Akaka Bill headed for vote
The seven-year struggle to the Senate floor is just a first hurdle in winning indigenous status
Hawaii politicians are scrambling to gather enough votes in Congress to pass a bill that would grant native Hawaiians a degree of self-government and possibly a share of the land ruled by their ancestors.
After seven years of debate, the proposal to recognize native Hawaiians as indigenous inhabitants of the 50th state -- a legal status similar to that of American Indians -- has finally been promised a vote in the Senate as early as the first week of June.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, says he has solid support from Democrats, but he will need help from Republicans if he's going to pass the bill. Republican Gov. Linda Lingle is traveling to Washington to seek support for the bill. The Senate scuttled a scheduled September vote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
A wide range of opponents stand in the way, from native Hawaiians who won't support anything short of secession, to lawyers who claim the bill is a racial entitlement program.
Akaka, facing a challenge to his re-election bid from Hawaii Rep. Ed Case in the Democratic primary, said the bill will help right some of the wrongs done of the U.S. government in its 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Case also supports the bill, which passed the House in 2000 before his first term but has never made it to the Senate floor.
"It will give Hawaiians an opportunity to deal with the many concerns they've had since the overthrow," said Akaka. "It clarifies a political and legal relationship with the United States, and it will bring parity to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii."
A report from the Washington-based U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, however, recommended that Congress reject the bill because it would discriminate on the basis of race. Some Republican senators argue that recognizing a native Hawaiian group would create a subgroup with rights different from other Americans.
"The U.S. Congress is proposing to impose a puppet government on us so that the U.S. government can maintain its illegal occupation of our homeland and exploitation of our people," said Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, an advocate of native Hawaiian independence.
There are about 400,000 people of native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, and 260,000 of them live in Hawaii. No one would be required to join a Hawaiian government if the so-called Akaka Bill were approved.
The bill worries some people because details of the new government entity haven't been spelled out, said Noe Kalipi, an adviser to Akaka who testified on the bill before the Civil Rights Commission.
The primary purposes of the bill are to provide a process to set up a native Hawaiian government and then start negotiations to transfer power and property from state and federal authorities to Hawaiians. The form of the government and the amount of public land to be granted to it wouldn't be decided until then.
The new government would not be allowed to deny civil rights or set up gambling operations, such as those allowed for Indian tribes on the mainland. Hawaii outlaws all forms of gambling, including lotteries.
"The bill is actually about process, and that's what scares everybody the most. They don't know the outcome of the bill," Kalipi said.
An opponent of the proposal, Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, said he fears the worst: a breakup of the state of Hawaii, the relinquishment of hundreds of thousands of acres of land, and a new set of race-based privileges.
"Hands are constantly being held out for more and more and more. Gimme, gimme, gimme," Burgess said. "I don't think it's fair to anticipate this government is going to be one which doesn't discriminate on the basis of race."
Nearly all elected officials from both parties and officials of all state agencies, led by the elected trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, support the bill.
Attorney General Mark Bennett said it's needed to help preserve the language, identity and culture of native Hawaiians. Studies show that Hawaiians have the lowest health and social indicators among the state's diverse ethnic groups.
"Hawaiians are not asking for any special treatment. They're simply asking to be treated the same way America's other native peoples are treated," Bennett said.
Public opinion is difficult to judge, with polls tending to support the views of the organizations sponsoring them.
An August 2005 survey by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs found that 84 percent of respondents supported the bill, but the advocacy group Grassroot Institute found in a survey released this week that 69 percent agree with its proposal for a state referendum before Congress considers a new law.
"There are certain Hawaiians who don't support it. Some people feel the legislation doesn't go far enough; some people feel the only way is for total independence," said Clyde Namuo, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
"Certainly it's not a panacea, but it will give us greater control over our assets and our destiny than we currently have," Namuo said.
Members of the Koani Foundation, a Hawaiian sovereignty advocacy group, fear federal recognition would forever put indigenous people under the authority of the Interior Department, said Director Kaiopua Fyfe. He said resolution will come only from the international community.
"More Hawaiians are coming to understand just how bad this federal recognition would be. It would be the final nail in the coffin for Hawaiian issues," Fyfe said.
If it passes the Senate, the bill still would have to get through the House again.