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Hawaii's Governor Lingle's campaign for Native Hawaiians

WASHINGTON - Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii began to make good on an election-year pledge to campaign for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians with a well-received visit to the nation's capital in February.

Last September in Honolulu, in a four-candidate gubernatorial debate sponsored by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the Republican Lingle provoked storms of applause by promising die-hard advocacy in Washington for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians "whether you vote for me or not." Since winning the governor's seat in the traditional Democratic stronghold of Hawaii, Lingle has looked like a good bet to advance the bill among the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill through her credibility with them as a fellow Republican.

And so it has proved. It's still early days, and Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Director Micah Kane expects to be part of future Native Hawaiian delegations to D.C. on this subject. But Lingle's meetings with congressional leaders, cabinet heads, Bush administration "heavies" in the White House and the President himself went exceptionally well, and in every one of them she positioned federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as a "states' rights" issue, traditionally dear to Republicans, rather than the racial issue foes have depicted. The basis of this "states' rights" view is that the issue is "non-partisan in Hawaii, and the governor's visit underscored that," according to Paul Cardus, press secretary for Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, primary sponsor of the proposed federal recognition legislation (the "Akaka Bill" in everyday parlance, S. 344 in the 108th Congress).

Lingle's meetings on balance "went very well," confirmed Lingle Policy Chief Randy Roth, who was in attendance at most of them. "A number of people that we were concerned would not have open minds, did prove open to the governor's discussion. Certain key people seemed to be moved by the governor's presentation.

"? She just feels a lot better about the bill's chances than she did before these meetings."

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Most notably perhaps, at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing Feb. 25, where Lingle joined Haunani Apoliona of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, U.S. congressional delegate Eni F. H. Faleomavaega of American Samoa (a sister island to Hawaii), Kane of DHHL and others in testifying on behalf of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians, committee chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colorado, acknowledged the support of Interior Secretary Gale Norton for the Akaka Bill.

This announcement of Norton's support, coming from a second party of Campbell's stature among Republicans, quickened the pulses of the hopeful throughout Hawaii, for the Interior would have to be considered the lead cabinet agency on federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Norton has not herself announced her support for S. 344, "but that's what the governor's people are saying," said Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement President Robin Danner, praised in Lingle's camp for familiarizing the governor and her advisors with the many fine points of Native Hawaiian culture. Added Akaka press secretary Cardus, "Norton and Senator Akaka have met four or five times and this issue has always been discussed."

In a curious way, the emphasis on caution and a long hard process coming out of the Lingle and Akaka camps may be taken as an indication of just how much progress their cause has made in recent days. In Washington's political culture, caution is often thrown to the wind at the outset, only to grow in direct proportion to the actual chances a bill has of becoming law.

"We'll have a better idea of that in a month," Cardus said. The record of the Feb. 25 committee hearing is open until March 20, and after that it is anticipated that Campbell and his committee co-chair, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, will move to "mark up" S. 344 on the legislative calendar. As the Senate process proceeds toward a vote on the bill, more will become known as to any movement in the positions staked out by past opponents of the Akaka Bill.

For Native Hawaiians, much hinges on S. 344. Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 that found a long-established Native Hawaiian voting preference unconstitutional on racial grounds, many Native preferences in Hawaii have come under attack in the courts. The Supreme Court precedent in the voting rights case 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 key 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. As proposed by the Akaka Bill, federal recognition would extend the same preferences to Native Hawaiians that Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages now enjoy, but without breaking altogether new ground because federal recognition has always extended to Native Hawaiians in some form. The preferences of a more formal federal recognition would derive not from membership in a minority, but from status as Indigenous peoples under self-determined governance. This status would be based on the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which has been upheld many times by the Supreme Court, and on the historical relationships of the United States with Indigenous peoples within its borders. As Akaka contends, federal recognition for Native Hawaiians would complete the political and legal relationship of the United States with its Indigenous peoples.