Akaka bill consistent with values of America
By Sherry P. Broder, Jon M. Van Dyke and Melody K. MacKenzie
Last Sunday, The Advertiser reprinted a commentary by Bruce Fein that denounced the Akaka bill and programs for Native Hawaiians as un-American and akin to the genocidal racial policies of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
This outrageous diatribe ignored the special status that native people hold in the United States, which is firmly grounded in the language of the U.S. Constitution and which has been reaffirmed repeatedly in recent years. The federal government is authorized to establish preferential and separate programs for native peoples because of the political relationship that exists between the U.S. government and its native peoples, based on the pre-existing sovereignty of native peoples rather than any racial classification.
For most of the first 150 years of the nation's history, the United States brutally mistreated the natives living within its borders, taking their land, forcefully moving many groups, killing many natives in battles and through mistreatment and neglect, and systematically trying to destroy their unique cultures.
Native Hawaiians had a different but similarly tragic relationship with the U.S. government.
Despite several treaties pledging friendship and establishing commercial relationships between the United States and the kingdom of Hawai'i, U.S. troops and diplomats gave crucial support to the efforts of Western settlers living in Hawai'i in 1893 to overthrow the kingdom.
These U.S. officials and troops engaged in activities that were denounced by President Grover Cleveland in 1893 and which the federal government has more recently found to be morally wrong and illegal.
In 1898, a mere five years after the overthrow, despite the overwhelming opposition of the Native Hawaiian people and many other residents of Hawai'i, the United States annexed the Islands, using the unorthodox technique of a joint resolution of Congress because two-thirds of U.S. senators would not support a treaty of annexation.
Through this maneuver, the United States took control of 1.8 million acres of land that had been controlled by the kingdom, and did so without the consent of (and without any compensation to) the Native Hawaiian people.
When Hawai'i became a U.S. territory, the use of the Hawaiian language was systematically suppressed, and school teachers even scolded parents for speaking Hawaiian to their children in their own homes.
Congress established the Hawaiian Home Lands Program in 1921, which was important because it recognized the status of Native Hawaiians as native peoples under U.S. law. But until recent years, this program has been chronically underfunded and mismanaged.
Congress again recognized the special relationship between the United States and Native Hawaiians in the 1959 law admitting Hawaii as the 50th state, and required the new state to administer the Hawaiian Home Lands program and to use revenues from the lands transferred to the state "for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians."
In 1993, Congress formally apologized to the Native Hawaiian people for the U.S. participation in the 1893 overthrow, which it characterized as "illegal" and a violation of "international law." This enactment instructed the executive branch to commence a process of "reconciliation."
The president signed this legislation and initiated efforts by the Justice and Interior Departments to establish a procedure to provide redress for the injuries imposed on Native Hawaiians.
An important step in this process was the creation by Congress earlier this year of the Office of Native Hawaiian Relations in the Department of Interior.
The enactment of the Akaka bill would be an important next step. It would establish a process for re-establishing a Native Hawaiian governmental entity, which would receive formal federal recognition and would begin immediately to redefine the relationship between the United States and Native Hawaiians, and to negotiate for the return of land and resources to the Native Hawaiian people.
Such a process would be very much in the American tradition because it would recognize an autonomous native nation similar to the more than 560 native nations, tribes, villages and communities in the 49 other states.
It is a profound part of the U.S. national tradition to acknowledge mistakes it has made in the past, to act responsibly to compensate the victims, and to reestablish an honorable and dignified relationship with them.
The compensation provided to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II provides an important example of our recognizing and redressing such a wrong.
During the past half-century, the United States has worked steadily to improve the conditions of its native peoples, and many native groups are now prospering economically and reinvigorating their cultures.
Addressing and resolving the legitimate claims of the Native Hawaiian people remains as unfinished business on our national agenda.
Congress now appears ready to consider and take action on the Akaka bill next summer.
Its enactment is long overdue, and it will begin the next phase of the relationship between the United States and Native Hawaiians a phase that should allow Native Hawaiians to govern themselves once again and to regain control over their lands and resources.
Sherry Broder, Jon Van Dyke and Melody MacKenzie are attorneys representing the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs in Arakaki v. Lingle, a case which challenged the constitutionality of OHA and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.