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S. 310 gathers strength in Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing

WASHINGTON - After the May 3 Senate hearing on the Akaka Bill, even Capitol Hill's sternest critics of President George W. Bush and his administration will have to admit it: despite driving congressional members and staff to the limits of frustration by waiting until years of work have gone into particular bills before weighing in heavily against them with second thoughts and untried concepts, the administration is also, when ready, capable of marshaling its powers to demonstrate some of the most durable thinking of the 19th century.

Exhibit one was the melting pot. The Akaka Bill has sought for years now to authorize a process that would result in the federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as a political group, with a government re-established along lines set forth to a fare-thee-well in the federal framework for recognizing Indian tribal and Alaska Native governments. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired for the morning by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the Justice Department's principal deputy associate attorney general, Gregory Katsas, right off mentioned ''the melting pot'' and its attendant theme of ''one nation, out of many people ... e pluribus unum, out of many, one. This bill would undercut that principle.'' The administration's leading argument among many is that Native Hawaiians have assimilated to American culture, on the model of many immigrant and settler cultures, so that to separate them out again by Polynesian bloodlines would be to create a racial, rather than a political, class. A racial class is impermissible under the same Constitution that establishes indigenous tribes as governments, a political classification.

Away from the witness table, during a break in the proceedings, Micah Kane, chairman of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, explained the central point at issue in the Katsas testimony: ''Does this bill raise a higher level of constitutional scrutiny [by the judicial branch of government], if enacted, than the laws that exist to support Alaska Natives and American Indians? And the answer is no ... That's the point: that this law does not raise higher constitutional questions than what Alaska Natives and American Indians benefit from now.''

Back at the witness table following the first break, Kane provided a 21st century interpretation of the melting pot theory, in which settlers and immigrants assimilate to indigenous culture. In response to a query from Akaka on assimilation, Kane described facts on the ground in Hawaii now that modify the historical assumptions of Katsas and company, assumptions highlighted by the rhetorical question posed in testimony on Native Hawaiian assimilation to America. ''I think the irony of that question is that in Hawaii, Americans have assimilated to Hawaiians. Hawaiians have not assimilated to Americans. And it is seen in cultural practices of our hula, where non-Hawaiians, thousands of them, participate in hula festivals, practicing our cultural hula. We've seen thousands of non-Hawaiians who practice in our language, in our charter schools and in our immersion schools. It is seen in the practices, of our cultural practices on a family basis in celebrating a child's one-year luau, where non-Hawaiians practice that. So it is quite ironic where the question is posed in a way where Hawaiians - are Hawaiians assimilating to Americans when in Hawaii, it's non-Hawaiians who have assimilated to our culture, and the value-set of us who received them to our land.

''Taking it one step further, that value-set of welcoming others ... has brought us to defending our trust, in Hawaii, on Hawaii land. I find that quite, quite ironic.''

Witness H. William Burgess of Aloha for All joined the Justice Department in offering a resistance to the Akaka Bill. Burgess is extreme enough in his apprehensions about so-called ''Hawaiian apartheid'' that he can describe the alleged beating by ''a Hawaiian family'' of a soldier and his family at an Oahu mall in terms former President Ronald Reagan reserved for the Soviet Union at the height of its nuclear warhead-empowered, Red Army-led, global-propaganda-guided menace: ''The brutality at Waikele mall is a flashing red light. Over 1 million American citizens in Hawaii are under siege by what can fairly be called an evil empire dedicated to Native Hawaiian supremacy.''

At the end of the hearing Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, spoke comfort to the somewhat nervous-seeming septuagenarian. ''Chairman, may I join you in thanking all of the witnesses who have participated, not just those who are for it [the Akaka Bill] but those who are opposed to it. It has resulted in a fine discussion, which is necessary for legislation.''