Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Lawmakers agree to revise Hawaiian recognition bill

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hawai'i lawmakers have agreed to make changes to a Native Hawaiian recognition bill to satisfy concerns by the Department of Interior and, if possible, win an endorsement from the Bush administration.

Summary of changes

The Hawai'i congressional delegation has agreed to make revisions to a Native Hawaiian recognition bill. A summary of the changes:

• A federal Office for Native Hawaiian Relations would compile and maintain a roll of Hawaiians willing and eligible to participate in a new Hawaiian government.

• People who feel they have been excluded from the roll can appeal to the Interior Department.

• Hawaiians on the roll can form an interim governing council that would, possibly through a referendum, develop the structure and scope of a new government.

• The interim council would disband once elected officers of a new government take office.

While the heart of the bill remains the same — federal recognition of Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to sovereignty — the legislation would now create a specific process for Hawaiians to achieve recognition. It would also authorize the Interior Department to compile and maintain a list of Hawaiians willing and eligible to participate in a new government.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill today.

"It would help if the White House came out for us," Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, the vice chairman of the committee, said yesterday after a speech to a conference on self-determination for indigenous people attended by several Hawaiians. "I think we're closer."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the bill's principal author and a member of the committee, said the changes improve the bill "by providing additional clarity and guidance."

Inouye, Akaka and their counterparts in the House, Democratic Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case, agreed to revise the bill after meeting last week.

The main roadblock in Congress has been from conservative Republicans who argue that the legislation would validate unconstitutional race-based preferences for Hawaiians. Other Republicans, and the Interior Department, have asked for more information on how a Hawaiian government would work.

Rather than address their critics directly, Hawai'i lawmakers decided earlier this year to propose the same version of the bill that stalled during the last session. But after a hearing before the Indian Affairs Committee in February, and talks with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and the Hawaiian community, the delegation opted to make changes.

New office set up

The bill would establish a new Office for Native Hawaiian Relations within the Interior Department and an interagency coordinating group to monitor Hawaiian issues before the federal government.

The new office would develop a roll of Hawaiians who choose to participate in creating a new government. Hawaiians could then select an interim governing council that would draft the structure and scope of a government and hold elections for government leaders. The new government could be recognized by the Interior Department and could negotiate with federal and state governments over issues such as land use or Hawaiian programs.

According to congressional officials, Norton did not want the prospect of several Hawaiian groups coming forward with claims of sovereignty. The original version of the bill, first proposed by Akaka in 2000, included a similar process for recognition.

Rowena Akana, a trustee for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said people in the Hawaiian community had similar concerns. "Everything the Interior secretary was saying the people were saying," Akana said. "They wanted a process."

Forward movement

Earlier this month, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs outlined its own timetable for Hawaiians to convene and begin to consider a new government this year. Haunani Apoliona, the chairwoman of the OHA board of trustees, said that effort would complement, not compete with, the federal recognition bill.

"The important thing is that this is moving forward," Apoliona said.

Gov. Linda Lingle testified on behalf of the bill in the Senate in February and has urged the Bush administration to support the legislation. State Attorney General Mark Bennett and Micah Kane, director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, are actively lobbying administration officials and Republican lawmakers.

"We've tried to educate them about the need for recognition and its importance to our state," said Kane, who plans to visit Washington in June to discuss the bill and other issues. "I think we're continuing to make steady progress."

Now that the Hawai'i legislative session is over, Case and others here hope Lingle will invest more of her time on Hawaiian sovereignty. "It's really going to be up to her to convince the Bush administration," Case said.

Many believe that if Lingle is able to get the Bush administration to back the bill, it would help soften opposition among Republicans in Congress.

Robin Danner, president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said Lingle has made a difference. "She took the first 10 steps," Danner said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that it was unconstitutional for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to exclude non-Hawaiians from voting in trustee elections. The ruling has prompted other legal challenges to Native Hawaiian programs as race-based preferences.

There is no consensus in the Hawaiian community on sovereignty — some Hawaiians would settle for nothing less than independence from the United States — but many Hawaiians believe the federal recognition bill could provide some legal protection for Native Hawaiian programs and parity with American Indians and Native Alaskans.

H. William Burgess, an attorney representing people challenging the constitutionality of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, is here this week lobbying against the bill.

"We really shouldn't have separate government forms based on ancestry or race," Burgess said.