HONOLULU – Hawaii politicians are scrambling to gather enough votes in Congress to pass a bill that would grant Native Hawaiians a degree of self-government and possibly a share of the land ruled by their ancestors.
After seven years of debate, the proposal to recognize Native Hawaiians as indigenous inhabitants of the 50th state — a legal status similar to that of American Indians — has finally been promised a vote in the Senate. The vote could come as early as next week.
Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka says he has solid support from his party, but will need help from Republicans to pass the proposal.
The bill provides a process to set up a Native Hawaiian government and then start negotiations to transfer power and property from state and federal authorities to Hawaiians. The form of government and the amount of public land to be granted wouldn't be decided until then.
The new government would not be allowed to deny civil rights or set up gambling operations such as those allowed for Indian tribes on the mainland.
Akaka said the bill, which passed the House in 2000 but never made it to the Senate floor, will help right some of the wrongs done by the U.S. government in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
"It clarifies a political and legal relationship with the United States, and it will bring parity to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii," said Akaka, who has Native Hawaiian ancestry.
There are about 400,000 people of Native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, and 260,000 of them live in Hawaii. No one would be required to join a Hawaiian government if the so-called Akaka bill is approved.
A wide range of opponents stands in the way, from Native Hawaiians who won't support anything short of secession to lawyers who claim the bill is a racial entitlement program.
A report from the Washington-based U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that Congress reject the bill because it would discriminate on the basis of race. Some Republican senators argue that recognizing a Native Hawaiian group is creating a subgroup with different rights from other Americans.
Another opponent, Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, said he fears a breakup of the state of Hawaii, the relinquishment of hundreds of thousands of acres of land and a new set of race-based privileges.
"Hands are constantly being held out for more and more and more. Gimme, gimme, gimme," Burgess said. "I don't think it's fair to anticipate this government is going to be one which doesn't discriminate on the basis of race."
Members of the Koani Foundation, a Hawaiian sovereignty advocacy group, fear federal recognition would forever put indigenous people under the authority of the Interior Department, said director Kaiopua Fyfe.
"More Hawaiians are coming to understand just how bad this federal recognition would be. It would be the final nail in the coffin for Hawaiian issues," Fyfe said.
Nearly all elected officials from both parties and officials of all state agencies, led by the elected trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, support the bill.
Attorney General Mark Bennett said it's needed to help preserve the language, identity and culture of Native Hawaiians. Studies show Hawaiians have the lowest health and social indicators among the state's diverse ethnic groups.
"Hawaiians are not asking for any special treatment. They're simply asking to be treated the same way America's other native peoples are treated," Bennett said.
Public opinion is difficult to judge, with polls tending to support the views of the organizations sponsoring them.
"There are certain Hawaiians who don't support it. Some people feel the legislation doesn't go far enough; some people feel the only way is for total independence," said Clyde Namuo, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
"Certainly it's not a panacea, but it will give us greater control over our assets and our destiny than we currently have," Namuo said.
If it passes the Senate, the bill still would have to get through the House again.