The Akaka bill: Endangered species? An interview with Congressman Neil Abercrombie; PART ONE

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Since 1991, Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie has served continuously
in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Hawaii's First District
on the island of Oahu. He is a member of the House Committee on Resources
and the Committee on Armed Services. Long active in municipal and state
politics, Abercrombie served in the Hawaii State House of Representatives
for two terms, after which he served in the state Senate for eight years.
He also held a seat on the Honolulu City Council between 1974 and 1990.

Abercrombie 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 are hopeful the bill will come
to a vote during this congressional session.

Given the unusual history of Hawaii, the Akaka bill is a unique piece of
federal legislation. Indian Country Today interviewed Abercrombie about the
history of the state and provisions of the bill in his Washington office
across the street from the U. S. Capitol.

Indian Country Today: As a sponsor of the House version of Akaka, when did
your interest in Native affairs begin?

Neil Abercrombie: You mean how does a haole boy - which is a Hawaiian word
for Caucasian that originally meant "stranger" - from Buffalo, N.Y. end up
not just representing Hawaii in Congress but being an advocate for this
Native Hawaiian bill? I came to Hawaii in 1959 with statehood, and of
course the whole foundation of this multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic
society in Hawaii is the aloha spirit, the legacy of the Polynesian
pioneers who had come from across the ocean to Hawaii ...

At the same time there's a history in Hawaii of the emergence from
pre-feudal separate islands into a kingdom, into a shotgun republic, into
an annexed territory, and then into a state. The Iolani Palace is right
downtown in Honolulu, the only palace in the country. There was a queen
that was overthrown here. So I was affected by all of that and felt
profoundly grateful for the opportunity to live in Hawaii, and I set out at
once to try to fit in.

In this rainbow society that we have, it became very apparent to me after I
entered into an electoral political life that the question of settling the
issues on the assets of the Hawaiians is what the Akaka bill is about. Are
the Native Hawaiians going to be able to control their own land and their
own money? When the land was seen as worthless, nobody gave a damn. When
there wasn't any money involved, for all intents and purposes, nobody gave
a damn. But now the land, supposedly worthless, is seen for what it really
is: an incredibly valuable asset.

Land in Hawaii is money. What I'm talking about here is ceded land - land
that belonged to the kingdom and was ceded to the republic and then to the
state when we achieved statehood.

ICT: By what method was it ceded?

Abercrombie: With guns and a takeover and land courts. All the land was
held in common at one point in the feudal society of the kingdom on behalf
of the people - with all the usual attendant tales of chicanery and
stupidity and sometimes nobility and kind-heartedness and low-dealing and
all the rest. Fundamentally, the land was held in common and administered
by a group of nobles called the alii on behalf of the common good.

Then, of course, Western concepts of ownership and privatization came in
and clashed with that. So land began to be exchanged. Land began to be seen
as something to be owned privately and exploited for private interests, and
never was entirely reconciled with the old ideas that land should be
utilized in common for the good of all.

I'll give you an example. All Hawaii beaches are open to the public -
there's no such thing as a private beach. In highly affluent areas, between
multi-million dollar estates, you'll see a right of way so that anybody can
get their surfboard and walk between these estates and get down to the
beach, which is public. So there's always been this clash between what is
the public good - that which belongs to all of us in common - and what can
be exploited for a private interest. The ceded lands, or crown lands, were
always seen as those which had previously been held in trust for the people
and remained held in trust for them, but administered by whomever - the
territory first, and now the state of Hawaii.

We made stabs in the legislature after statehood to try to find some way to
relieve the state of both the burden and obligation of administering lands
that otherwise were construed as belonging to Native Hawaiians
historically. Take the Honolulu International Airport. A good portion of
the airport is on ceded lands, and lease money was paid for that. So the
state's collecting lease money because all of a sudden "worthless" land now
has an airport on it.

ICT: Is the state collecting money that it uses for the benefit of Native
Hawaiians?

Abercrombie: That's right. There's a series of benefits - educational,
health, etc. - that benefit Native Hawaiians. The revenues are starting to
mount into the millions. When I was first elected to the state House of
Representatives in 1974, one of the committees I was assigned to was Land,
Water and Hawaiian Homes.

In 1920, a couple hundred thousand acres had been set aside called
"Hawaiian homelands." The idea was to rehabilitate Hawaiians by letting
them homestead on acreage set aside for them. A lot of the homelands turned
out to be land where no water was readily available, no roads, no
amenities. So you had your ceded lands of a couple million acres, and you
had your Hawaiian homestead lands of a couple hundred thousand acres.

I was assigned to Land, Water and Hawaiian Homes to deal with this legacy.
I remember saying to the chairman after serving the first year, "Why are we
doing this? Why don't the Hawaiians have control?" "Well, we have no
mechanism to do it," I was told.

Shortly after the 1978 constitutional convention, we put together an
amendment passed overwhelmingly by state voters to create the Office of
Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). These voters were both Native Hawaiian and
non-Hawaiian - non-Hawaiian by virtue of blood quantum, which had been set
up in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act [1921] in which to have a homestead
you had to be able to prove you had 50 percent blood quantum Native
Hawaiian. Well, Native Hawaiians have one of the highest percentages of
out-marriage there is. So virtually every Hawaiian is a mixture. The thing
that distinguishes them as Native Hawaiians is that Native Hawaiians were
part of their racial and ethnic heritage.

Everybody voted across the state and decided the trustees would be elected
to conduct the affairs of the OHA and that the election of trustees would
be decided by those of Native Hawaiian ancestry. Then the state entered
into negotiations with OHA to get the state out of administering anything,
to pay back rent of the ceded lands - a settlement. The OHA trustees
rejected that. The sad fallout from that is why we end up with the Akaka
bill and various lawsuits right now.

Those of us who wanted to see this issue resolved put in the Akaka bill to
enable and encourage the Hawaiians to organize themselves and come to the
Interior Department (DOI) to be recognized as a governing entity and take
control of the land and money assets that now exist. We're talking about
2.2 million acres of land. And the capital now residing with the OHA is
between $350 and $500 million, depending on the stock market, with an
income stream from leases on ceded land and so on of tens of millions of
dollars. You're talking serious money already in the bank, and millions of
dollars coming in every year.

So as soon as the land was worth something and there was money in the bank,
all of a sudden everybody got interested in non-discrimination, in who's
really going to administer this stuff. Everybody got interested in "How do
I get mine?" Which motivates, I think, 99 percent of the opposition to the
bill.

(Continued in part two: Native Hawaiians and the trust relationship)