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Native Hawaiian recognition is overdue

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Native Hawaiians have rightfully demanded recognition of their aboriginal standing by the United States. The Native Hawaiian movement, although not united by a single model, seeks fundamental tribal sovereignty and is considering varieties of structures to conduct government-to-government affairs for the 225,000 people of Native Hawaiian descent who live on the islands.

A wide range of opinion exists among Native Hawaiian activists and organizations as to the structure of government and level of sovereignty to pursue. Thus the Native Hawaiian voice appears splintered to the general public but this is not unusual and is often part of re-empowerment processes that Native peoples go through. Contentious though it may be, the growing discussion and debate on the nature of Native Hawaiian sovereignty is a healthy process.

Expectedly, some Native Hawaiian organizations call for a complete secession from the United States, while others envision a more moderate process that would set up something akin to the "Trust Relationship" available to American Indians and Alaska Natives on the mainland. There have been serious incidents, some that threatened violence, but by and large the Native Hawaiian movement has projected a firm, reasonable pattern of reclaim that is achieving a measure of success.

A current bill, HR 617, introduced by Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, that prescribes a process for a Native Hawaiian governing entity, recently passed through the House Resources Committee and is set for a full House vote. The Senate version, S748, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The bills also focus on 1.8 million acres of Ceded Lands, and some 203,000 acres set aside for "Hawaiian Home Lands" by the U.S. Congress in 1920, as a "survival" base for cultural identity and development.

The history of dispossession of Hawaiian Native people parallels the sordid disregard for Native rights that characterized the U.S. mainland. It emulates the imperial pattern of territorial acquisition that was established modus operandi by the end of the 19th century, and which resulted in a land tenancy structure that is reminiscent of a Third World country. Ninety-five percent of Hawaiian territory, including the Ceded Lands held by the federal government, is controlled by 74 landowners. Huge tracks were bought during the 1800s and are still owned by just five sugar and pineapple companies.

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Within 50 years of the so-called "discovery" of Hawaii by Captain James Cook in 1778, colonists mostly from the United States staked out various tracks of land for commercial activity on the islands. Before long they formed political parties that worked to disenfranchise Native Hawaiians and looked to gain governmental control over their territories. The Native Hawaiian monarchy, legacy of several generations of Native nation building and unification by Hawaiian statesmen, was judged to be in the way.

A white (haole) colonists' "revolt" in 1893, supported by U.S. warships, toppled Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani. The queen aroused the white colonists' ire when she tried to reinstitute voting rights for Native Hawaiians, lost earlier at the point of bayonets. A "planter" republic was set up that lost no time in seeking and gaining annexation to the United States. Native Hawaiians were not to be completely written out of history, however, and the subsequent 1898 annexation bill defined for them a trust relationship with the United States.

Although often overshadowed and marginalized, throughout the 20th century, Native Hawaiians sustained a struggle for access to and protection of their homelands and for recognition as an indigenous people with a distinct culture. Many instances, including in 1920 and at the moment of Hawaii statehood in 1959, when Native Hawaiian leaders demanded at least portions of the Ceded Lands for settlement by their people, give evidence of this impetus.

In 1978, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established to seek self-determination and better living conditions, and in 1991, a state Hawaiian Sovereignty Council was set up, though not without strong opposition, including from Natives. In 1993 a formal apology was issued by the United States to Native Hawaiians. It was accompanied by a study by the Justice and Interior departments, titled, "From Mauka to Makai," which calls for a Native Hawaiian sovereignty akin to that retained by American Indian nations.

In the past 20 years, as well, Native Hawaiians have conceptualized and generated a most significant and hopeful initiative to recover their native language. The "Tip of the Spear" movement has revitalized the Hawaiian language and boasts literally thousands of students. It has provided valuable lessons and is considered a shining model of language revival by many Indigenous peoples.

We hope the debate and ultimate passage of HR 617 and S748, which aim to set up a process for establishing a Native Hawaiian government, will be a fruitful step for the original people of Hawaii. We hope they enjoy the widest possible participation in that process. The history, struggles and aspirations of Hawaiian Natives are understandable to us. In kindred spirit, we support Native Hawaiian sovereignty.