U.S. panel backs Akaka native recognition bill
By Susan Roth
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON The federal government should move quickly to formalize the political relationship between Native Hawaiians and the United States, a federal advisory board recommended yesterday.
To make progress in reconciliation efforts with Native Hawaiians, federal and state governments should spend more to improve Hawaiians' health, education and economic situation, the Hawai'i Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended.
The committee also recommended enactment of the bill by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, that would clarify the U.S. government's political relationship with Native Hawaiians and set up a process for federal recognition of a native governing body similar to American Indian tribal governments.
About 50 people in Honolulu with a stake in the government's policy toward Native Hawaiians converged yesterday on 'Iolani Palace to lavish praise on the civil rights commission and its committee.
Representatives with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Native Hawaiian Education Council, Kamehameha Schools, the Legislature, the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and various other groups said the recommendations have the potential to bolster heavyweight support for the Akaka bill, the self-determination movement and the individual organizations that lobby for the welfare of Native Hawaiians.
"I find these recommendations to be very significant steps taken in a very formal way to advance a return of justice to Hawaiian people," said Haunani Apoliona, OHA chairwoman.
The advisory committee also recommended in a report that the government should:
Implement last year's recommendations of the Interior and Justice departments to establish an office of Native Hawaiian affairs within the Interior Department and create a Native Hawaiian advisory commission.
Explore international solutions, such as changing Hawai'i's status back to a non-self-governing territory, as an alternative to federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian governing body. Although that would return the islands to a status like that of Guam or Puerto Rico, it is an option that could lead to independence.
"Whether this is realistic or not, it's important to say it," said Charles K. Maxwell Sr. of Pukalani, chairman of the advisory committee. "I'm not 100 percent in favor of the Akaka bill unless it makes sure that international efforts will not be thwarted if we get recognition. Who knows what will happen in the future?"
Released at simultaneous news conferences in Washington and Honolulu, the report is based on community forums in 1998 and 2000 in Honolulu. The 10-member advisory committee concluded that Hawaiians are at a turning point that provides an opportunity to resolve longtime reconciliation issues with the federal and state governments.
Akaka noted in a statement that the report "reaffirms that the lack of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians appears to constitute a clear case of discrimination" deserving the attention of the commission. He also found it compelling that the advisory committee reached the same conclusions as Interior and Justice officials did last year.
The 60-page document will be sent to President Bush and Congress and could be used to bolster passage of Akaka's bill, said Christopher Edley Jr., a member of the federal commission.
"The most likely source of action on this is Congress, which should champion the rights of Native Hawaiians," Edley said. "The commission can also assist in raising this issue in the civil rights community, which can help set the agenda for work within the Beltway."
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the report's release was "timely, given the legislation pending before us. It sets forth the correct policy for the United States."
Whether the report is now shelved "is up to us," Inouye said, referring to the congressional delegation.
Inouye, who recently became chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, plans to move the bill out of the committee to the floor after the Senate is reorganized to reflect its new Democratic majority. He said he would push for passage on the floor "after we've contacted all our colleagues and discussed this matter."
In the House, an identical measure co-sponsored by Hawai'i Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Patsy Mink easily passed the House Resources Committee in May and awaits action on the floor. It is expected to pass this summer.
At the Honolulu press conference, state Rep. Mike Kahikina, D-43rd (Kalaeloa, Wai'anae, Ma'ili), held the report in the air and said it's time for the federal government to finally recognize Hawaiian programs as a "birth right" rather than a "race-based right."
"America is in denial right now in denial that they did such an atrocity. I am thankful for democracy ... which is ensuring our participation," he said.
Attorney Beadie Kanahele Dawson, a member of one of several groups that helped shape the Akaka legislation, said she is pleased and grateful to the commission for recognizing a wrong and urging a remedy.
"Americans have a hard time looking at themselves. We're very willing to look at other nations and point the finger," she said. "With a report like this, Americans need to look at themselves and ask what went wrong and how can we correct this."
Representatives said the report will be particularly useful in their battles to obtain health, education and welfare benefits for Native Hawaiians in the wake of Rice v. Cayetano, which they say poses a significant challenge to their plans.
Advertiser staff writer Jessica Webster contributed to this report.