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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 28, 2003

GOP leaders urged to back Akaka bill

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hawai'i officials are pressing White House and Republican officials to again appeal for Native Hawaiian recognition as they await a decision from the White House and the Justice Department about their position on the legislation.

"I still think they are gathering information," said Micah Kane, director of the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands, who traveled here last week to meet with officials. "I think we're making progress. I guess you have to follow your gut at this point."

The bill, sponsored primarily by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, would create a pro-cess for Native Hawaiians to obtain federal recognition as an indigenous people, much like American Indians or Native Alaskans. The Interior Department would compile a list of Hawaiians who are eligible and interested in forming a government that could eventually be recognized by the United States.

Gov. Linda Lingle and other Republicans in her administration have asked the White House and Republican lawmakers for help in moving the Akaka bill through Congress. Trustees from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs also have reached out to lawmakers on a bill that, in various forms, has stalled in Congress since 2000.

"My question is, 'What more will it take for the White House to be supportive?' " said Colette Machado, an OHA trustee who represents Moloka'i and Lana'i, while visiting Washington this month. "I think everyone wants to know when the administration will weigh in. Beyond that, we're praying."

In the weeks since the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved the Akaka bill in May, aides to the Hawai'i congressional delegation have been working behind the scenes to counter indications that the Justice Department may be preparing to oppose the bill.

Although the Justice Department has not yet taken a position, two department letters, one to Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, in May and one to Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, last September, raised constitutional concerns over separate legislation aimed at helping Native Hawaiians with small business and affordable housing assistance.

"There is no secret that there are people at Justice who need to be educated about our history," Kane said.

Patton Boggs, the law and lobbying firm hired by OHA to help advance the bill, has given the Justice Department an extensive report arguing that Native Hawaiians, like American Indians and Native Alaskans, have a "special relationship" with the federal government as a once-sovereign people who have suffered mistreatment.

The paper cites more than 150 pieces of federal legislation that have recognized Hawaiians as Native Americans and a 1993 resolution in which Congress acknowledged the U.S. role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.

The lobbyists are building a legal framework to respond to claims from conservative Republicans that the Akaka bill would sanction unconstitutional race-based preferences for Native Hawaiians. Essentially, the paper contends that Native Hawaiians should be recognized not because of race, but because of their unique history and mistreatment as indigenous people.

Meanwhile, other Hawaiian groups that favor complete independence instead of a nation-within-a-nation status, have registered their opposition to the bill. This week a group has been meeting to discuss plans for an alternative public education program on nationhood, including buses touring Hawai'i and the Mainland. Jackie Kahookele Burke, one organizer, said the project still lacks money, adding that a request for support from OHA came up empty.

John Goemans, a Waimea attorney, believes the courts eventually will eliminate Native Hawaiian programs. He was involved in the landmark 2000 Rice v. Cayetano Supreme Court case that determined it was unconstitutional for OHA to bar non-Hawaiians from voting in trustee elections.

Legal challenges are pending against OHA and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Goemans filed a new civil-rights lawsuit this week disputing the Kamehameha Schools' Hawaiian-only admissions policy.