Native affairs in Hawaii have reached "the crossroads, the most critical point," according to Congressman Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, Democrat of American Samoa, a nearby sister island of the South Pacific.
Alone among their Polynesian island relatives, Natives of Hawaii lack rights to their ancestral lands, seas, and resources. Like farmers without land or fishermen without waterways, they have been separated from the ancient Hawaiian ahupua'a system of resource allocation and forced to make their way against all the competitive economic interests of the developed West.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision precipitated the crisis by scuttling an important Native Hawaiian voting preference on racial grounds. That precedent has encouraged court challenges to vital Native interests in Hawaii, involving many millions of dollars in support of Native needs and threatening the viability of several Native-specific institutions, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, and Kamehameha Schools.
Only one proposal has made public headway on resolving the problem: formal federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian government for purposes of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Formal federal recognition of Native Hawaiian governance would elevate Native Hawaiians from minority status to membership in an indigenous nation, with all the protections that come with it by virtue of the U.S. Constitution and voluminous precedent. This is the substance of the so-called Akaka Bill, named after Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, its primary sponsor.
The idea doesn't please everyone, least of all those Natives who insist that U.S. dominion over Hawaii is illegal and Congress therefore is in no position to confer recognition.
But federal recognition also has widespread support among Natives in these islands, and others have rallied to the cause. Resolutions supporting federal recognition for Native Hawaiians have passed the Hawaii state legislature, committees of the U.S. House and Senate, the Alaska Federation of Natives, the National Congress of American Indians, the National American Indian Housing Council, and the Japanese American Citizens' League.
Nowhere has this encouraging support for beleaguered Native peoples been stronger than in Alaska Native villages. While the parallels of dispossession run strong among all Native peoples of the Americas, Natives of Alaska and Hawaii also have the variations in common:
Both encountered Europeans fairly late in the process of colonization.
For neither did armed resistance spill over into prolonged war with the colonizers.
Neither negotiated treaties on the model of the continental tribes.
Neither ended up on reservations.
Both, upon admission of their respective states to the United States, were promised U.S. protection of traditional heritage and resource rights.
In addition, many Alaska Natives (as well as the Makah of northwestern most Washington state) and Native Hawaiians are ohana as they say in Hawaii - family, by virtue of Polynesian voyages in ancestral times along the western coastlines of what are now Washington state, British Columbia and Alaska.
So perhaps it is fitting that in hard times, some of the most hopeful words for Native Hawaiians have come by way of a quiet reminder from Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives. Self-determination, she maintains, is the number one aspiration of Alaska Natives; and federal recognition is only one small component of self-determination. For as long as the jury stays out on federal recognition, many self-determined actions can still be taken.
In a culture where the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes have come to provide more and more points of reference, Kitka's reminder may be taken as the guiding star in a recent, ringing speech on federal recognition by Akaka:
"The people of Hawaii are searching ? and not necessarily for clear answers. ? A canoe, wherever it goes, has a destination. It often follows a star that is not defined except that we can see the light, and we are headed for it."
Let us follow the example of Alaska Natives and so many others and hope that when they get there, these voyagers to all points of the circle, they will find reason to call many Native peoples ohana.
Rebecca Adamson is president of First Nations Development Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.