The United States, and all of its indigenous peoples, lost a hero and a champion this week, with the passing of U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii). Senator Inouye’s life was filled with accomplishments, from receiving the Medal of Honor for his bravery on the battlefields of World War II, to rising to become third in line to the presidency. America will remember these achievements and others, but for Native Hawaiians and—I suspect, our American Indian and Alaska Native brothers and sisters—he will be remembered as an unparalleled ally who fought for us, while encouraging us to unite with each other.
Dan Inouye came to Congress knowing the sting of discrimination, having been labeled an “enemy alien” after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He did not grow up in Indian country, but he knew the plight of indigenous people. He was born in Hawai?i a few short decades after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, raised by a Japanese-American mother who had been adopted by a Native Hawaiian family. I believe that these experiences, coupled with his intellect and his courage, primed him to take on the causes of Native people as if they were his own.
As others have noted, Senator Inouye’s career in Congress corresponded with the rise of the era of Native self-determination. This was not just a coincidence of timing. As he became a stronger and more senior legislator in the Senate and its Indian Affairs Committee, he brought our communities with him. Looking back now, Native Hawaiians know that his rise was our rise, as well as Indian Country’s. The long list of legislative initiatives that he authored, shepherded or influenced include: the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act; the Indian Self-Determination Act; The Indian Health Care Act; the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act; the Indian Child Welfare Act; the Native American Languages Act; and the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian. Thanks to his advocacy and the work of others, Hawaii’s first people would benefit from the Native Hawaiian Health Care Act and the Native Hawaiian Education Act; both of which further codified the trust relationship between Native Hawaiians and the United States. We saw our people included in legislation that was authored with America’s indigenous people in mind, but that had originally left out Native Hawaiians by oversight. Senator Inouye strived for parity for Native Hawaiians, in the areas of cultural rights, services, and self-determination.
While we try to contemplate a world without Senator Inouye, I am reminded of his recurring insistence that America’s Native peoples “come together” and “speak with one voice.” He wanted us to see ourselves as he saw us, where he advocated for American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians alike, rather than simply looking out for his own constituents. He wanted us to work together, and he fought for us all. If we can listen to him now, and follow his example, that could be his greatest legacy.
What better way to honor his life, than for us to commit to continuing his work, together?
Kawika Riley is the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an independent state agency created by the Hawaii Constitution to serve the Native Hawaiian people. Riley is also on the faculty at the George Washington University, where he teaches for its Native American Political Leadership Program. He is Native Hawaiian.