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Self-determination to Native Hawaiians

WAILUKU - Nine years after it was first conceived, a bill giving self-determination to Native Hawaiians may finally have a shot at becoming law, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.

But instead of bringing consensus, the passage of time seems to have only deepened divisions over whether the so-called Akaka Bill is the right thing for Hawaiians. Both sides say they want Native Hawaiians to govern themselves, but while supporters believe the Akaka Bill will give them the tools for self-determination, opponents call the measure a "fraud."

Akaka's Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009 was introduced Feb. 4 in both chambers of the 111th Congress, said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, Akaka's press secretary. Senate Bill 381 was referred to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, while the accompanying H.R. 862 was referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Akaka Bill would do a number of things, including provide a process for Native Hawaiians to attain self-determination and self-governance; enable Native Hawaiians to be recognized officially as the indigenous people of the Hawaiian archipelago; and affirm a trust relationship of Native Hawaiians and their eventual governing entity with the U.S. government.

Despite the country's ongoing economic crisis and a plethora of other priorities, Van Dyke indicated the tenor on Capitol Hill was positive toward the nine-year-old piece of legislation.

"We're very excited," he said Wednesday by phone from Washington, D.C. "We have a president who is a strong supporter, and who's pledged to sign it if it passes."

Race-based or move toward nationhood?

The Akaka Bill is "one of the most important pieces of federal legislation for Hawaii in the last 50 years since statehood," said Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement Chief Executive Officer Robin Puanani Danner.

Danner sees the Akaka Bill as a way for Hawaiians to move away from a race-based system toward a form of nationhood. She said the Akaka Bill is a federal document that "would make it the law of the land for our federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians not as race-based, but as a political collective."

"For 50 years since statehood, we've been in purgatory as a people," Danner said. "The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act doesn't tell us what to do. It tells the federal government what to do if we as Hawaiians decide to reorganize and decide to become a political entity. That bill requires every federal government agency, every office, the federal government itself, to see our entity as we decide it; that will be the will of the people."

But a Kahului resident, whose great-great-grandfather helped draft 1839 documents of the Hawaiian kingdom, said he opposes the Akaka Bill "mind, body and soul."

"The Akaka Bill is a race-based bill," said Foster Ampong, an advocate for Hawaiian independence. "Because you're talking about Native Hawaiians, as defined by law - 50 percent or greater Hawaiian blood."

Ampong said the Akaka Bill does not address the most critical legal issue for Hawaiians: nationhood.

"The Akaka Bill is another attempt at creating a fraud or appearance that the Hawaiian Islands and people were acquired by the U.S. lawfully - and in essence and in fact it wasn't," he said.

"For me, it's my passion. It's what I really, sincerely believe: We are Hawaiian nationals, not just Native Hawaiians by blood or ethnicity. . . . We have our very own bill of rights that formed our lahui, our nation," Ampong said.

Likewise, another Akaka Bill opponent points out that the kingdom of Hawaii had a relationship as a co-equal with "England, France, Russia, Belgium, Netherlands, all the powers of the world."

Kaleikoa Ka'eo, Hawaiian studies instructor at Maui Community College, said of the Akaka Bill: "I am actively involved to organize against its passage" because the bill would diminish Hawaii's international standing, making it "go to the back of the line" and give up a status it already had.

"It's like saying you attained citizenship - and now you give yourselves the right to attain a green card as an alien," he said.

Land an issue for some

For Ka'eo, a major issue "is that the so-called Akaka Bill provides no land, not one acre of land, and no access to water - that's not really self-determination," he said.

A Central Maui minister agreed.

"Akaka Bill, OHA, DHHL are all in my opinion a compromise of true reconciliation, a total distraction to overt giving back what was stolen," said Kahu Hanalei Colleado, kahuna pule, or priest, of Pu'uhonua 'O 'Iao, referring to the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

On the other hand, a Wailuku pastor and community organizer said the Akaka Bill was not about assets, but process.

"The Akaka Bill allows us to set up our nation," said the Rev. Tasha Kama, who serves as executive officer of the Sovereign Council of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly. "We should work with that process, fine-tune it as we go along. It does allow us to establish our nation within the U.S. Constitution," she said.

For purists who balk at any process that operates under the U.S. Constitution, she added: "Better half a loaf than no loaf. At least if we have something, we can protect what we have left," she said, referring to a slew of lawsuits filed in the past decade challenging Native Hawaiian trusts and entitlements.

"It's not perfect, nothing is perfect," Kama said. "All we can do is go from where we are now; working toward sovereignty, independence; keep working, keep talking, keep aloha flowing among the Hawaiian people. When the time comes, yes, let us all call ourselves sovereign."

Providing protection from barrage of suits

Some leaders support the Akaka Bill because they feel federal recognition could protect Hawaiian rights against that barrage of lawsuits.

Some suits have succeeded in overturning special programs for Native Hawaiians because the plaintiffs argued the programs were race-based - and therefore unconstitutional.

"Lack of 'official' recognition has caused us to become the brunt of litigation," said Hau'oli Tomoso, executive director of Hui No Ke Ola Pono, a Native Hawaiian health agency. "That talk about 'race-based' is something that other native peoples don't have to worry about. They're nations, they're entities in a way that we're not."

Retired 2nd Circuit Judge Boyd Mossman agreed that federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous group will ensure the same rights that hundreds of Native American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives already enjoy.

"Failure to pass this bill will be the beginning of the end of legal battles in the courts," Mossman, the Maui trustee for OHA, said. "Loss after loss will likely result, because of no federal recognition to legally shield Hawaiians from the incessant attacks by those who don't see Hawaiians as indigenous and therefore only another race-based group receiving benefits from the government."

Yet a former Hana resident said he doesn't support the Akaka Bill because it seeks to place Native Hawaiians in the same "Native American" category as Native American Indians and Alaska Natives - who he felt sold out their birthright.

"We were a recognized, sovereign, independent nation," said Henry Noa, co-founder and leader of the nearly 10-year-old Reinstated Hawaiian Government. "For us to agree to be given a new definition, a new description of our identity - that really saddens me. That we have today Hawaiians that just take that lightly, that I see them support the Akaka Bill - it's as if they're willing to compromise their inheritance (for) handouts from the United States of America.

"When I look into the Alaska Native Act, when Alaskans made their deal with the United States government they gave up 392 million acres of land that they had control over because they wanted to be reclassified as Native American Alaskans," he said.

Critics question

public input for bill

Some critics also say not enough input from the Hawaiian community went into drafting the Akaka Bill - raising the question of whether it truly reflects Hawaiian self-determination.

Andre Perez, a coordinator of the activist group Hui Pu who formerly worked for the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission, maintains insufficient input from Native Hawaiians invalidates the Akaka Bill.

"We Hawaiians never even conceived the name 'Akaka Bill,' " he said. "Most Hawaiians don't have a clear idea, don't even know the Akaka Bill."

But others said they had worked on formulating the Akaka Bill, saying they met repeatedly with the senator, who also attended a Sovereign Council of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly convention to seek input.

Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., chairman of the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council, said he served on a six-member Akaka task force with lawyer Mililani Trask to forge an original draft of the bill.

Danner noted the bill was first introduced in Congress in 2000.

"The notion that the content, the concept has not been fully deliberated over a nine-year period is a little disingenuous," she said.

Van Dyke, Akaka's spokesman, said the senator had "fought hard for Native Hawaiians for many years."

"What happened in 1893 was wrong, but unfortunately cannot be undone," he said, referring to the U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. "Senator Akaka feels this is the best way forward to perpetuate Hawaiian culture and for Hawaiians to determine their own destiny - and with the reality that Hawaii is going to remain a part of the United States."

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