Legal Minds, Native Values
With a new executive director now in place, the team at Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. is marching forward, eager to continue protecting its community’s rights.
The Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. was founded during a time of change within the community — and the state writ large. It was the 1970s and people were being evicted from their homes, water rights were in jeopardy and Native Hawaiians were fighting to solve land issues under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. It was in this climate that NHLC took root and, since then, the nonprofit law firm has continued to provide low- to no-cost legal services to the Native Hawaiian community.
Now in its 47th year, NHLC recently announced the appointment of Makalika Naholowa‘a as its new executive director. Naholowa‘a stepped into the role after former executive director Summer Sylva was appointed to serve as the senior adviser for Native Hawaiian affairs to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
Naholowa‘a brings a wealth of experience to the position. Most recently, she was with Microsoft Corp., where she served as part of its legal department’s senior leadership team as the chief of staff for the general counsel. The Columbia Law School graduate is also a supporter of NHLC and has held leadership positions with the National Native American Bar Association.
She joins a dedicated team of professionals who are all driven by the vision — and very personal reasons — to care for the Native Hawaiian community and ensure that their rights are protected.
Henderson Huihui, 27, is an Equal Justice Works fellow and staff attorney for NHLC.
“I am a fourth-generation homesteader from Waimānalo Homestead,” he states.
Huihui was awarded a two-year legal fellowship from Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Works. Sponsored by NHLC, the fellowship aims to provide advocacy for Hawaiian Homes Commission beneficiaries. Huihui explains that homesteaders face issues ranging from successorship and lease cancellation to environmental concerns and internet access.
“As a homesteader, I personally experienced the issues that many in the broader Native Hawaiian community face, and I can speak to the stability that a homestead is able to provide an ‘ohana for generations. Having benefited from the homestead program, I feel that it is now my kuleana to advocate for homestead families and to provide them with educational resources that will help them retain their homestead leases,” he adds.
Director of litigation David Kauila Kopper, 38, learned about NHLC through his brother who had interned with the organization.
“Through him, I learned its decadeslong record of effecting change through landmark cases, and its focus on supporting the betterment of communities through the exercise of legally protected traditional rights. After working at NHLC part-time as an intake officer, I knew immediately that I wanted to further NHLC’s work and mission as an attorney.”
Kauila points to self-determination as one important issue facing the Native Hawaiian community.
“Many of our cases, past and present, focus on ensuring Hawaiian interests are meaningfully considered by government agencies and entities when decisions are made and laws are enacted,” he says.
He points to cases that NHLC has brought against the state that helped provide a voice for Native Hawaiians’ concerns with regards to the disturbance of burial sites and restriction of access at places such as Mauna Kea.
“The hope is that, if Native Hawaiian voices are considered, our leaders would act in their best interests,” Kauila says. “However, we have seen time and time again that commercial interests are chosen over the best interests of Native Hawaiians when the two conflict, and ‘consultation,’ which is often required for projects and actions affecting Native Hawaiians, is often treated as a box check instead of something more meaningful. It is clear that a seat at the table is not going to be enough to better the conditions of our communities; there needs to be a new table to accommodate various Native Hawaiian perspectives that ultimately place more importance on the preservation of cultural practices, values, resources and the communities that rely on them.”
For legal practice administrator/staff attorney Ashley Kaho‘omino‘aka Kaiao Obrey, 38, working at NHLC was a “dream job” when she was in law school, and she jumped at the chance to apply when the opportunity arose.
“For me, it’s about kuleana,” she states. “Growing up, I can honestly say that I had never planned on becoming an attorney, but I did know that I wanted to make a difference in my community and be a part of something bigger than myself. Bearing witness to all that had changed in Hawai‘i in just my lifetime and how that change has impacted Hawai‘i’s resources and its people (specifically Native Hawaiians), coming home from college with a journalism degree, I struggled with finding my role in all of this.”
She planned to return to school and focus on Hawaiian studies, until someone “reminded me of how important it was for Hawaiians to succeed in all areas of society, because that is how we can really move the needle for our people,” she recalls. “And with that, I pivoted and decided that law school would be a way to hone the skills I already had so I could contribute to improving the conditions of Native Hawaiians.”
The stated mission of NHLC is “to perpetuate, through legal and other advocacy, the rights, customs and practices that strengthen Native Hawaiian identity and culture.” The organization works to achieve this goal through the integration of “native values into the practice of western law and jurisprudence.” Its work helps to ensure Native Hawaiians can navigate the legal system while maintaining their “integrity and their values as an independent native people.”
Kauila points out that the navigation of the legal system is just one way to fulfill NHLC’s mission. He explains that the rights, customs and practices of the Native Hawaiian community are based on being good stewards of the land and each other so that everyone benefits.
“Natural resources will no longer be threatened by commercial overuse or military activities,” Kauila says. “Descendants will no longer have to worry that a development project will take precedent over ancestral burial sites. Hawaiian homestead beneficiaries will not have to wait decades to be awarded affordable housing. That is a just Hawai‘i.
For Obrey, there is one particular moment that distills the reason why the NHLC team does its work.
“I have a fond memory of my first contested case hearing, putting our kūpuna client on the witness stand for his testimony and listening to the way he shared his ‘ike — his traditional knowledge — of the relationship between fresh water while sitting at the table of the Board of Land and Natural Resources board room, surrounded by attorneys and files and controversy,” she recalls. “But his voice — everything he said I could picture as if I were standing with him in ‘Ewa, looking mauka at the rain, watching the drops become rivers and fresh water feeding the ocean.
“Even today, every time I reread his testimony (which I do from time to time), I am transported and feel like I can see with Uncle Henry’s eyes,” Obrey continues. “And I can’t help but think, ‘Yes, this is why we do what we do. This is who we serve and this is the ‘ike we need to protect.’”