Oswald Stender shares some of his thoughts on all things Hawaiian, from sovereignty to ditching the Akaka Bill
Oswald “Oz” Stender has successfully run for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee four times. He hasn’t campaigned once. He hasn’t had to. After putting his career on the line by denouncing his fellow Bishop Estate trustees and calling for reform of the multibillion-dollar trust in what was one of the biggest scandals of the ’90s, Oz practically became a household name. A decade later, Oz is still championing Native Hawaiian issues.
On the Akaka Bill
I say forget the Akaka Bill. My view, and it’s not a popular view around here, is to forget sovereignty, forget all the property rights and governance issues, forget all that stuff.
You can always come back and do those things. All we want is native recognition. That sets Hawaiians apart from the other citizens in this country, and declares [them] a special group of people, just like Congress has done for the Indians and the Alaskans. What that does is take us out of the 14th Amendment issues regarding racial preference. Then all the challenges that Kamehameha Schools and OHA and [Department of Hawaiian Homeland] face—they don’t go away, but at least we’ve got a strong line of defense that already has precedence before the Supreme Court. A lot of cases have been granted in favor of the Indians because congress has given them special status.
On ceded lands
During the overthrow [of the Hawaiian Monarchy], 1.8 million acres were taken from the Hawaiians, but only 1.2 million acres were returned to the state. If the overthrow was illegal, which the federal and state governments admitted it was, then we should get all 1.8 million acres back. Not just 20 percent of the revenues from the lease of state lands [roughly $15 million each year], which is what we get now. But we’re not asking for all the land back. We’re not even asking for 100 percent of the revenues. That’s unrealistic. What we want is the back rent the state owes us from 1978 [to 2005], which is when we should have started receiving the payments. That’s our goal this year.
On Hawaiians in business
Back in the day, everything on the front page was all the bad things Hawaiians did. There was nothing good about Hawaiians. I was in the business community—I knew there were a lot of good Hawaiians. Then I learned it wasn’t popular to tell people you were part Hawaiian. Johnny Bellinger, who was president of First Hawaiian Bank, he was Hawaiian and nobody knew. So we started the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce to let the world know that there are good Hawaiians around. We’re in business. We are successful. We speak English, and all of that.
On Gov. Linda Lingle
I’m impressed with her aloha for Hawaiians. When she came to Hawaii from New York, she lived on Molokai for 10 years. She got to know the Hawaiians and she loves the Hawaiians. When she first ran for governor, OHA had a forum and we asked her questions about how she was going to deal with the Hawaiians and she was right on target. She said, “Look at my Cabinet, and the people on my campaign—all Hawaiians.” When we asked the same question to Mazie Hirono, who was her opponent, she said, “Well, I’m sure we can teach them to be department heads.”
I’m a nonpartisan. I vote for the person. I don’t vote the party line. Although in the days when you had to register, I registered as a Republican. But I’ve always looked at the person. I look for their values. I want to see if their values are similar to Hawaiian values, or even the 10 commandments. And you can only sense that in politics, because people say one thing and do something else. But with enough conversation, you can find out exactly where they are.
On OHA’s failed attempt to purchase KGMB
Originally, I looked at it as a venue for Hawaiians to get the word out. An ethnic station. But the FCC has so many rules governing that sort of thing that it wasn’t going to happen. As I looked into it though, I realized it was a pretty darn good business investment. That station netted over $3 million a year. On top of that, the station comes with the land underneath it, worth about $20 million. I was very disappointed that the trustees wouldn’t let me do the due diligence on it. We could’ve made some money on that deal, but the other trustees are very risk averse. They’ve got little experience in business, but none in real estate in particular.
On OHA’s status as a government agency
We’re a government agency only by fiat. We’re like a stepchild of the government, yet we’re stuck with that ‘government’ label. One of the problems with that is that we have to live under the sunshine law – we have to publish everything we do. When we looked into buying KGMB, everybody found out. Same thing with Moanalua Park. We were trying to buy the park, but because we had to publish the whole thing, the guy who was bidding against us bid $100,000 more than we did and waived all the conditions we put on our purchase. So he got it. We cannot do real estate this way. We can’t do business this way.
I’m convinced we’ll never get there, because there are 28 different ideas as to what form sovereignty should take. The ideas run from a nation within a nation all the way to seceding from the union—which I don’t think most Hawaiians want to see happen. I don’t want to see that happen. I tell Hawaiians, how many of you retired from the government? Do you realize if we become sovereign you lose your pensions? You don’t get Medicaid. You don’t get Medicare. You don’t get Social Security. You sever yourself from the mother country, you sever yourself.