Hawaiians hold their breath as high court takes up case


POSTED: Sunday, February 01, 2009

It is a wound that has not healed and its treatment becomes more vexing as more entities enter the picture.

The wound is the process of Hawaii going from an independent kingdom to the 50th state.

How that happened is not in dispute, but what should be done still reverberates 116 years after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.

Hawaii entered the union with an estimated 1.8 million acres that were ceded to the United States in 1898 by the then Republic of Hawaii upon annexation.

When the U.S. admitted Hawaii, it said those lands would be a public trust for the support of public schools, for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians, for the development of farm and home ownership, for making public improvements and for other public use.

This month the question of precisely who controls those lands plops down for the U.S. Supreme Court to answer.

The Hawaii Supreme Court has already answered the question by saying nothing moves until “;such time as the unrelinquished claims of the native Hawaiians have been resolved.”;

The state argues that these are lands under the control of the state and either the state controls the land or not. At least 29 other states have jumped into the battle and offered opinions to the U.S. Supreme Court, because they in varying forms also had lands ceded to them upon admission to the union.

For Hawaiians, the case, on one level, is not legal, it is emotional. Hawaiians, like many native peoples, trace their existence back to the land. It is said that every hill, valley, hillock, stream, inlet and bay in Hawaii has a Hawaiian name and most also have a story to go with the name.

So organizations from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to the Japanese American Citizens League are arguing before the court to say the state of Hawaii's claim to the land does not take precedence over the claims of native Hawaiians.

Deeper down, Hawaiian leaders also will acknowledge a real fear that the federal court will not look at the case with Hawaiian eyes.

“;To have the U.S. Supreme Court to comment on native Hawaiian claims to those lands is the worst thing to happen,”; says Clyde Namuo, OHA executive director.

Supreme Court decisions could render OHA useless, saying the state, not OHA, controls land and the money earned from it. Or the court could stretch and decide to say equal treatment for all means no special treatment for any group and effectively disenfranchise Hawaiian programs. For the court to take up the case at all worries advocates who think it will make an impact larger than when it struck down Hawaiian-only voting in OHA elections.

The only certainty is that the decision will heal no wounds.


Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)