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

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

In this installment of an interview with Indian Country Today, Abercrombie
discussed Native Hawaiians and their historical trust relationship with the

Indian Country Today: So you've said Native Hawaiians have 2.2 million
acres of ceded and homestead land. Is it contiguous?

Neil Abercrombie: It's scattered, but it comes in sufficient batches to be
worth bundles if you can get the infrastructure in.

ICT: Is it worth a lot because of agriculture? Tourism?

Abercrombie: As originally conceived, since it was homestead land, it was
to be for farming. But how are you going to farm if you don't have any
water? How are you going to farm if the utilities aren't there? You
couldn't get the capital. It was the same with building a house or being
able to sustain yourself. In theory, it was great - free land. But the
practical realities were, "How are you going to make it work?"

Today, the answer is that even though the land is somewhat scattered around
on the different islands, although it comes in some pretty big chunks, you
now have the capital and the income stream available so that you can make

The land itself, because of the extension of roads and utilities right up
to and including the Hawaiian homelands, is suddenly very valuable. Before,
it was seen as essentially worthless and simply a theoretical nod in the
direction of justice for the Hawaiians who had lost their land and their
kingdom and their sovereignty.

ICT: Is it fair to say that Native Hawaiians have had a trust relationship
with the state?

Abercrombie: It's not only fair to say, I think it's essential: and that's
one of the most contentious points. They've had a trust relationship with
the United States, too, all this time - how did this all get administered?
We've got about 150 pieces of legislation on the books nationally and all
kinds of legislation on the books in the state. All of which, by the way,
has to be under the terms of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, certified
by the Congress after it passed the state.

When I was in the state Legislature, we passed a whole bunch of laws having
to do with the administration of the Hawaiian Homelands, all of which had
to be vetted and certified by Congress. So we've had a trust relationship
with the United States from the time of annexation right up until now.

One of the principal bones of contention from those who do not wish to
recognize Native Hawaiian rights in any way is that no trust relationship
exists. Now, any objective analysis of the legislative history and the
social realities indicates that of course it does. If the relationship
exists, then that complicates things for the people who are against
sovereignty for the Hawaiians.

ICT: Have most Native Hawaiians benefited from the trust relationship?

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Abercrombie: Yes, to the extent that the social and economic position of
the Native Hawaiians has still been disadvantaged. Like any other human
endeavor, the system that existed [before] had its good points and its
fearsome points. Nonetheless, there was a sense of loss, of displacement,
of being seen as the "other" by those who were in economic and social
control after the overthrow - principally Caucasian ... When I first came
to Hawaii in 1959 with statehood, there were a lot of people who submerged
the fact that they had any Native Hawaiian ancestry. The language had
fallen into not only disuse but was almost a historical artifact.

That's one of the ironies. With statehood actually came the renaissance of
Hawaiian culture - language, dance, mythology, history, scholarship.

ICT: How many Native Hawaiians live in Hawaii?

Abercrombie: Those who self-identify in the census are about 240,000, about
20 percent of the state. The OHA registration to vote was about 100,000,
which of course only includes those of voting age. So there's a
considerable number of those willing to identify themselves as at least
part Native Hawaiian.

ICT: If Native Hawaiians already have a trust relationship with the federal
government, then why the Akaka bill? What does the bill give Native
Hawaiians they don't already have?

Abercrombie: The reason for the Akaka bill is simplicity itself. The second
that the state proposal for a settlement to the trustees was turned down,
an avalanche of lawsuits over what constitutes this trust relationship
began to take place.

The most notorious was a case called Rice v. Cayetano. An individual named
Harold Rice sued Governor Cayetano over the election of trustees of the
OHA, who were selected by those who claim Native Hawaiian ancestry. "That's
unconstitutional. Why shouldn't I be able to vote for the OHA trustees"
[the suit said].

Of course, the answer was "because the people of the state, including you,
voted to set it up this way in order to take care of the land and money for
the Hawaiians." It went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The cultural blindness, the misunderstanding of what was at stake, the
complete inability to understand the relationship of land and dollars: this
was completely lost on these folks. They saw it all in terms that were
being fought elsewhere - what happened with tribes, what happened with land
questions, what about immigration, affirmative action, racial preferences,
all these things that applied to circumstances in other places and had
nothing to do with the history of Hawaii.

The court ended up ruling [in 2000] that electing people by the state
constitutional amendment empowering only those who could trace their Native
Hawaiian ancestry was unconstitutional. Therefore, everybody had to vote.

OK, we did that. Everybody voted. What did everybody do? They voted for
Native Hawaiians. But that wasn't good enough. What became apparent very
quickly was that the vote wasn't really the answer. "There's all this land
and all this money; somebody's got to control it," they said. "How come
these brown people are controlling it? This is discrimination." What they
really meant is, "How come we can't get a shot at it?"

You strip away all the verbiage, all the pseudo-philosophical trappings,
and this comes down to who's going to control the land and who's going to
control the money. Even if the Akaka bill establishes a sovereign entity to
have a relationship with the U.S., that doesn't end the argument about who
controls the assets. It's just that we're trying to get the Hawaiians to do

The premise behind the bill is simplicity itself - to put together a
process whereby you can facilitate Native Hawaiians to come to [the Department of the] Interior with a proposal for controlling their assets
that is satisfactory to the DOI. My own particular preference is for a
Hawaiian version of the Native Alaskan approach because the Hawaiians are
not a tribe, they're an indigenous people. The parallels are there about
indigenous people being exploited. But governmentally speaking, the
Hawaiian experience is unique to Hawaii.

(Continued in part three: Provisions on gaming, claims, and membership in
the Akaka bill.)