Politics behind Akaka Bill stance


POSTED: Saturday, September 05, 2009

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' opposition to Hawaiian sovereignty would be considered a setback for the bill were it not for the fact that the commission is entirely a holdover from the Bush administration. The GOP, with some exceptions, has been opposed to the Akaka Bill since its inception and President George W. Bush indicated he would veto it. The commission's opposition should be ignored as party politics.

The Bush-dominated commission set the stage for its opposition two years ago when it revamped its advisory committee on the Hawaiian sovereignty question. Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, pointed out that nine of the 17 members were on record as opposing the Akaka Bill.

Bush reconstructed the commission itself five years ago by appointing conservatives to replace liberals whose six-year terms expired. The commission changed from a 5-3 liberal majority to the present 6-2 conservative control.

Four of the present commissioners were appointed by Bush, two by Republican Senate and House leaders and two by Democratic congressional leaders. The Bush-appointed chairman, Gerald A. Reynolds, told the Star-Bulletin editorial board in 2007 that he regarded the Akaka Bill as unconstitutional.

That has been the Republican party line — despite the strong dissent by Gov. Linda Lingle — against Hawaiians being granted the same sovereignty status as American Indian tribes and native Alaskan cultures. In testimony before a U.S. House committee in June, Bush-appointee Gail Heriot mockingly likened the bill to granting “;tribal status”; to Chicanos, Cajuns, “;Orthodox Jews in New York”; or “;Mormons in Utah.”;

The six GOP-named commissioners reiterated their 2007 opposition in a letter to House leaders last week. They challenged the bill's constitutionality, pointing out that the kingdom overthrown in 1893 had a “;multiracial legislature.”; The bill would grant sovereignty to indigenous Hawaiians but cites the overthrow.

In their own letter to congressional leaders, Democratic-appointed Commissioners Arlan D. Melendez and Michael Yaki argued that native Hawaiians “;were a self-sufficient, organized society with their own rich culture, religion, language and land tenure system”; before Europeans arrived in 1778. The two commissioners did not address the issue of the subsequent kingdom being multiracial.

The bill, if enacted and signed into law by President Barack Obama as expected, is certain to be challenged in court. OHA has prudently suggested that the bill be changed to emphasize Captain James Cook stepping foot on the islands in 1778 rather than the overthrow. That would eliminate the kingdom's multiracial makeup as a legal issue.