Members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are urging President Obama to reject Democratic requests to grant tribal status to Native Hawaiians by executive order, saying it would be “unwise and unconstitutional.”
Four of the eight commissioners signed a Sept. 16 letter to the president in response to an Aug. 22 article in The Washington Times, which reported on efforts by the all-Democrat Hawaii delegation to win tribal status for Native Hawaiians after years of congressional rejection.
The commission issued a report in 2006 recommending against passage of the so-called Akaka bill, which would have created an Indian tribe for those with Native Hawaiian ancestry.
“Neither Congress nor the president has power to create an Indian tribe or any other entity with the attributes of sovereignty,” said the five-page letter. “Nor do they have the power to reconstitute a tribe or other sovereign entity that has ceased to exist as a polity in the past. Tribes are ‘recognized,’ not created or reconstituted.”
The push for tribal recognition comes as the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs attempts to preserve race-based benefits and privileges for Native Hawaiians, which were thrown into jeopardy by the 2000 Supreme Court case Rice v. Cayetano.
The Hawaii state Legislature created in July 2012 the Native Hawaiian Roll in order to register Native Hawaiians, a step in the direction of tribal recognition, but so far interest has been tepid. Only 20,722 people had registered as of Tuesday, even though 2010 U.S. Census figures show 527,077 Native Hawaiians living in the United States, 289,970 of those in Hawaii.
“There is no political unit presently governing Native Hawaiians, and judging from the response thus far to the state-sponsored enrollment process, there may be far less interest in creating one than the country has been led to believe,” said the letter.
Mr. Obama has expressed support in the past for the Akaka bill, but has yet to comment publicly on the push to create a Native Hawaiian tribe by executive order.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, retired in January having never won passage for the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, despite carrying the bill for 13 years. This year, no member of the Hawaii delegation has reintroduced the bill, but several have commented on the possibility of execution action.
Sen. Brian Schatz, Hawaii Democrat, told the (Honolulu) Star-Advertiser in August that the delegation was lobbying the president to bypass Congress and use his executive powers to create a Native Hawaiian tribe.
“The president is being asked to consider a number of potential executive actions,” Mr. Schatz said. “That could take many forms, including something by the Department of Interior, or at the secretary level or something at the presidential level.”
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, Hawaii Democrat, reiterated her support for Native Hawaiian recognition in a statement Aug. 16 marking the anniversary of Hawaii statehood.
“As we mark Hawaii’s statehood today, we must recognize the range of emotions it has inspired throughout the years,” she said. “In particular, we must acknowledge historic injustices against Native Hawaiians, and continue to support federal recognition, as well as adequate funding for programs and partnerships to provide better services for this important community.”