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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Native Hawaiian issues are advancing

By David Shapiro

The new year has brought more positive energy toward an equitable resolution of Native Hawaiian issues than we've seen in a decade.

A Hawaiian leadership is emerging with an agenda focused on issues of agreement rather than the rancorous discord of the past, as Hawaiians take what could be their last realistic shot at protecting their entitlements and asserting their sovereign rights.

And importantly, Gov. Linda Lingle seems eager to work with the Hawaiian community to champion Hawaiian interests. What's good for Hawaiians, Lingle says, is good for everybody in Hawai'i.

Darkening the horizon, as always, is the persistent constitutional challenge to publicly supported programs and institutions that serve Hawaiians only, such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Kamehameha Schools.

These could all be in legal jeopardy if the Bush administration and Congress can't be persuaded to recognize Hawaiians as an indigenous people, much like American Indians and Alaskan natives, instead of a racial minority.

Not too long ago, few would have cared if OHA fell after its shameful 20-year history of ugly political bickering that resulted in little of its $300 million trust being put to the significant benefit of Hawaiians.

But the agency is showing maturity under the leadership of Haunani Apoliona, bringing hope that OHA may yet play a leading role in defining Hawaiian sovereignty and raising the social and economic welfare of Hawaiians. It's too early to judge the permanence of this welcome stability.

The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement has also stepped forward to provide leadership in finding areas of consensus among disparate Hawaiian organizations.

The council brought 60 Hawaiian groups together last week to present Lingle with a Hawaiian agenda as her new administration takes shape.

A faction of Hawaiians still supports a return to independent nationhood 110 years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, but the focus of most groups is shifting to more immediate matters such as assuring that Hawaiian interests are fully represented in state policy on education, the economy, tourism, land use and the environment.

Lingle campaigned heavily for the Hawaiian vote and promised to work closely with Hawaiians to achieve their goals. Several key members of her administration are Hawaiian, including Lt. Gov. James Aiona and Micah Kane, Lingle's political protégé as former state Republican chairman and now director of Hawaiian Homes.

Her special assistant, Randall Roth, a trust attorney and co-author of the "Broken Trust" essay that helped bring down Bishop Estate trustees, will be a key player in lobbying the White House and Congress to approve the Akaka Bill, extending sovereign recognition to Hawaiians.

Many see the legislation as vital to overcoming the U.S. Supreme Court's Rice v. Cayetano decision that pegged Hawaiians as a racial minority rather than an indigenous people, opening the door to legal challenges of all Hawaiian entitlements on the grounds of racial discrimination.

Lingle will make a personal pitch for the Akaka Bill on a trip to Washington next month, but it won't be easy. The bill has become ensnared in the national ideological battle over minority entitlements.

It seems that opponents of Hawaiian entitlements, such as local attorney William Burgess, currently have the ear of conservative lawmakers to a greater extent than Lingle.

In the end, lobbying in Washington won't be as important as continuing the good work here to build a credible Hawaiian leadership with a focused agenda.

The Bush administration and Congress won't likely move on Hawaiian sovereignty issues until it's more clear who they're dealing with and what they want.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.