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Clyde Namu'o


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POSTED: Friday, June 05, 2009

Nearly a decade after it was first introduced, a bill that would allow native Hawaiians to form their own limited government has its best chance of becoming law.

With a Democratic-controlled Congress, a friendly president and an especially powerful Hawaii senator — Daniel Inouye is chairman of the Appropriations Committee — the federal recognition bill's previous failures don't predict its current prospects. That fact delights supporters, worries opponents and makes it a good time to review the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, commonly known as the Akaka Bill, which will be heard by the House Natural Resources Committee on Thursday.

Clyde Namu'o, 57, administrator of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, spoke Wednesday about OHA's support for the bill, its efforts to preserve native land rights and expand the bill's definition of native Hawaiian, and what comes next.

Question: How would you characterize native Hawaiian support for the bill?

Answer: Over the last five years we have had at least three (Ward Research) surveys to gauge whether or not Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians support federal recognition and in all three surveys we have found that there is broad support ... We also have done focus groups to find out what the concerns are.

Q: What are the concerns?

A: Generally (fear of) the unknown. Some people are afraid that there would be reservations, for example. This bill does not prescribe that. Or that the governing entity could do whatever it wants. This (new native Hawaiian governing) entity will exist within federal and state law.

Q: What are the bill's chances for passage this year?

A: I think it has a very good chance of passing ... We need 60 votes in the Senate to bring it to cloture (and avoid the “;hold”; that killed the bill in years past) and indications are that there are sufficient votes ... We are concerned that Sen. (Edward) Kennedy and Sen. (Robert) Byrd may not always be physically present to vote (because of ill health). We have less Republican support (Gordon Smith of Oregon and Ted Stevens of Alaska are no longer in the Senate) so when the cloture vote comes up, we would just hope that enough supportive senators are present ... President Obama has said that if this bill was presented to him that he would sign it. So we are hopeful and optimistic.

Q: Any idea on the timing?

A: We would like to see this happen before the Senate goes out on its August recess. When they come back in September, a lot of their time is spent on appropriation bills.

Q: Who would be considered native Hawaiian under the bill?

A: As the bill is currently structured, there are two ways to satisfy the definition (both requiring documentation of aboriginal, indigenous ancestry). The OHA trustees ... have encouraged the Hawaii delegation to add a third date, (tracing indigenous ancestry to) 1778, which is of course the date of the first Western contact. ... The 1778 definition is actually the definition used by 150 existing federal programs for native Hawaiians and would include (anyone with an ancestor in Hawaii prior to Western contact).

Q: Some native Hawaiians who oppose this bill say it would relegate them to second-class status, makes them wards of the U.S. Department of the Interior and ultimately diminish their authority, over natural resources, especially. What do you say to that?

A: I would say that when we look at the language currently in these bills, we see that there is a specific prohibition of the Department of Interior taking our land into trust. I think that is very significant. That has been a problem for American Indian land. This bill specifically prohibits that in Hawaii. Regarding wardship ... the power of the native Hawaiian governing entity or the lack of power is all based on negotiations that would occur with the federal government. If native Hawaiians are concerned about whether we will have enough power to govern our own affairs then I would encourage them to become part of the process to create the governing entity. The risks of not having federal recognition are huge. Without it we could end up forfeiting anywhere from $64 million to $75 million (in annual federal funding) that comes to Hawaii for programs for native Hawaiians.

Q: Conversely, other opponents say the bill gives native Hawaiians superior status and makes everyone else second-class citizens, in particular ignoring the (descendants of) people who were citizens of Hawaii prior to the overthrow, but were not indigenous and therefore have no rights under this bill.

A: I guess my response would be that federal policy really deals only with indigenous people, that is American Indians, Alaska natives and native Hawaiians. ... This bill is not about restoring the kingdom ... it's about extending the federal recognition policy to the final group of indigenous people, the native Hawaiians. That's all we're asking for.

Q: If the bill passes, what happens to agencies like OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands? Would they be absorbed into the new entity, or cease to exist?

A: We have tried to avoid having too lengthy a discussion about what's going to happen after the bill passes, to avoid people having the feeling that anything is preconceived. All those things are yet to be decided. What is this government going to look like? What will the land mass look like? What will be the power and authority? I think at OHA we are at the point where we are going to give some serious thought about what's next. ... I think people are going to have to dream and look to models that exist in Indian Country and also Alaska to see what would be most appropriate for us.

Q: Rice v. Cayetano (which invalidated Hawaiians-only OHA voting as an illegal racial exclusion) galvanized the drive for federal recognition. But it's been 10 years since the ruling, and Hawaiian programs are still standing. Is federal recognition still critical?

A: Yes ... We certainly want to stop using our resources to defend lawsuits. Once the bill passes, the status of Hawaiians will be clear and the legal challenges should come to an end.