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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 29, 2003

Conservatives blamed for stalling Akaka bill

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Two days of talk on the Akaka bill turned partisan yesterday when U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie accused conservatives of trying to derail efforts by Hawaiians and other native peoples to gain political and economic power.

Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, told participants at the annual Native Hawaiian Conference that opponents of the bill that would grant Native Hawaiians federal recognition have the ear of the Bush administration and must be countered by a unified voice from Hawaiians.

"The White House doesn't want the bill on the floor because they're afraid it's going to pass," Abercrombie said. "They understand very clearly that if the Hawaiians can be defeated in this, the next step on the list to be gotten are the tribes and corporations of Native Americans," he said.

The four-day conference, sponsored by the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, is beating the drum loudly for federal recognition as a hedge against various legal assaults on Native Hawaiian programs and entitlements.

The conference continues today with sessions on a range of cultural issues and will honor U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka for his efforts on the federal recognition bill informally named for him and for other lifetime works. The conference ends tomorrow.

The entire Hawai'i congressional delegation is at the conference to hammer home their defense of the bill, which they say will position Hawaiians as a political entity instead of merely a racial group.

This will provide a buffer against lawsuits challenging Hawaiians-only programs, such as Hawaiian homesteading, as illegal because they are based on racial preference.

Also yesterday, Kamehameha Schools representatives said the school's current court battle with critics of its Hawaiians-preferred admissions policy stems from the same assault on "institutions benefiting Hawaiians."

Constance Lau, chairwoman of the school's board of trustees, told the conference yesterday that "now is the time to stand for social justice and to convince not only Hawaiians but non-Hawaiians that it is right, it is pono, it is in the best interests of all.

Later, the president of a school advocacy group called Imua said the Akaka bill would provide an "enhancement" for justifying its admissions policy by defining Hawaiians as a group with political status.

"We are not racists," said Rod Ferreira. "We are only people seeking justice under the constitution of the United States."

The conference also has drawn connections between Native Hawaiian concerns and those of Native Americans, booking established speakers such as Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

The Indian congress has adopted three resolutions supporting Native Hawaiians, Hall said. Albert Kookesh, co-chairman of the Alaska Federation of Natives, said Alaskans empathize with Hawaiians because they were in the same position 20 years ago.

Native Hawaiians at this point need to speak loudly in favor of federal recognition, if only to start the process toward governing their own resources, Abercrombie said. Opposition to native sovereignty increased as native populations have grown wealthier over the years, he said, and he urged Hawaiians to unite against this opposition.

"The people who are against you say they are 'color blind' and 'against preference,' " Abercrombie said. "They're color blind, all right. They're color blind to every color but one: green. They understand that."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.