Vote on Native Hawaiian government may come soon

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) July 2010

Native Hawaiians could finally be treated the same as the nation's other indigenous groups if Hawaii's senators can push a vote on the legislation during the next few weeks, before it's too late.

Unless the U.S. Senate votes before this fall's elections change the political climate in Washington, it could take years – if ever – to again line up so much support for a Native Hawaiian government, called a “nation within a nation.”

Hawaiians are the last indigenous people in the United States who haven't been granted federal recognition, a right already extended to Alaska Natives and Native American tribes. The legislation would start negotiations for a new Native Hawaiian government and the land, money and power that comes with it.

“The stars are aligned, and I think our chances for seeing this legislation passed is better than it's every been,” said Clyde Namuo, chief executive officer for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “If there's a will, there certainly will be a way.”

Supporters of the bill say now is their best hope for passage because it has the support of Hawaii-born President Barack Obama, powerful Hawaii Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye and Congress' Democratic majority. Also, Republican Gov. Linda Lingle last week jumped on board after it was amended, and she is urging GOP senators to do so as well.

After November's elections, Democrats may lose seats and term-limited Lingle will leave office.

More than 117 years have passed since the Hawaiian Kingdom was overthrown, and this measure is an effort to begin reconciling with the nation's 400,000 Native Hawaiians.

The bill's critics, including a minority of Native Hawaiians who want complete independence and some Republicans who see it as race-based discrimination, don't want it to ever come to a vote.

“I'm praying for a miracle that everyone comes to their senses and says, 'Why separate the most integrated spot on Earth?”' said Sandra Puanani Burgess, who is Hawaiian, Chinese and Filipino and co-founded the opposition group Aloha for All. “I don't want to end up as an Indian tribe.”

Hawaii's senators are seeking a vote before a recess begins Aug. 6, appropriations bills are considered in September and elections approach in October and November.

But finding room on the Senate's calendar will be difficult as it votes on extending unemployment insurance, a small business loan program and the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. A vote could be delayed until after November's elections, but before the new Congress takes office in January.

“It's important that we do it now because I feel the purpose of this legislation is to provide parity in the United States' treatment of its indigenous people,” said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the first senator of Hawaiian ancestry. “We're really pressing it with the leadership to try to get a spot.”

At 85, Inouye wields power as the Senate's most senior member, and the 85-year-old Akaka has championed the bill for a decade. Inouye said last week he'll seek a vote before the Senate recesses in August.

Independence-minded Native Hawaiians oppose the bill because they see it as a sellout of their claims to sovereignty.

“I prefer the return of the Hawaiian Kingdom, that it would be the nation it was prior to the overthrow,” said Leon Siu, a Hawaiian activist and musician. “The U.S. has no authority to dispense these lands to a new Native Hawaiian entity because they're not their lands in the first place.”

Native Hawaiians who back the legislation view it as a practical compromise that would protect indigenous programs from lawsuits and preserve their culture.

“Ultimate justice would of course return Hawaii to independence. That's not going to happen in my lifetime, and I believe we need to accomplish this,” said Bruss Keppeler, an attorney and chairman of government relations for the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce. “This may just be a step in the right direction.”

The bill last came before the Senate in June 2006, when 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. Thirteen Republicans and most Democrats supported the motion. This year, Democrats control 58 seats in the Senate compared to just 44 in 2006.

The House passed the measure in February on a 245-164 vote, but representatives would have to vote again if the Senate passes the bill because it was amended to address concerns raised by Lingle.