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On Nov. 23, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed into law the "Apology Resolution" that acknowledged the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
The Apology Resolution said native Hawaiians "never directly relinquished their claims" to sovereignty or their lands, which were taken without their consent or compensation. The apology urged reconciliation between the federal government and native Hawaiians.
The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, known as the Akaka Bill after its chief sponsor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, was written as the next federal step in the process of reconciliation called for in the Apology Resolution. The controversial bill goes onto the floor of the U.S. Senate today for debate with a vote possibly later in the week.
Advocates for the Akaka Bill, who range from Gov. Linda Lingle, the congressional delegation and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to native Hawaiian institutions such as Kamehameha Schools, Alu Like Inc. and the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, agree the bill has flaws but say that it is just the next necessary step in a long series of steps for native Hawaiians to take in deciding how they want to be governed.
"People act like they have a crystal ball and are reading all kinds of things into the Akaka Bill. It is just a second step in a long series of steps started with the Apology Bill," said Winona Rubin, a leader in the native Hawaiian community and chairwoman of the board of Alu Like Inc., a nonprofit service organization founded in 1975 to help native Hawaiians achieve social and economic self-sufficiency.
"There is nothing in the bill that indicates decisions that will be made relative to any new native Hawaiian government," Rubin said.
"The bill is good because it finally recognizes native Hawaiians at the level they should be recognized at with other indigenous peoples (American Indians and Alaska natives)."
The Akaka Bill sets up a process designed to lead eventually to the formation of a native governing body that would have a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
Rubin and others say the bill only authorizes the creation of the new native Hawaiian government and does not itself create it. Further, they said the bill does not give any new government control over land, people or resources. Under the Akaka Bill, such authorities would be the subject of future three-way agreements involving the new government and the state and federal governments.
As with any bill, advocates said changes and amendments can be made after passage.
Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, a Hawaiian-studies professor and former director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies, said she dislikes many aspects of the bill but believes they can be amended and that passage is a starting point.
"It's not a magic wand that will solve all of our problems, but it's a first step," said Kame'eleihiwa, who describes herself as a Hawaiian patriot who wants independence. "We need federal recognition and a land base to malama 'aina (care for the land). We need federal recognition, and while this is not the bill we wanted, it's the only vehicle out there, so I will support it."
"A bad bill is better than no bill. And we can go back and amend it as we learn more about D.C. politics. But the alternative of not having a say is worse," she said.
Kame'eleihiwa noted that the ceded lands -- a combination of crown lands once owned by Kamehameha III and government lands the king designated for the common people -- have two beneficiaries: native Hawaiians and the general public.
"When we have a government, we can address what will happen to those lands. It's critical to the culture that we malama 'aina; that's our culture and genealogy. We are descended from the land."
Last week, the Department of Justice criticized four aspects of the Akaka Bill, including the provision dealing with land claims. The department said that typically the window for federal claims remains open for two years and that 20 years from the date of recognition of the new government is "too open-ended."
In initial versions of the bill, the statue of limitations on land claims was scheduled to expire six years after passage of the Akaka Bill.
OHA and others lobbied hard to get that time extended. OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona acknowledged last week that it could take "some time" for native Hawaiians to elect delegates to a convention that will recommend various forms of government and for those forms to be voted on by referendum.
As a result of lobbying, the Akaka Bill sets a 20-year statute of limitations on the land claims of the new government from the date the secretary of the interior recognizes that government.
Kame'eleihiwa said: "We have been waiting for over 100 years (since the 1893 overthrow). If the United States government truly wants reconciliation, then it needs to lift those 20-year limitations and be willing to discuss things as long as it takes to find justice."
Micah Kane, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, who supports the Akaka Bill, said: "The claims issue is very complex. ... The Justice Department wants closure. The flip side is that the Akaka Bill is forcing the process to include what we as a people want."
Kane and other supporters of the bill say it protects existing programs designed to benefit native Hawaiians.
Dee Jay Mailer, chief executive officer of Kamehameha Schools, said the $6 billion trust supports the Akaka Bill in part because it will "help protect government programs and lands that serve to enhance the well-being of the Hawaiian people, consistent with Kamehameha mission" to educate children of Hawaiian ancestry to make them "industrious" people.
Kamehameha Schools has been the target of several recent legal cases that aim to dismantle programs and policies benefiting native Hawaiians, mostly on grounds that they are race-based and therefore unconstitutional.
Mailer said she supports the Akaka Bill because it provides "further evidence of federal public policy in favor of programs, public and private, that benefit native Hawaiians."
Gov. Lingle has flown to Washington, D.C., several times to lobby for the Akaka Bill and is there this week for the Senate debate. She has said the bill will give native Hawaiians the same recognition as American Indians and Alaskan natives.
In a recent presentation to the Senate, Lingle said "the bill will help to protect the many current programs (about 160 federally) that benefit native Hawaiians."
Lingle also said the Akaka Bill "will not set up a foreign nation in Hawaii" and that the bill's "very purpose is to allow native Hawaiians to reform and restore the governmental structure that the United States has since acknowledged it had a substantial hand in destroying."
Rarely, if ever, does a political issue put native Hawaiian sovereignty activists such as Mililani Trask, Bumpy Kanahele or Kekuni Blaisdell on the same team as Thurston Twigg-Smith, whose grandfather helped overthrow the monarchy in 1893.
On AssignmentStar-Bulletin political reporter Richard Borreca is in Washington, D.C., to cover the Senate's actions on the Akaka Bill.
But the Native Hawaiian Government Recognition Act of 2005, known as the Akaka Bill for its chief sponsor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, has just such far-flung detractors.
The two groups could not be farther apart. The sovereignty groups might not agree on the model of government, but they want some form of independence from the United States and they want the lands that once belonged to them.
The other, mostly non-Hawaiian, groups see the Akaka Bill as race-based and therefore unconstitutional, as they find Kamehameha Schools' admission policy or the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands' mission.
Some have called it "American Apartheid" and opposed it as a legal precedent that will allow different ethnic groups, such as Mexicans, to claim lands and sovereignty in states, such as California or New Mexico. In varying degrees, some opponents also view the Akaka Bill as a bold land and power grab by native Hawaiians to the detriment of the state and even private citizens.
Representatives of these two ideological divides agree that a referendum should be held to determine what the people of Hawaii want. Some sovereignty groups say that the Akaka Bill is going forward, just as statehood did in 1959, without a referendum of the people.
Kekuni Blaisdell, a medical doctor and longtime sovereignty activist, views the U.S. government as an illegal colonizer of the Hawaiian people using the islands as "a base for its global economic, military and nuclear domination." Blaisdell does not recognize the current government.
"The Akaka Bill is an attempt to turn us into native Americans so that we can continue under the heel of the U.S. invader and colonizer of our homeland," said Blaisdell, noting that in 1949 Hawaii was listed with the United Nations as eligible for decolonization and could have held a referendum but that native Hawaiians never were told.
Blaisdell said any government created under the Akaka Bill would be a "puppet government" of the United States. He said the bill calls for the secretary of the Department of the Interior to recognize or not recognize a native Hawaiian government once it is formed. He said the United States will only accept a government it can manipulate.
"How can this be self-determination? It's predetermination by the invader and colonial power," he said.
Blaisdell, who acknowledges he is considered one of the more radical sovereignty activists, said, "we never were part of the U.S. and were invaded illegally and militarily. It is not up to us to (secede) from the U.S., but it's for the U.S. to withdraw from the military occupation of our homeland."
Blaisdell said the bill will not protect against legal assaults such as the pending Arakaki case, which argues OHA and the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act are race-based and therefore unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause.
Blaisdell said, "Those suits are all from right-wingers who oppose all native people and people of color and accuse us of being racist in our own homeland when all we are trying to do is survive."
He said: "The Akaka Bill wants us to accept a lesser, subservient status in our own homeland in order to protect ourselves from actions against us from the United States. But when we see the plight of the American Indians and the Alaska natives, we certainly don't want to be similarly treated and have our lands taken and our trusts violated."
Thurston Twigg-Smith, the descendent of missionaries and the grandson of Lorrin Thurston, one of the leaders of the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, said "the bill is a disaster for Hawaii. First of all, it's race-based, and secondly it's so ambiguously written no one knows what it means for the state economically and otherwise."
Twigg-Smith said: "We are barely making it economically as a state. And if we divide into two competing governments, what will happen? There are state lands and Hawaiian homestead land that include portions of Pearl Harbor, UH (University of Hawaii) and hospitals. If they take ceded lands and other resources, what does that do to our economy?"
Richard Rowland, director of the Grassroots Institute of Hawaii, describes the potential of the bill as "a great sucking vacuum that could take land and resources" vital to the state's economy without the say of taxpayers.
"It's very strange to have a governor who is supposed to be acting in the interests of the whole state lobbying for a bill that people think is just recognizing Hawaiians and patting them on the head when, in fact, it's creating a completely different governing entity which by law will be an enormous vacuum of land, people and resources," Rowland said.
He added that if the Akaka Bill passes, "we can kiss 204,000 acres of land (now held by Hawaiian Home Lands) goodbye, and another 1 million acres will be up for grabs without the say of the people of Hawaii."
Rowland and Twigg-Smith both advocate some form of statewide referendum on the issue.
Jonathan Osorio, director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Hawaiian Studies, also says the bill has flaws and leaves too many questions about the handling of land claims. The center's professors are independent and split on the bill.
"The Akaka Bill says we will recognize you as indigenous people, but it doesn't address any claims. The colonizer is sidestepping the issues," Osorio said, adding that the Akaka Bill "pretends to champion democracy," but it is "a colonial construct and an attempt by the United States to hold as much power and authority as it can" over a new native Hawaiian government.
Although there are many sovereignty groups that hold different views about the form of native Hawaiian self-government and the relationship that government should have with the state and federal governments, they have joined together, for the moment, in their opposition to the Akaka Bill in a recently formed coalition called Hui Pu (group to unite).
Andre Perez, a founding member of Hui Pu, said, "We are a collective of independence people, community leaders, educators, ministers, farmers and others from a broad spectrum who have put aside our political differences to unite in opposition to the Akaka Bill."
Perez said the group has united because "Sens. Akaka and Inouye along with Gov. Lingle have been pushing the Akaka Bill as the voice and desire of the Hawaiian people, which is completely erroneous."
Perez and others in Hui Pu acknowledged that no one knows what the majority of native Hawaiians wants and that a referendum needs to be held on the issue before it goes before Congress.
"The Akaka Bill is being crammed down out throats with power and money. But they forget, there is a gag reflex," Perez said.
Hui Pu adopted a symbol this week, a single ti leaf, which typically is a symbol of cleansing, resistance and even warding off evil. The group wants supporters to fly the ti leaf as a symbol of resistance to the Akaka Bill.
Hui Pu is also circulating a petition that volunteers are hand-carrying around neighborhoods to sign up people to oppose the Akaka Bill.
Activist Blaisdell, who has joined Hui Pu, said the group believes that it is carrying on the resistance to the American government the same as 35,000 ancestors who signed petitions in 1897 and 1898 against annexation. He said the petition signing is a symbolic continuance of the 1897-98 signing.
"The current petition means the struggle continues and has not stopped from 1898 or 1897," Perez said.