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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 12, 2006

Conference helps soften opposition to Akaka bill

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ron Solimon, left, president of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, met with Hawai'i Sen. Daniel K. Akaka after Akaka spoke at a Native Leadership Forum session at the Hilton Hawaiian Village yesterday. Native groups are supporting Hawaiians and their push for the Akaka bill.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A leadership forum that brought together members of indigenous groups ended yesterday with a sense of softening in the resistance among some Hawaiians to the Akaka bill.

The shift was due in part to a strong feeling of unity in self-determination and self-governance among the groups represented at the three-day forum held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Groups included Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Maori and Native Hawaiians.

"I still have reservations about the Akaka bill because I think we should have more," said Ho'oipo Kalaena'auao Pa, president of the Native Hawaiian Advisory Council. "I'm personally in favor of independence. But I'm hoping that at least it will open a door."

The proposed legislation is officially known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. It would establish a process for the 400,000 Native Hawaiians in the United States to be formally recognized by the federal government as an indigenous people. Native Hawaiians could then decide to pursue a sovereign government that could negotiate with the federal government over land use and other rights.

William Aila, a Hawaiian activist who has opposed the Akaka bill, said, "I think more Hawaiians are looking at this from a practical standpoint. As a practical matter, what other alternatives are there?"

Aila was encouraged by the commitment from Native Americans and Native Alaskans to offer legal and political assistance to Native Hawaiians.

"Our Native Alaskan brothers and Native American brothers have emphasized the need for us to get together and to speak with a unified voice," he said.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the bill's sponsor, yesterday told the forum that the bill aims to clarify the legal and political relationship between the U.S. government and Native Hawaiians and offers federal recognition similar to that of Native Americans and Native Alaskans.

Akaka said he is confident that the bill will reach the floor of the Senate during the upcoming legislative session. The bill was expected to be aired on the Senate floor last summer but stalled when Congress diverted its attention to Hurricane Katrina.

"Native Hawaiians continue to look at our Native American and Alaskan Native brethren ... as examples of what can be achieved for our people," Akaka said. "As it has done for our other native peoples, I really believe the United States must fulfill its responsibility to Native Hawaiians."

The Native Leadership Forum, sponsored by the California-based American Indian Resources Institute, was held in conjunction with the Native Hawaiian Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. To allow people to attend both events, forum meetings were held during mornings and conference meetings in afternoons.

William Souza, of the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, echoed the sentiment of many Hawaiians who attended the events.

"There are a lot of things we can learn from their progress," Souza said of the Native Americans and Native Alaskans. "We're looking at how they have successfully moved into an area where we are trying to find our way into."

One forum speaker, Charles Wilkinson, professor of law at the University of Colorado, has been a consultant for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. He maintains that Native Hawaiians would be in a position to make important strides if the Akaka bill becomes law.

Wilkinson, who groups Native Hawaiians with "modern Indian nations," noted that while Native Americans, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians all have different histories, "the commonality is unbelievable."

He added, "The shared sense of the love of the land, of the culture, of sovereignty, is very powerful in Hawaiians."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.