used the word self-determination instead.

Camille: What year was that?

Winona Rubin: Oh, that was some 40–45 years ago. During that period of time, it was helpful for us in the community to be able to exchange our ideas about the future and self-sufficiency and self-determination. Those were choices being made by Hawaiians for Hawaiians. The process evolving in the community was that people took the opportunity of convening groups for discussion. The first Puwalu were many years ago, the initial one being at Kawaiahaʻo Church and at Kamehameha Schools, the dining room which was down at the lower campus at that time, and people came from all of the islands to discuss the issues and to make some decisions. At the initial Puwalu, the recommendation was made for representatives from different organizations to meet together as a ‘ahakaukānāwai. It’s that ʻaha that put together the recommendations that went to the 1978 Constitutional Convention for the beginning of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Since then, all kinds of things have evolved in the Hawaiian community and all kinds of organizations. This particular organization (Alu Like) had its birth when Myron Thompson was in Washington D.C. on other business and was on his way back to the airport to fly home. He was in the same cab as Senator Stevens of Alaska. When the senator spoke of the Alaska Natives having achieved some of the recognition under the Native American Programs Act, along with American Indians, Myron, we called him Pinky, asked to go back to Washington D.C. He returned to D.C. and asked the Hawaiʻi congressional delegation why Hawaiians were not included. So, the Hawaiians were included in the Native American Programs Act at that time, in the late ’70s.

The federal government admitted that it didn’t know anything about Native Hawaiians and they sent representatives to Hawaiʻi to meet with people from the Hawaiian community. Senator Akaka, who was aid to Governor Ariyoshi at that time, convened the meeting in the governor’s conference room. The Hawaiian leaders of the various organizations and the feds were there, and it was at that meeting that they indicated that the Office of Native American Programs should receive a grant proposal for a needs assessment for Hawaiians so that they would have some information and data about the needs to be addressed under the Native American Programs Act.

Following that meeting, we convened a meeting of representatives of 150 organizations state-wide at Kamehameha Schools, because the space was available, and at that meeting they decided that this new organization, at first a cluster of five people, should prepare a proposal on their behalf, send the proposal to them so that they could review what was being proposed, and offer on behalf on their organization’s support for the proposal. So the grant proposal from Alu Like was disseminated. The organizations reconvened. They gave their approval. Added to it an advisory board or council representing all the different organizations, to the Alu Like board, and then it was sent to the congressional delegation. They, in turn, initiated appropriation measures from the proposal, which was for a needs assessment. It was the fastest response ever by Congress to that proposal. It was funded shortly thereafter. Alu Like began operating out of borrowed, loaned spaces, Mayor Wright’s housing and at Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center, with borrowed furniture from all over including Kamehameha Schools. We went through their storerooms. With volunteers really, only 2000 volunteers state-wide and part-time staff. Staff that were paid for part-time services that worked full-time and had their families helping them. It was interesting and exhilarating times. The staff were trained by Kupuna Kanaka‘ole and others. The volunteers that were used in the needs assessment, half of them were Hawaiian speakers because we expected that they should be able to interview kūpuna in their own language. It was interesting times. With that kind of evolution, we were able to get the state health system to cooperate in their survey of Hawaiians with our survey of the needs within the community. We were able to provide the basic needs assessment information to the federal government for them to respond with funds appropriate to the level of need within the community. Interesting times.

Camille: Current news articles make it seem as if the federal government has forgotten about the Hawaiians and now the feds are trying to remember. There seems to be no knowledge of Hawaiians at a congressional level.

Winona Rubin: It’s interesting that Hawaiians, although inserted in the Native Americans Programs Act and being part of what was the Office of Native American Programs, which turned into the Administration for Native Americans, that segment of the federal government is aware of the indigenous populations that they serve. But that has a very minor, small part of federal acknowledgment with the needs and rights of indigenous people at the congressional level. Because they normally provide deference to states to handle their own. They don’t need full knowledge about these Hawaiians that are only tucked in to one of the states that they acknowledge as having Hawaiians. Attention or recognition doesn’t exist through the entire system. It’s only a small pocket a very minor piece of the total federal system. That has existed for many, many years. If at this particular point in time you look at what exists for indigenous people who wish to be recognized, the system itself is so layered with steps that have to be addressed. It doesn’t assist those native populations from getting assistance immediately. I think the senator himself pointed out that there are a hundred tribes waiting recognition to join the 500 that have already been recognized. Those 100 will have to wait many decades, scores of years, because they will handle only two a year, up or down, approved or rejected. If Hawaiians were administratively waiting in that line, it would be over 100 years before we ever had the opportunity to present our case. Any sort of attempt to accelerate any kind of response from the federal government is through the Native Hawaiian Recognition Bill. Certainly it is not perfect. But it is a means of getting Hawaiians to the table, sitting across from the federal government directly rather than through state entities, sitting across the table from the federal government to deal directly with issues and discussions about Hawaiians which haven’t been properly addressed by any of the government entities that Hawaiians have been dealing with over the years. At least that accelerates the prospect for Hawaiians in the future to have something happen sooner than later. All of the avenues, the administrative remedy as I’ve talked about; waiting a hundred years, and the international remedy which means waiting, probably, 30 or 40 or 50 years because currently Alaska Natives and Native American Indians have been waiting about that long and trying about that long on an international level. This is a reality. There are these kinds of things and understandings that the Hawaiian community in general needs. Part of the community, because it is not organized, two thirds of our Hawaiian community is not in an organization only a third of them possible, do not understand the urgency. They are too concerned with their personal survival, their families. You don’t blame this. That’s important, for that kind of personal survival. Unfortunately, that blinds some people to the larger picture of survival of Hawaiians in the total society. Once they understand how important that is for their children, and their children’s children, then you will find more people who are then focused on: let’s do something like self-determination.

Camille: That leads up to my next question. How would you go about getting more Hawaiians involved in our community?

Winona Rubin: I think the effort for enrolling Hawaiians is an important one. People consider—or the confusion is that they think that’s for purposes for elections or registration. Enrolling every Hawaiian, to me, is having every Hawaiian say "He Hawai‘i au," I am Hawaiian, I want everyone to know this, I’m proud of it. Also, to indicate in some way, for purposes for themselves, their ‘ohana and future generations that we matter, and it’s important for us to declare it. That declaration alone is an important first step. Many organizations have started their own type of enrollment. By stepping out and saying I am Hawaiian, I am concerned about the future, and I want to take part in it because I want to make a difference for the future, for my ‘ohana. That first step is extremely important, I feel. Once that step is taken, providing as many resources of information for them to be able to say "because I’m concerned, I need to know what’s going on and where those challenge to my survival are." So, once they declare that they are Hawaiian, they need to know what is. They need to know, or at least have the opportunity to know, what could be or should be in the future and then "how do I get there?"

Camille: Where do you see the future of the Hawaiian movement?

Winona Rubin: I see Hawaiians as being involved, not only in Hawaiʻi, but globally. I see the success of efforts for Hawaiians’ survival being more then just survival; it’s a means of translating to the world those values that are important to mankind in general. The basic concept for Hawaiians, and I’m looking at lōkahi, so many people have a superficial definition of lōkahi, I learned, when I grew up, from my kūpuna that lōkahi meant oneness of the universe, the harmony of humankind, the environment and spiritual forces. Those three forces need to be blended together in harmony with respect for all of them in order for survival of mankind. Therefore, in doing so, our culture reflects it, the esteem and involvement of the spiritual forces in every part of our being and our practice. The respect for humankind, whether they be Hawaiian or not, through the aloha spirit that we are talking about. The care for the environment that we say aloha ʻāina and everything around us. So, we took care to make sure that when we took from the environment, we replaced. There was that evolving cycle of what people currently talk about today, the environmental kinds of practices, we did as Hawaiians. It was part of our being. With that as a base from which a culture thrived until this disease took its toll, before foreign interests took its toll, that base is still an important part of life for us and should be part and parcel of life for everyone else in the universe. That oneness of the universe can be through Hawaiians and those raised in the culture impacting the entire universe, if we make it so. Through that, hopefully, the survival of the universe because there will be peace, harmony and mutual respect underlying everything we do. Hawaiians will be the disciples emanating from Hawaiʻi throughout the entire globe. I would envision that the outcome we are looking for is Hawaiians being an important and prominent part of every system that exists in this universe, whether it be governmental, public, or private sector. Through that kind of pervasiveness of Hawaiians, we will have a far better Hawaiʻi and world. For that outcome alone we must take a much stronger role now and in the future to lead that change, to facilitate that evolution toward that outcome and to make sure that our future generations of young people share that vision and make sure that they hone their skills in whatever areas necessary to make that vision happen. So, it’s important for people to declare that they are Hawaiian now and to prepare that groundwork for setting up a means through which they can deal with the system on an equal basis and assist and help that system to change appropriately for the future.