Hawaii's Lingle signs law releasing funds to Native affairs office

HONOLULU - Fulfilling a campaign promise, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle signed legislation releasing $9.5 million to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

The money represents revenue generated from airport fees that had been frozen following a state Supreme Court decision that found conflict between state and federal law on the uses of so-called ceded lands. The fees fund OHA, which in turn funds services to the islands' indigenous peoples.

The legislation does not restore the airport revenue stream to OHA coffers, but assigns revenues generated before the court decision came down.

"We've affirmed the existence of a sacred trust whose purpose is to serve the indigenous people of this island state," Lingle said in a speech at the April 23 signing ceremony. "In doing so, we also serve every non-[Native] Hawaiian in this state."

The Republican governor has made it her theme that Hawaii is not Hawaii without the culture and community of Native Hawaiians (who are increasingly termed Hawaiians within the state, distinguishing them from the many resident natives of Hawaii who are not, however, descended from the indigenous people). She emphasized that the funds that support OHA support much-needed services in Hawaiian communities.

Indigenous preferences on funding, representation and voting rights remain proscribed in Hawaii following court decisions that found them unconstitutional. Based on these precedents, legal challenges to a range of indigenous activities are shaping up. The prospect has prompted renewed calls for federal recognition of indigenous Hawaiians as a political group, on the model of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Federal recognition would permit preferences based on political rather than racial identity.

Lingle has taken the case all the way to Washington, where it received favorable audiences during her February visit. "We continue to work on it in private meetings," said Randy Roth, chief of policy.