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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 2, 2002

Basques offer lesson here

By Cliff Slater

On a recent trip through the Basque country in north-central Spain, I was struck by how these people had changed their ideas about who qualifies as a Basque and thought how it might have some relevance for Hawaiians.

Like the Hawaiians, the Basque people are a seafaring race. They were the first to hunt whales in the Arctic a thousand years ago; they developed the North Atlantic cod fishery in the 16th century, and supplied the first ship's captain to complete a world circumnavigation.

They speak Euskera, a language that has defied analysis since it has few common elements with other languages. And they are a mercilessly independent people who do not consider themselves Spanish. They have always wanted independence but have had to settle for a measure of autonomy from their various conquerors, from the Romans to the Spanish.

Until the late 19th century, defining a Basque was simple enough since they were the only people occupying the Basque country. But industrialization brought an influx of people from southern Spain and foreign countries, and they found a need to define a Basque. Initially, they used blood quantum, but, subsequently, they found political difficulty in this since their population had become less than half Basque. So now, instead of blood, they have chosen to redefine a Basque as, quite simply, someone who has fluency in both the Basque language and culture.

In Hawai'i, the U.S. Supreme Court's Rice vs. Cayetano decision invalidating race-based voting for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees appears to presage problems for race-based legislation of any kind regarding Hawaiians.

For example, the recent inclusion of a non-Hawaiian student on the Kamehameha Schools' Maui campus is likely just a legal maneuver to give weight to the schools' claim that they do not discriminate but merely "give preference to children of Hawaiian ancestry to the extent permitted by law." One suspects that accepting this student has something to do with the Rice decision, coupled with IRS problems.

Two years ago, our congressional delegation introduced bills hoping to neutralize the Rice decision. But as The Advertiser's Washington Bureau put it on May 25, the "Native bill is getting nowhere."

These all indicate that race-based legislation, such as the OHA income from ceded lands, is in legal trouble.

It might be worthwhile at this point for Hawaiians to discuss the merits of using the Basque idea and redefining a Hawaiian as someone fluent in the language and the culture.

Maybe this definition is not an ideal one — some may even think it absurd — but it is a way to solve the race-based legal problems. In fact, as the legal situation becomes clearer over time, a non-race-based definition of a Hawaiian may become the only option.

Some will worry that the Homestead Act provisions and the OHA income will provide an economic incentive for non-Hawaiians to immerse themselves in the language and culture. However, it is unlikely that many of them will have the motivation for the time and effort it would take, and those who did would not be anything other than an insignificant minority.

On the other hand, there would be an economic incentive for Hawaiians to involve themselves more deeply in their own culture to qualify as "Hawaiians." And, if the primary goal is a thriving Hawaiian culture, then this new definition of "Hawaiian" may provide an answer.

It is, of course, a decision for Hawaiians to make. But, I pose a question for them: Who is more likely to perpetuate and invigorate the Hawaiian language and culture — a 1/32nd Hawaiian who speaks little or nothing of the language, or someone with no Hawaiian blood but who has steeped himself in Hawaiian culture to the point that he speaks the language fluently?

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater.