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Hawaiian sovereignty could take a while

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HONOLULU - Native Hawaiians will be successful in regaining their sovereignty - but it may take another 10 years, the chairwoman of the Land and Sovereignty Committee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs says.

Rowena M.N. Akana, Native Hawaiian, noted the formidable obstacles that remain to sovereignty as well as the considerable progress already made in an interview here.

She noted ruefully that with about 225,000 people of Native Hawaiian descent living on the islands, it sometimes seems as if there are that many opinions on how to proceed to gain recognition of sovereignty from the U.S. government.

Those opinions range up to an extreme of complete political independence from the United States, she said. Less radical ideas include confirming a government-to-government relationship between America and a Native Hawaiian governing entity with some control over 2 million acres of land ceded to the U.S. by the Hawaiian government or designated by Congress to be Hawaiian homelands.

Sovereignty will succeed, "eventually, if Hawaiians start getting their act together," she said. She also noted the "political football" of attempting to regain control of lands that have been leased out, in some cases for many years, to strong interest groups. And a lawsuit threatens to throw a wrench into the proceedings as well.

Akana remembered that when she grew up on the island of Oahu, many Native Hawaiians were ashamed of their heritage. It's only in the last 20 years or so that younger Hawaiians have looked to reclaim their past, she said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established in 1978 to seek the betterment and self-determination of Native Hawaiians. Then, 10 years ago, state legislation established a sovereignty council, which Akana headed, to report on how the movement should proceed. The council made a report to the Legislature in 1992, she said, but a second phase was never funded amid strong opposition - much of it from Native Hawaiians.

The movement received a boost in 1993, when the United States formally apologized to the Hawaiian people for its role in overthrowing their monarchy, a move that led to Hawaii's annexation.

Akana noted that the annexation bill Congress passed in 1898 put the trust relationship between the United States and Hawaiians in writing, and said the state of Hawaii had to guarantee the rights of Indigenous people to the federal government to be admitted to the Union.

A working group is now meeting weekly, she said, to seek a consensus over what the governing mechanism will be.

This year, a bill recognizing Native Hawaiian sovereignty is again making its way through Congress. The bill, HR 617, introduced by Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, was recently passed by the House Resources Committee and awaits a vote by the full House. A similar bill passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate before the end of the last Congress.

A version of the bill, S748, has been reintroduced this year by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii and again referred to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which passed it last year.

Both bills set up the process for a Native Hawaiian governing entity to be established, and point to the 1.8 million acres ceded to the US government and the 203,000 acres set aside by Congress in 1920 as "Hawaiian Home Lands" as the basis for Native Hawaiian cultural survival.

Although the United States never has acknowledged a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians as it has for American Indian nations on the mainland, two of its actions in particular are being cited as precedents. Congress, in 1920, set aside the homelands specifically for Native Hawaiians. And when the territory of Hawaii became a state in 1959, the United States transferred the "ceded lands" to the new state, specifying five purposes they were to be used for, including the betterment of indigenous Hawaiians.

A lawsuit has been filed, however, claiming that the provision for Indigenous people is unconstitutional and seeking to dismantle all programs specifically for Native Hawaiians. A ruling is expected shortly.

In addition to the apology bill of 1993, the federal government commissioned a study by the departments of Justice and the Interior. The report, titled "From Mauka to Makai" and released late last year, spells out the injustices visited on the Hawaiian people and recommends that the United States return sovereignty to the Hawaiian people.