Deal struck on Native Hawaiian recognition

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii July 2010

A measure allowing Native Hawaiians to form their own government could come to a vote in the U.S. Senate during July following a deal struck with Hawaii’s Republican governor.

Gov. Linda Lingle announced she will support the bill after it’s changed to clarify that a future Hawaiian government wouldn’t provide immunity from the state’s laws unless Congress agrees following negotiations. Native Hawaiians are the last remaining indigenous people in the United States that haven’t been allowed to establish their own government, a right already extended to Alaska Natives and Native American tribes.

Lingle’s backing will be important in getting votes from Republican senators, some of whom see it as race-based discrimination.

“I will strongly support a bill with the changes ... and will write to senators of both parties expressing my support,” Lingle said. “I sincerely hope the bill will become law in 2010.”

With Hawaii-born President Barack Obama on their side, a vote this month may be the best chance for the legislation to pass after years of efforts, said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

“We need to act quickly to ensure the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law this year,” Akaka said. “I remain optimistic that the United States will finally extend federal recognition to Native Hawaiians and end over a century of inequality in its treatment of indigenous peoples.”

If senators don’t vote on the bill this month, it’s unlikely they would take up the measure before November’s elections, when Democrats in favor of the measure could get voted out of office.

The Native Hawaiian recognition bill passed the U.S. House in February. If amended and passed in the Senate, it would need to return to the House for a final vote.

“We’re thrilled. After so many years, we feel this is probably one of the last opportunities we have to get this bill through,” said Clyde Namuo, chief executive officer for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “This is a critical time.”

Lingle had long backed the Native Hawaiians recognition bill until late last year, when the legislation was revised to immediately vest a governing entity with ill-defined powers instead of allowing those powers to be negotiated between the new government, the federal government and the state.

The amendments to the bill announced Wednesday allow the state to regulate Native Hawaiian government activities to protect public health or safety until negotiations conclude, and the state’s criminal laws would apply to the officers and employees of a Hawaiian government, as well as its members.

Once a Native Hawaiian government is formed and given land, then Congress could decide to give the new government authority over its territory.

The last time a version of the Native Hawaiian recognition bill came before the Senate in June 2006, it fell four votes short of the 60 needed to end debate and move on to an up-or-down vote on the bill itself. At the time, the Senate voted 56-41 to end debate, with 12 Republicans in support.

This year, there are 58 Democrats in the Senate, meaning at least a few Republicans would have to support the bill even if every Democrat backs it.

Regardless of how many senators would vote for the measure, known as the “Akaka Bill,” the Senate has so many other issues to deal with that the Native Hawaiian recognition legislation might get left out.

“A project such as the Akaka Bill is going to take two or three days. The leadership might say, ‘We don’t have the time for that,”’ said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.