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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Creativity crucial with Akaka bill's failure

By David Shapiro

The Akaka bill for native Hawaiian recognition was doomed nearly from the start when its proponents lost sight of the objective.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka introduced the measure in 2000 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hawaiian-only elections for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs unconstitutionally granted special voting privileges based on race.

By defining Hawaiians as a racial minority rather than an aboriginal people, the court left other Hawaiians-only institutions such as Hawaiian Homes and Kamehameha Schools also vulnerable to legal challenge.

The Akaka bill was intended to head off the race issue by recognizing Hawaiians as indigenous Americans with political rights, the same as American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

But that goal was quickly lost as the Akaka bill instead became a platform for grandiose notions of Hawaiian sovereignty and nationhood that never were clearly defined.

Opponents of Hawaiian rights jumped on the opportunity to beat the measure down with absurd claims that it would suspend the Bill of Rights, force non-Hawaiians off their property, bring gambling to the islands and even lead to Hawai'i's secession from the union.

The tragic consequence is that Hawaiian assets that have existed from 30 years to more than a century are more vulnerable than ever, with cases against OHA and Kamehameha Schools already moving through the appeals courts and more challenges sure to follow.

The tragedy will compound if proponents of Hawaiian rights don't learn from the mistakes.

In his Democratic primary contest against U.S. Rep. Ed Case, Akaka is making political capital out of his questionable handling of this failed legislation by arguing he's needed now more than ever to keep beating the same dead horse.

The fact is that his bill will never pass as long as George W. Bush is president and Republican conservatives control Congress; pursuing it for the next two years, at least, is a waste of valuable time.

What voters need now from Akaka, Case and other leaders are fresh ideas for dealing with vital issues left unresolved by the failure of the Akaka bill.

Gov. Linda Lingle, who was unable to win Bush administration support for the Akaka bill after three years of lobbying, says it's time to pursue other options for protecting Hawaiian assets possibly without federal involvement.

This would almost certainly require an attitude adjustment by Hawaiian organizations, which have resisted changing their policies to address legal challenges while awaiting the outcome of the Akaka bill.

Now, the priority should be to find creative ways to preserve programs such as OHA, Hawaiian Homes and Kamehameha Schools primarily for Hawaiians while taking race out of the equation.

These institutions can either get ahead of the courts and adapt to the new legal realities on their own terms or risk being ordered by the courts to open up to everyone, period.

As for Hawaiian nationhood, it's up to Hawaiians to decide what they want and try to make it happen.

It was never the proper role of the federal government to create a process for recognizing a sovereign Hawaiian entity that didn't otherwise exist, as the Akaka bill proposed.

The correct path would be for Hawaiians themselves to form an organization, agree on a leadership and agenda, and then petition for recognition.

If Hawaiians can't get past the disunity that has stymied advancement in defining sovereignty for 30 years, it raises serious questions about whether there is enough commonality of interest in the diverse Hawaiian community to support a Hawaiian nation.

Time is not on their side as court challenges, Hawai'i's changing demographics and intermarriage trends that dilute the native Hawaiian population all work against them.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.