Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 15, 2003

Sovereignty bill makes headway

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved legislation yesterday that would recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people and guide them in forming their own government.

The bill, which could move to the full Senate for a vote, would acknowledge the sovereign rights of Hawaiians, much as the United States already does with American Indians and Native Alaskans.

A similar bill passed the committee in the last session of Congress but was held up by conservative Republicans who viewed it as a government sanction of race-based preferences. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the main sponsor of the bill, said Hawai'i lawmakers have consulted with the Bush administration and the Hawaiian community and are hopeful the bill will pass the Senate.

"I think the bill, as written now, satisfies the segment of people who had concerns," Akaka said. "I know there will be senators who will not vote for it, but I feel we'll have good consideration."

The Indian Affairs Committee approved key changes to the bill in response to concerns by the Department of the Interior. The reworked bill includes a specific process for Hawaiians to follow to attain federal recognition and would create a Native Hawaiian office within the Interior Department that would compile a list of Hawaiians willing and eligible to participate in a new government. An interagency group would be established to follow Hawaiian issues at the federal level.

Congressional officials said they will wait and see how the Interior Department and the Hawaiian community react to the changes before moving ahead in the House.

The Bush administration has not taken a position on the bill, but the Interior Department has raised questions with Hawai'i lawmakers and Gov. Linda Lingle, who has asked the administration for its support.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has said she does not want to have to choose among competing sovereignty claims from several Hawaiian groups, according to congressional and state aides. Changes in the bill attempt to address that concern by including a process by which Hawaiians would select an interim council to draft rules for the new government and the election of government officers, who could then be recognized by the Interior Department as sovereign representatives of the Hawaiian people.

"What's at stake here is the right of Hawaiians to define their future, deal directly with the federal government, and be recognized as an indigenous people," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i.

No lawmakers have stepped forward this year to oppose the bill. Several Republicans have objections, however, and could attempt to delay or block the legislation.

H. William Burgess, an attorney who is suing to overturn Native Hawaiian programs in Hawai'i, is talking with several lawmakers here and said Wednesday there is "solid opposition" to the bill.

"This bill takes a racial group and makes it into a tribe," Burgess said.

He said there would likely be new legal challenges if the bill were to become law.