Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Akaka thinks Hawaiians should be allowed to govern themselves as Native Americans and Alaskans do, and after seven years of pushing a bill to start the process, the Senate is expected to take it up this week.
Mr. Akaka says the bill is a way to give “indigenous” Hawaiians a sense of pride and a chance for sovereignty for the first time since 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani was deposed and lands were illegally seized by U.S. Marines and a cadre of sugar-plantation businessmen.
“For the first time, if it passes, Hawaiians will have parity and be able to form a government entity to address their concerns, since the overthrow,” Mr. Akaka said.
Republican senators annually have blocked the legislation, saying it would violate the Constitution by establishing a sovereign race-based government. It is only coming up now through a deal worked out between Democratic and Republican leaders to move other bills.
Opponents, including many native Hawaiians, say the bill opens up a “Pandora’s box” of new race classifications and called the bill ambiguous as to what benefits it will bring.
The bill calls for an Office of Native Hawaiian Relations in the Department of the Interior, and a Native Hawaiian Interagency Coordinating Group to administer programs, a commission that would certify who are indigenous Hawaiians, and provides a process of reorganization of the Native Hawaiian governing entity.
“The bill will not authorize gaming in Hawaii. The bill will not allow private lands to be taken. The bill will not create a reservation in Hawaii,” Mr. Akaka said.
The legislation is supported by both Republican and Democratic senators, primarily those from states with substantial Native American and Eskimo populations, as well as the American Bar Association and Alaska Federation of Natives.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, who has kept the bill from coming to the floor, said the creation of a native Hawaiian government — composed only of redefined natives and whose members can only be voted in by native Hawaiians — could divide Hawaii’s people.
“Unlike reservation Indians, Native Hawaiians do not live in one area of the State that is set aside for Indians; they live in the same cities and neighborhoods and on the same streets, as other Hawaiians do,” Mr. Kyl said.
Reservation Indian tribes have the power to tax, regulate and make laws for members. There are an estimated 400,000 Native Hawaiians living throughout the United States.
Native Hawaiians also say it “too narrowly” redefines who is indigenous.
“It is only for people of Native Hawaiian blood,” said ‘Ehu Kekahu Cardwell, director of the Koani Foundation, a grass-roots group dedicated to restoring the Hawaiian nation.
“We want it to be for any descendants of kingdom nationals who were loyal to the queen during the time she was deposed. We want everyone to be able to have a say in how this turns out,” Mr. Cardwell said.
Leon Siu, a Chinese Hawaiian lobbying against the bill on Capitol Hill, said it has already caused division in Hawaii.
“We reject a race issue being brought into our community; the bill will change the definition of who we are,” he said. “Native Hawaiian is not a pure bloodline and … this bill will introduce a new concept of racial apartheid.”
Mr. Siu’s father fled China in search of a better life and settled in Hawaii 70 years ago, as did hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals from America, Japan, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines who became Hawaiian citizens.
The Hawaiian monarchy historically never kept anyone from participating in its government structure and did not have a race-specific citizenship definition.
One of the most salient points in the debate will be a history lesson on how Hawaii became a U.S. territory and a state, which Native Hawaiians say was an “illegal annexation.”
Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, was deposed in 1893 by a collection of sugar exporters doing business on the island with the complicity of the U.S. government.
Hawaii became a U.S. territory under a congressional resolution passed in the late 1890s, but the Constitution states that the U.S. can only acquire land held by sovereign foreign nations through a formal treaty.
The treaty authorized by the Safety Commission — an illegitimate government established by the sugar plantation owners — failed in Congress after 38,000 of the 40,000 natives living on the island in 1897 petitioned the Congress to reject it.
Congress formally acknowledged that the coup was unlawful in an apology resolution in 1993.
“This is just the next step in that process of acknowledging the wrong committed against the Native Hawaiian people and recognize them as a sovereign entity,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, spokeswoman for Mr. Akaka.