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

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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 installment of an interview with Indian Country Today, Abercrombie
discusses specific provisions of the Akaka bill.

Indian Country Today: Is there in the Akaka bill any provision for
membership on the Native rolls according to blood quantum?

Neil Abercrombie: There is in the sense that it's now recognized that the
blood quantum is disappearing. We're getting down to [the] 9th or 10th
generation now from the Western discovery of the islands. The Akaka bill
provides that membership in the governing entity will be determined by
those who are in it when it starts. So they can set up any criteria they
want. The bill simply establishes the opportunity for the Hawaiians to
decide how to handle it.

ICT: In fact, to vote for the interim governing council, you have to trace
yourself back as a lineal descendant of someone on the 1893 roll or someone
who was eligible for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921. So it's not
a blood quantum, it's lineal descent.

Abercrombie: Obviously, the homesteaders who are eligible under the 50
percent rule, I'm sure, would prefer that it end right there. But
realistically, that's not the way it's going to end up.

ICT: Under the Akaka bill, will Native Hawaiians and their affairs be
administered by the BIA?

Abercrombie: For federal purposes, the Secretary of the Interior has an
interim role. That's being set up right now. The intention is to have an
office of Native Hawaiian Affairs in the DOI to administer it all. What
we're trying to say is that once this thing comes into existence, we're not
going to say we're eligible to be under the BIA and can tap into that fund.
One of the ways we've secured the support of Native American tribes across
the country is assuring them that we don't want to get into their
particular pot ... particularly because the Hawaiians are bigger than
virtually all other tribes.

ICT: One of the bill's provisions deals with a group of Native claims that
are given a 20-year statute of limitations. The Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act (ANCSA) awarded Native tribes a lot of land and money with
the understanding that Native claims would be extinguished. Does the Akaka
bill propose something similar?

Abercrombie: That's where the 20 years comes in. If you can't figure it out
in 20 years after the governing entity has been established and recognized,
at some point you have to say that's it. Everything has a statute of
limitations. It's been 100 years - if you can't figure out that you've got
some claim, that's it. That hasn't been a point of very much contention, at
least legislatively.

ICT: One of your information sheets suggests that only a certain class of
claims are covered - those already in existence. No other claims appear to
be affected.

Abercrombie: Not being a lawyer, I'm not sufficiently versed to know if
this stops everything; but my thought is that if someone wants to sue they
can sue, it doesn't matter what we write. Now whether they get accepted or
not is another story.

What we're trying to do is put something together that makes some legal
sense, is respectful of the history, and is adequate for any fair-minded
person to judge that we gave the maximum opportunity for people to press
their claims under the Constitution.

ICT: What are some of the parallels between the Akaka bill and ANCSA?

Abercrombie: How Native Hawaiians organize their government is up to them,
but I'm particularly attracted to ANCSA because the Native Hawaiians are an
indigenous people, and there's a historical and political reality we're
dealing with here rather than a racial reality. The diversity among the
Alaska Natives is apparent on its face.

The Alaska Natives have come to the conclusion that the assets that were
available to them they wanted to administer on the corporate model. They
were trustees who would administer their assets like a board of directors.
The ANCSA bill was not seen as an end-all in itself. It's been amended, I
believe, in 30 years some 30 times one way or another because you're trying
to reflect the realities and consequences - sometimes unintended - from
what took place in the original language. So it's virginal territory there.

But having the example of the Alaska Natives and how they conducted their
struggle to make the intentions of the original bill come to fruition, the
Native Hawaiians, at least my hope is, would use that as a template and
come up with a Hawaiian version of managing their assets in a similar way
to benefit Hawaiians in the generations to come.

ICT: ANCSA, as you say, has been heavily amended. Is it your belief that
getting something started now is important so that 10 years down the line,
when you realize it isn't right, at least there's something in the statute
books?

Abercrombie: Yes. Look what they did with the Constitution. Those were
pretty smart people who put the Constitution together. Even that had to get
10 amendments before you could put the thing over. And we've amended it
many times since. We've got to get something on the books to get this, or
this is going to go into a big drift and there's going to be real
disillusionment.

The social reality is that failure to do this is going to end up with
rancor and bitterness and societal division in Hawaii that we're not going
to be able to sustain.

ICT: Why does the bill emphasize that it shall not be construed to
authorize any gaming activities?

Abercrombie: Does the phrase "support of Indian tribes who have gaming"
ring a bell? We want the support of Indian tribes. You get into gaming,
then you're competing with them. The second thing is that Hawaii is one of
two states, Utah being the other, that forbids any kind of gaming.

There's a very strong anti-gambling bias in Hawaii to begin with, and we
don't want to even remotely indicate that we're doing this because it's an
opportunity for Native Hawaiians to back-door their way into a casino
operation. We think it would undermine our support among tribes, and we
think it's at best a real marginal, peripheral element with regard to the
principle of sovereignty... Our object here is to get the Native Hawaiian
assets under the control of the Hawaiians, not to go off on tangents like
gambling.

(Continued in part four: Prospects for the Akaka bill)