Monday, October 1, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Akaka bill proponents
prepare to wait
for passage amid
weightier concerns

But others say the bill is flawed
and should be fixed before
a full congressional vote

By Christine Donnelly

While Hawaiians who support the Akaka bill remain hopeful it will pass this year, they are prepared to wait a little longer as Congress deals with more immediate legislation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

"We know that by necessity this bill is going to be quite minuscule on the landscape of much larger issues of national security and worldwide and international issues. We totally understand that," said Beadie Kanahele Dawson, a Hawaiian lawyer and businesswoman who helped draft the original legislation last year.

The bill, which would give Hawaiians the opportunity to create their own government and achieve a semiautonomous political status similar to American Indian and Alaskan tribes, has been approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee.

The required Senate committee report was issued Sept. 21. The bill is on the "general order" for a vote in the full Senate, but it is not known when it will come up for action, either independently or attached to some other legislation.

Supporters had originally hoped the bill would be voted on by the end of September, but that all changed on Sept. 11, when terrorists struck the Pentagon and New York. Since then, Congress has devoted most of its attention to bills on national security and recovery efforts. Countless unrelated bills from all over the country, including the Akaka bill, suddenly took lower priority.

Hawaii's congressional delegation "is still committed to moving the federal recognition bill if possible. We just don't know what the congressional schedule will be," said Paul Cardus, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii).

Cardus said it was impossible to predict when the bill might come up for a vote or whether it would be approved. A similar bill last year passed the House but died in the Senate.

Critics of the bill welcome the delay and hope it does not survive.

Mililani Trask, a lawyer and former Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, was on the working group that helped craft the original bill and supported that measure. But she opposes the current one, saying it has been significantly altered without public hearings.

The current bill deleted a provision that would have provided a "transparent and democratic process" for building a native Hawaiian government, she said. And it contains language that would limit the native government's ability to reclaim natural resources and gives the state an unnecessary role in recognizing the native government, she said.

While others were satisfied that a Senate Indian Affairs Committee report outlining the bill's intentions had calmed objections on those issues, Trask countered that it is the bill that counts, not the accompanying committee report.

"You can make all the representations you want in the committee report, but that is just a backup document. What really counts is the language in the bill," said Trask. "This legislation is so critical for Hawaii that I say let's work on the law until we have a good law, don't just throw it all in the committee report."

Le'a Kanehe, a member of the same working group as Dawson, agreed.

"Based on the United States' poor history with native peoples, I am not confident that the intent clarified in the Senate report will necessarily be followed if a conflict arises. The law is in the act, not the report," she said.

But Corbett Kalama, facilitator of the task force working toward federal recognition, noted that the bill has a better chance of passage now, with a Democratic majority in the Senate, and can be improved in the future.

"No piece of legislation that goes through Congress is perfect at the onset ... and the committee report does play a major role in explaining the intent for future revisions and modifications," said Kalama, a senior vice president at First Hawaiian Bank. "I think we need to move forward with what we've got."

The bill has faced opposition from some Hawaiian nationalists who want total independence from the United States and from some non-Hawaiians who say granting Hawaiians special rights will make non-Hawaiians second-class citizens in the islands. Anti-affirmative action groups also oppose it, saying it represents an end run around the Rice vs. Cayetano U.S. Supreme Court ruling classifying native Hawaiians as a racial, not political, group.

But Dawson said the bill was "the right and fair first step in a long path toward self-government for the indigenous people of Hawaii."

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