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Native Hawaiian history turns indocumentado in the U.S. House


WASHINGTON – For decades, the prevailing approach to indigenous advocacy has been to pursue an elliptical logic or perspective – a logic or perspective based on leaving things out. The emphasis has been on an original injustice and a contemporary remedy. The history belonging to the time in between has been de-emphasized, left out, elided from material consideration if not from memory.

A series of court decisions – infamous for those who consider justice something more than a fair hearing, admirably prag-matic for others who consider it a last resort in resource management – has filled the ellipses with meaning. The Supreme Court in particular rests content with the argument that expectations, investments and practices established during the interim weigh more in the scales than the sufferings associated with an original injustice or the hope of present redress.

Among the several implications of this evolving emphasis on the interim is that indigenous communities too have their history within the interim period. Some of them, instead of waiting for justice to be imposed, are taking matters into their own hands and laying down an impressive record of engagement with present circumstances that future courts will have to consider. Others show an inclination to withdraw into their community and make sure of its traditions, strengthening their staying power against circumstance in whatever future shape it takes.

But in Hawaii now, we see a graphic example of why indigenous peoples have resisted an emphasis on the interim. The Akaka Bill would authorize a negotiated process for the formation and federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing entity. The bill’s authors have crafted it in full acknowledgment of the long history between an original injustice – the “bayonet revolution” of 1893 that deposed the old Native Hawaiian monarchy and the islands’ subsequent annexation as a U.S. territory – and the limited remedy now sought in the Akaka Bill.

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That acknowledgment is one reason why the sovereignty of tribes would not be conferred on the governing entity upon passage of the Akaka Bill. It is one reason why the properties and authorities of the governing entity will have to be negotiated out between the federal government, the state of Hawaii and the Native Hawaiian governing entity, with none of the agreements self-executing. It is one reason that citizenship in the governing entity, based on lineal descendancy, will be voluntary rather than imposed by race. In these and other ways, the bill respects the expectations, investments and practices that have transpired under Native Hawaiian, colonial, territorial, state and federal regimes.

The long history between 1893 and now also includes a host of engagements between Native Hawaiians, the state and the United States that abundantly demonstrate a special relationship between the nation and indigenous Hawaiians.

But if the courts might be expected to admire the Akaka Bill’s emphasis on interim history, the bill’s opponents are busily reaffirming the value of elliptical perspective. As commentators weigh in against the Akaka Bill, they seem to argue that history doesn’t happen in Hawaii. Indigenous people were never there. Indigenous governance didn’t exist. Polynesian citizenship criteria will accommodate Asian hordes. A new racial minority or “tribe” will level endless demands on taxpayers. Their federally recognized presence will further “Balkanize” America.

What they’re really saying, of course, is that Native Hawaiian history takes place indocumentado in Mexico and the American Southwest. For in the House of Representatives, the members face re-election in November. Many of them hope to help their chances by appealing to constituencies that are hardcore in their opposition to illegal immigrants. Among those, some will consider it a contradiction to vote for a Native Hawaiian recognition process while inveighing against illegal immigrants.

Cooler heads should prevail. Any equation between Native Hawaiians and indocumentados or illegal immigrants is at best a strategic response, at worst a feverish one, to the politics of the hour. The larger truth is that Native Hawaiians, one way or another, have always governed themselves in their islands, have given imperishably to American culture and will only enrich it further as the last of America’s federally recognized indigenous people.