Akaka Bill on Hawaiian Rights Stirs Opposition

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This article is reposted from Pacfic Citizen as part of an exchange agreement.

Native Hawaiians are still divided on the bill’s impact and ability to restore their rights

By Nalea J. Ko, Reporter
Published Aug. 25, 2009

A bill that would establish Native Hawaiian self-governance gained revived attention with the support of a new administration, spurring public opinion in the islands.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, commonly known as the Akaka Bill, in 2000. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. The bill’s creation came in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rice v. Cayetano.

The court voted 7-2 in favor of rancher Harold “Freddy” Rice who challenged the constitutionality of a Hawaiian-only voting restriction, which gave Native Hawaiians the authority to elect the board of trustees to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, or OHA. The agency provides educational, health, housing and other programs for Native Hawaiians. The court’s ruling echoed the sentiments of the Bush administration, which strongly opposed the Akaka legislation.

Sam Hirsch, deputy associate attorney general for the Justice Department, spoke of the historical case while expressing the department’s support of the Akaka Bill in the Aug. 6 hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“As for Native Hawaiians specifically, the Supreme Court has never decided whether Congress has the authority to treat the native Hawaiian community in the same manner as an Indian tribe,” said Sam Hirsch. “Indeed in its 2000 decision in Rice v. Cayetano, the court expressly avoided that question, calling it ‘difficult to reign.’ And in the decade since the Supreme Court decided Rice, no court has squarely addressed that issue.” Hawaii-born President Barrack Obama previously expressed his support of the bill.

Hirsch said recognizing Native Hawaiians as a sovereign entity, would acknowledge them as a distinct community. No vote was made in the hearing. Akaka said it was the 10th time the committee convened to discuss the bill.

Supporters of the bill said its passage would address past wrongs to Hawaiians. But, opponents said the legislation would give Native Hawaiians unfair race-based entitlements.

Hawaii-based attorney H. William Burgess wrote in his testimony that the Akaka Bill would encourage “Hawaiian supremacists.”

“A firm rejection of the Akaka Bill by this committee would reassure the people of Hawaii that racial supremacy and separatism are not acceptable,” Burgess wrote in his testimony. “That, in the eyes of government, there is only one race here. It is American.”

The Kingdom of Hawaii


To understand the sentiments expressed about the Akaka Bill requires a look at the historical relationship between Hawaii and the United States.

During the 1800s coffee and sugar plantations sprouted up in Hawaii, which is comprised of the eight islands. Soon the concept of private landownership was introduced in Hawaii with the Great Mahele, or “Division or Lands,” in 1848. The Mahele gave commoners and foreigners land ownership rights.

Iolani Palace opened in 1882 in downtown Honolulu. It was the primary residence for Queen Liliuokalani.

In 1887 the monarchy’s power was limited when a group of businessmen, among others, forced the then-king to sign the document in what became know as the “Bayonet Constitution.”

Taking the throne after her brother died, Queen Liliuokalani said she would proclaim a new constitution for the Kingdom of Hawaii. The announcement fueled anti-royalists. A group called the Committee of Safety, which was lead by Lorrin A. Thurston, said the queen was infringing on their safety and property rights. U.S. sailors and marines were later positioned outside of the Iolani Palace.

“I Liliuokalani, by the grace of God and under the constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the constitutional government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a provisional government of and for this kingdom,” wrote Queen Liliuokalani in Jan. 17, 1893.

The Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893 without bloodshed. When royalists attempted to restore the queen to the throne in 1895, she was arrested and imprisoned in her upstairs bedroom in the palace. Today docent-guided tour groups are lead through the same palace once traversed by the queen.

Nearly 100 years later the U.S. government issued an apology for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, but supporters of the Akaka Bill said the wounds are still fresh.

“The bill provides needed parity, enabling Native Hawaiians to establish a government-to-government relationship with the United States,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, in a written statement to the Pacific Citizen. “The structured process in the bill empowers the people of Hawaii to honor the needs of our state, preserve our cultural heritage, and address issues that have remained unresolved since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.”

The 50th State

Hawaii gained statehood in August of 1959 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Commemorative events for the 50th anniversary of statehood were subdued this year, mirroring the similar mixed feelings about the Akaka Bill. And do not expect a victory parade if the bill passes, said Akaka Bill opponents.

“No, it [the Akaka Bill] will not stop racially-motivated lawsuits. It will not benefit most Hawaiians materially. It will not increase self-governance nor self-determination,” said Ikaika Hussey, with the Movement for Aloha No Ka Aina, or MANA. “It will lead to more political control over Hawaiians being located in Washington, D.C. not in Hawaii. And it will be misinterpreted by many people as being a victory for Hawaiians, when in fact it will be most useful as a way of closing ‘the Hawaiian problem.’”

About 8.5 percent of the population in Hawaii is Native Hawaiian or of other Pacific Islander descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A Native Hawaiian is defined under the Akaka Bill as someone whose relatives resided in the islands before Jan. 1, 1893.

Opponents to the Akaka Bill said the legislation would also separate Hawaii by ethnicity.

“The Akaka Bill will be the destruction of Hawaii’s social and economic foundation as we all know it,” said Hawaii resident Jimmy Kuroiwa, who said he is related through marriage to Akaka. “Hawaii will become a state of us verses them by race (ethnic group).”

If passed, the bill would establish a “single Native Hawaiian” government that would negotiate assets with the state and federal government. The Hawaiian government would be similar to the federal government’s relationship with indigenous people of North America, except the Hawaiians cannot “conduct gaming activities.” Akaka said the bill neither permits the transfer of private businesses or lands nor permits secession from the Union.

In 1920 the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act reserved about 203,500 acres of land for Hawaiian homesteads. About 6,800 Native Hawaiian families live on those lands, according to the Akaka legislation. Approximately 18,000 people are on the waiting list. Under the legislation about 1.2 acres of state land, which Native Hawaiians believe was illegally stolen, could be at stake.