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Congress Debates Native Hawaiian Rights

February 23, 2010 - by Eric Naing

It could be big day in Congress for Hawaii. The House is scheduled to vote today on a bill (H.R.2314) that would grant Native Hawaiians some of the same federal rights already given to American Indians and Native Alaskans.

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, also known as the Akaka Bill after Sen. Daniel Akaka [D, HI], would allow for the creation of an official Native Hawaiian government with the power to negotiate with federal and state governments over issues like land and cultural preservation. About two-thirds of the estimated 400,000 Native Hawaiians out there live in Hawaii.

What the bill does not do is recognize Hawaiians as an Indian tribe, meaning an official Hawaiian government couldn’t, for example, conduct gambling in the state.

Some form of the Akaka Bill has been introduced in the past five Congresses and it has twice been passed by the House only to stall in the Senate.

Sen. Akaka believes this bill is a necessary step in giving Native Hawaiians the rights they are owed:

It is critically important that we continue to provide Native Hawaiians parity in federal policies enacted for our nation’s indigenous people. This bill provides Native Hawaiians with an opportunity for self determination and cultural preservation, while empowering them to be an equal partner with the state and federal government. More than 50 years after statehood, it is time we act to bring about meaningful reconciliation and healing.

Another major proponent of the bill is President Obama who famously was born in Hawaii and is very familiar with the issue. In 2008, then-candidate Obama echoed Akaka’s words:

As Americans, we pride ourselves on safeguarding the practice and ideas of liberty, justice, and freedom. By enacting this legislation, we can continue this great American tradition and fulfill this promise for Native Hawaiians and ensure that they are not left behind as Hawaii continues to progress.

Republicans, on the other hand, are fiercely opposed to the Akaka bill. They argue that it actually does recognize Native Hawaiians as an Indian tribe – something they say Congress does not have the power to do. Congressional Republicans believe that Native Hawaiians are a racial group instead and that the Akaka bill would “confer upon them racially exclusive benefits, discriminating against Hawaiian residents of other races.” Adding:

H.R. 2314 could lead to a racial balkanization in Hawaii and elsewhere, providing for different codes of law to apply to people of different races who live and function as part of one currently homogenous community.

Not every Republican, however, feels the same way. Sen. Lisa Murkowski [R, AK] has supported the Akaka bill in the past – in part, because she hails from a state with a significant Native Alaskan population and has dealt with similar issues. Murkowski’s support is critical because she could mean a 60th vote in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster should the bill make it out of the House.

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