Ka Huli Ao Student Summer Fellow Experience in Washington, D.C.
Keali‘i Sagum, 2L
This past summer I had the amazing opportunity to work for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as the democratic legal fellow for the Office of the Vice Chair, Senator Tom Udall (New Mexico). The Committee oversees all proposed legislation that pertains to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians and must unanimously approve a bill in order for it to move to the Senate floor for a vote. As a staff member, I provided legal research on current, pertinent issues to the Indigenous peoples of the United States, sat in on meetings with tribal members and leaders, drafted memos for the Senator to make informed decisions on bills going to hearing, and assisted with the coordination of Committee briefings and hearings. My work with the Committee allowed me to expand my knowledge of Native American issues and I quickly realized that Native Hawaiians and Native Americans have had a long history of support for each other.
One especially interesting experience was in the first week of my legal fellowship with the Committee. My first Committee Hearing that I sat in on was the initial hearing of a proposed bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA). NAHASDA is very important because, among other things, it provides the mechanism for federal funding of all Native housing initiatives (including Native Hawaiian Homes through the Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant). However, the proposed bill would essentially separate out Native Hawaiians from NAHASDA and not include the Native Hawaiian Housing Block Grant in the reauthorization. Being able to see the politics behind senators’ decision-making processes and how bills are drafted and introduced to Committee was an eye-opening experience.
It became evident to me that Native peoples need to work together now more than ever to ensure our rights as Native peoples are protected. Also, after that first hearing, it was clear that Native Hawaiians need a strong voice and presence in D.C. because the powers that be will continue making decisions on a federal level for us as a people with or without our voices being heard and our faces being seen at hearings such as these. Our two senators and our two representatives can only do so much to garner the support of other members of Congress who all have their own initiatives that they are pushing for their own constituents. That is why it is so important for us law students in Hawaiʻi to take advantage of opportunities such as this, to spend at least a summer in D.C., and to let the decision-makers know that we are not just some mythical tourist destination in the middle of the Pacific; we are a tangible place and people with very important issues that need addressing and funding, equally if not more critically than some areas on the continent.
Overall, my time as a Ka Huli Ao Student Summer Fellow in D.C. was an unforgettable experience that gave me real-world legislative experience working to create legislation that directly affects Indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians. I would like to thank the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, specifically Coti-Lynne Haia and Kawika Riley, for securing the funding that made my summer in D.C. possible. I would also like to thank Acting Dean MacKenzie for facilitating these summer fellowships/internships. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Native issues or the legislative process in general. If you would like to hear more or have any questions about my summer in D.C. feel free to email me at email@example.com.