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Aloha Means Goodbye

WASHINGTON – As 2010 wound to a close, a bleak reality set in for many Hawaii Natives: Legislation that was their closest chance yet to getting recognized by the federal government in sovereign fashion could not clear Congress.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said on the floor of the Senate in the waning days of the 111th Congress that “misleading attacks” and “unprecedented obstruction” led to the failure of legislation that would have granted Native Hawaiians self-governance rights.

Known informally as the Akaka Bill, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act would have created a process for indigenous Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition similar to Indian tribes, although they could not have pursued gaming and would have lacked other tribal qualities. Akaka had been pushing for it since 2000.

The bill passed the House in February, but didn’t receive a vote in the Senate.

The legislation gained opponents both inside and outside of Hawaii—some falsely claimed Native Hawaiians would end up being able to secede from the nation, and that they could build casinos all over the island.

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As the time crunch unfolded in the Senate, some blamed Akaka for not being able to get the bill scheduled for a vote, but he said Republicans were to blame.

Former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle gained attention for stalling support starting in December 2009 after she learned about amendments that were meant to make the legislation more like the federal government’s relationship with American Indians.

The amendments included granting the future Native Hawaiian government immediate rights rather than after negotiations, Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke told Hawaii newspapers.

Lingle ultimately reinstated her support in July, after Akaka agreed to additional amendments clarifying that a Hawaiian government wouldn’t offer immunity from state laws.

The lost time and delayed support ended up costing the bill, especially given the many other issues Congress was focused on in 2010, according to observers.

Despite the setback, Akaka promised he’d try to continue with legislation even under the Republican Congress, although many in the state have noted that the bill has been less popular among conservatives. He urged the Senate to vote in favor of the bill, and deal with the GOP House after that.