The Akaka Bill: Endangered species? An interview with Congressman Neil Abercrombie; PART FOUR

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Congressman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, is the primary sponsor of the House
version of the Akaka bill, named for Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Akaka. The bill
proposes the establishment of a governing apparatus by and for people of
Native Hawaiian descent. First introduced in 2000, the bill would recognize
and reorganize Native Hawaiians as an entity with government-to-government
powers under oversight by the Department of Interior. The sponsors hope the
bill will come to a vote during this Congressional session.

In this, the final installment of an interview with Indian Country Today,
Abercrombie discusses prospects for the bill's passage.

Indian Country Today: What kind of support do you have from Native
Hawaiians for the Akaka bill?

Neil Abercrombie: Overwhelming support. Every poll ever done shows that. It
may be eroded somewhat now. For example, I don't know if there are 100
people in the state who want to restore the kingdom. But I guarantee you
that at any given hearing, 99 of those 100 will show up to testify.

But the average person who's for this, who would like to see it happen,
they have to make a living: they've got to feed their kids, they're going
to work, they're not going to show up at the hearings. The extremes are the
people who show up, and then other people get discouraged from coming
because they don't want to go down there and get in the midst of a shouting
match.

ICT: What kind of support do you have among Hawaiian residents as a whole?

Abercrombie: Again, an overwhelming majority were for it. But over time,
especially as the thing doesn't get passed, you get the extremes writing in
the newspaper complaining about it. Are there 1,000 people in the state who
even know what's in the bill?

For all practical political purposes, it's quite clear that the
overwhelming majority of people are for it in the sense that they don't
know anything that would make them be against it.

ICT: You also have the support of the National Congress of American Indians
and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Abercrombie: Yes. As recently as the fall election they made public
appearances at forums where the Akaka bill was under discussion, and
officers of both organizations reiterated their support.

ICT: Do you have bipartisan support in the House?

Abercrombie: Yes. The one time we got it on the floor we had a unanimous
vote in 2000.

ICT: So what's holding up the bill?

Abercrombie: The White House. There may be various and sundry internal
machinations in the Senate, but if the White House said, "Yes, we'd like to
see this moving," I have an idea that the opposition, to the degree it
exists at all in the Senate, would melt away.

ICT: Hasn't Sen. John McCain come out against it?

Abercrombie: Sen. McCain [R-Ariz.] says lots of things. He also said he
wasn't going to stand in the way of it being heard. Very few bills, to my
knowledge, pass unanimously. The question is whether the legislation is
going to be allowed to get to a point where people can vote on it. That is
strictly a function, at this stage, of the White House.

ICT: You have the support of your own Republican governor.

Abercrombie: That's what they say. That's the public perception. But to my
knowledge, the Republican governor [Linda Lingle] has never exchanged a
word on this with the White House except perfunctorily.

ICT: You can't speak for the White House, but ...

Abercrombie: I can't speak for the White House, but I can speak for what
the White House did because I was there when it happened. The Office of
Management and Budget director, Mr. Joshua Bolten, explicitly stated to the
Appropriations Committee in the House that the White House was opposed to
this.

ICT: Is it a philosophical opposition?

Abercrombie: No. It's an appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party,
the 21st century version of the Know Nothings. Racial preferences [they argue], affirmative action, special privileges, reverse discrimination: it
even gets into the immigrant argument.

The sad part is that the Akaka bill, which really has nothing to do with
any of this stuff, is trapped in the "Well, we couldn't get the Indian
tribes, we couldn't get the Native Alaskans, these are the only guys out
there, tough luck that they didn't get in on the deal 30 years ago."

Just think about it: What possible threat are Native Hawaiians to anybody
up here on the mainland in any way, shape or form? There's a strain of
nativism, which is ironic.

ICT: And you have the support of the state congressional delegation?

Abercrombie: Yes. I have virtually unanimous support in the Resources
Committee, even Republicans with impeccable conservative credentials. My
position on the Akaka bill is essentially a conservative one: people ought
to be in control of their own destiny. If you've got assets, you should
take proper care of them; you shouldn't be a ward of somebody else. You
should exercise sovereignty over your own existence. Now what's more
conservative than that?

In fact, the only question ever asked me [in committee] was, "If we set
this up, does that mean we have to give them land, does that mean we have
to give them money?"

My answer was "No, no, no, no. That's already there. This is just to get
the state out of the administration of this," which appeals to
conservatives.

ICT: Do the supporters of the bill think that having a federal trustee
rather than a state trustee is going to make it a lot easier to use this
money?

Abercrombie: There'll be no federal trustee. This is just for recognition
purposes. The law requires that the DOI recognize that entity as having
control over these assets; and to the degree or extent the federal
government has to involve themselves, that's what they'll deal with.

ICT: How will the land and money be made more available once the bill is
passed?

Abercrombie: Right now, the state of Hawaii has control of the land part,
including the Hawaiian homelands, because the state appoints the board and
the state does the funding, and the legislature still votes on all
questions that amount to zoning and everything else.

On the money part, now that the OHA has been voted on by everybody, they
kind of control the money; but even there the state still collects the
lease money, still controls the airport leases, and there's some question
as to whether people can challenge the right of the OHA to have control
over the money.

ICT: But the DOI has a checkered past in terms of its trustee relationship
with tribes.

Abercrombie: Yes, but that depends on the talent in the room. The
Constitution does not guarantee you good government, it guarantees you the
opportunity for good government. Whether you get it or not depends on the
talent in the room.

I'm sure a lot of tribes would say you're being kind when you say there's a
"checkered past." They probably have a description that would be a lot more
harsh and probably deservedly so when you talk about management of assets.

ICT: Like the Cobell case ...

Abercrombie: Literally, the trust relationship in terms of Question: "Did
the money disappear? Where's what I'm entitled to?" Answer: "Well, it all
went away." Question: "Where did it go to?" Answer: "God knows."

In this instance, I think we could probably avoid a lot of that because
here there's no history of this to begin with. It's not as if the Bureau or
the DOI or any of its sub-entities have ever had anything to do with this
in terms of administering the land or controlling the funds.

ICT: The bill gives a lot of authority to DOI. It's Interior that appoints
the nine members of the original commission. Interior also has to sign off
on the governing documents.

Abercrombie: But that's all mechanical. They do have to sign off. But that
exists right now. That's not anything new. That's just what we're told are
the legal mechanics that have to take place. But once that's done, the
whole idea is for the DOI to be able to do a handoff. I don't think there's
anything sinister in it. As a matter of fact, if we could get the White
House eventually to approve it, I think they'll be only too happy to hand
it off.

ICT: What are the bill's prospects?

Abercrombie: In terms of legislation, I think they're excellent. In terms
of executive approval, they're pretty bad. And the bill won't move, in my
judgment, particularly with the House's concern, absent the approbation of
the White House.

ICT: Are you saying the wrong man won in November?

Abercrombie: If anything, it has to do with the wrong woman who won in
2002. Part of the victory of the governor was that she could do something
for the Native Hawaiians that Democrats could not do, that she would have
access, that she would have political leverage with the Bush White House.
But I haven't seen any evidence of that. I'd be happy if she could - it
would help her in 2006 - but you've got the bigger question here of justice
for the Hawaiians. She has been, at best, supine. Maybe she's waiting for
the right time.