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Moving the agenda of Native Hawaiian self-governance

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The crucial moments for the process of establishing a Native Hawaiian self-government are upon the U.S. Senate as it considers the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, Senate Bill 3064.

The controversial new measure rises in the heels of a Supreme Court decision (the 2000 case of Rice v. Cayetano) that sought to dash the ability of Native Hawaiians to elect their own governing authority.

As in all things indigenous, multiple definitions have arisen that appear in conflict with each other. Some of these are internal to the Native Hawaiian community, but most dominantly the arguments against Native Hawaiian self-governance come from the anti-Native pundits and scribes who attack all efforts to provide justice, recognition or redress to the aspirations of Native peoples.

It is never easy to parse the various Native-rooted positions on such fundamental change as the establishment of a government by a population with shared inheritance as a tribal nation. But it is good to start from the proposition that a shared ethnicity and heritage is alive among Native Hawaiian families. This is evidenced strongly in the “Tip of the Spear” Hawaiian language recovery program, which is an international leader in the field of community linguistic self-determination. Native Hawaiian leaders in education and culture are respected and often speakers in the Native world of North America.

For many Native Hawaiians, the coming legislation is a dream of their generations going back to the forceful events of 1893, when a settler party of mostly American immigrants, backed by U.S. soldiers, deposed the legitimate ruler of the island-nation, Queen Lili’uokalani. For these long-mistreated folks, the new recognition is a step forward, one that can be used to pull their people together even more intensely and a stronger base to build from.

The proposed “Akaka Bill,” brainchild of Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, would define as Native Hawaiian some 400,000 “descendants,” including some 260,000 presently living in Hawaii, and it would open the way to recovery of Native control over some lands currently held by federal and state governments. The Akaka bill is headed for a vote and we can’t help but wish it well even as many Native people who are actually impacted don’t consider it a step forward.

For these people within the Native Hawaiian community, such a law of “recognition” is actually a sell-out of more fundamental aboriginal rights. The new legal status has similarity with that of American Indian tribal nations. It grants recognition for self-governing administration over programs but places that recognition under the federal government trust. It also disallows economic development via gaming while limiting government liabilities for mismanagement of Native assets.

Vilified by critics on the right as well as by hardcore Native Hawaiians, Akaka is nevertheless mostly unique among mainstream politicians in directly referring to “the overthrow” of the Hawaiian queen in 1893, and champions his bill for clarifying “a political and legal relationship with the United States, and it will bring parity to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii.”

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The case that federal purview is or can be a loss can be made of nearly all negotiation or compromise. But it is hard to argue against actual movement toward recognition of Native peoples’ rights. When there is action, the people can grow, as opposed to when inaction blocks self-determined leadership in their political and historical moment. Protagonism by Native leadership demands that something happens that can advance the bases people still hold of their Native cultures and identities. Inaction by Native leadership, where whole generations go by and no new initiatives emerge, only allow the continual attrition of rights to lands, to self-governance and to the right to live one’s culture as one sees fit.

As American Indian tribes in North America are experiencing, even the perceived lack of action on land claims and other compromised sets of rights of Indian peoples can lead to being further disenfranchised and/or dispossessed. With the Supreme Court bandying about the “laches” doctrine, any Indian or Native case can be dismissed out of hand.

To the contrary, the moment in Hawaii is unique for movement on Native Hawaiian rights. Led by the elected trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, most elected officials from both parties and in state agencies support the Akaka measure. A 2005 survey by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs found 84 percent of respondents supporting an earlier version of the bill. Others point out nearly 70 percent of the state also wants a referendum on the issue.

What concerns the most is the shrill opinion about the very thought of a Native Hawaiian survival. Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, for example, intones the potential horrors of Hawaii “breaking up” into Native territories from which the cry of “Gimme, gimme, gimme” will be constant if Native Hawaiians continue to build a government for their people.

True to form, columnist Robert Novak chastised some Republicans who support the bill, which, he warns with alarm, grants “Native Hawaiians the same status as mainland Indian tribes.” Predictably, John Fund writes in The Wall Street Journal (“Pluribus Sine Unum – Will the Senate impose race-based government on Hawaii?,” posted to =110008472 on June 5, 2006) that the Akaka bill would “create a racial spoils system that would hand special privileges to up to one-fifth of the state’s population – including many with only a trace of Hawaiian blood. It could inspire mainland groups such as Hispanic separatists to seek similar spoils, should they ever gain enough political leverage.”

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission report earlier this year disparaged the Native Hawaiian case for “[running] counter to the basic American value that the government should not prefer one race over another.” Dissenting commissioner Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada, responded this way, “I respectfully remind my colleagues that in 49 other states indigenous nations have peacefully coexisted with our neighbors for many years. I can think of no reason, nor did we hear any testimony to suggest one, why this would not also be the case in Hawaii. As a tribal leader, I am deeply troubled that the Commission recommendation could be read to suggest that the existence of Indian tribes within the federal system is somehow undesirable and should not be extended to Native Hawaiians.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said in a release that he was “dismayed to learn that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted today to adopt a seriously flawed report that unfairly characterizes the Akaka Bill as race-based and discriminatory.”

The American Bar Association’s leadership passed a resolution Feb. 13 urging Congress to extend federal political recognition to Native Hawaiians. The organization’s 550-member House of Delegates passed a measure supporting “legislative efforts to fulfill the legal and moral obligation of the United States to reconcile with the Native Hawaiian people, and to create a process for their formal federal recognition and self determination.”

Akaka’s Kanaka Maoli working group, comprised of many Native Hawaiians who support the bill, has reassured many who are listening that their bill is “not designed to restore the Monarchy and include the ‘3239 naturalized Hawaiian Citizens’ under the former Kingdom of Hawaii.” However, the bill, they point out, recognizes “the aboriginal people who the United States of America recognized when they created the Hawaiian Homes Act of 1921. This Bill recognized the political obligation America has to the people who continuously lived on these islands for the last two thousand years.” A member of this group, Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., makes this compelling argument: “No present “Hawaiian Nation or Sovereignty Group” is going to protect us from the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Rice/Cayetano now or in the near future. The United Nations is not going to insist that America return what was ‘taken.’ The Akaka Bill is the ‘foot in the door.’”