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Native Hawaiian Recognition Suffers Latest Setback

WASHINGTON – Native Hawaiians who want to be federally recognized as sovereign entities, much like American Indian tribal citizens, have suffered another setback from a U.S. Congress that just doesn’t seem to want to reconcile the unique history of the indigenous population of the island state.

Despite all their attention to payroll tax cuts and pipeline provisions, U.S. House members the week of December 12 still managed to notice and then hamper a provision attached to a bill that could have started the ball rolling toward federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. And they quickly found a way to weed it out by linking it to other provisions that could not pass the Senate.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, had inserted a provision into a draft of a funding bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior in October. The provision referenced legislation passed this year by the Hawaii legislature that called for state recognition of Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the Hawaiian islands. That measure was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie in July.

Importantly, the state-focused legislation established a process for registering Hawaiians—a step that would be needed under any federal recognition plan as well.

Inouye and other supporters saw the provision as a way to build momentum toward the well-known Akaka bill, which unabashedly calls for Native Hawaiian federal sovereign recognition, and has been stalled in Congress in one form or another since 2000. Some Republicans have called that bill controversial and racially dividing. The possibility of an introduction of Native gaming on the island has also been a concern raised by some detractors.

Inouye lamented the failure of the latest bill in a statement, saying, "The Hawaiian recognition provision embraced the excellent work of the State Legislature in beginning the process of Native Hawaiian self-determination and recognition…. Unfortunately, it was opposed by members of the House, who wanted a variety of devastating anti-environmental riders which, if the Senate accepted, would have set back our nation’s air and water protections for many years to come.

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"I am very disappointed to report that I was compelled to give up our recognition provision at the end of the Conference," added Inouye. "It was very difficult, but it needed to be done to conclude the negotiations and send an Omnibus appropriations package to the President for his signature. I will continue to fight for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and I will work with the other members of the Hawaii delegation to plan our next move."

Pushes for recognition are ongoing in the state, with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs recently calling for renewed federal recognition efforts. As reported by the Honolulu Civil Beat publication, OHA Chair Colette Machado recently said in a speech, "OHA spent 10 years pursuing the passage of the 'Akaka bill' and dealt with multiple obstacles along every step. We will not give up. We are committed to gaining federal protection of Kanaka Oiwi rights."

Machado reportedly added that OHA has been working with Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, "to open up alternate legislative and executive routes" and would "aggressively pursue these legislative and executive paths throughout the next year."

Akaka will retire from the Senate at the end of his term in January 2013, and he is expected to strongly push his Native Hawaiian federal recognition effort in 2012. He currently chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“I will continue to educate my colleagues and seek every option for passing this bill,” Akaka told Indian Country Today Media Network in an interview. “I have worked on this bill for over a decade, on this cause for over two decades, and I will fight until my last day in office to secure passage of this bill.”

If Akaka for some reason proves unsuccessful, Democrats Ed Case and Mazie Hirono and Republican Linda Lingle are thus far the top contenders to replace Akaka in the Senate. They all support Native Hawaiian federal recognition, though Lingle is concerned about sovereign immunity lawsuit issues for Native Hawaiian entities.