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New law upholds Hawaiian identity

Abercrombie signs a bill that moves the state's indigenous people toward self-governance

By B.J. Reyes

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 08:35 a.m. HST, Jul 07, 2011


With historic Washington Place as the backdrop for a ceremony that included conch-shell blowing, traditional Hawaiian music and hula, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law a bill that formally recognizes Native Hawaiians as "the only indigenous, aboriginal, maoli population" of the islands and begins a process to create a registry of qualified members to work toward the reorganization of a native government.

Senate Bill 1520 supports efforts in Congress to gain federal recognition for Hawaiians, similar to that offered to American Indians and native Alaskans, but would continue the effort at a state level regardless of whether that goal is achieved.

Abercrombie appeared to choke up as he described his remembrances of Hawaiian aunties and other family members as he also referenced the decades-long effort by Hawaiians to seek such recognition.

"This bill is the first step in seeing to it that we have a Native Hawaiian government entity," he said. "It's not only the first step, it is a practical manifestation of all that has gone on before."

The signing took place Wednesday on the outdoor lanai, within shouting distance of sovereignty advocates who decried the measure as an attempt to deny Native Hawaiians' claims to govern as a sovereign independent nation.

"This is an affront to those of us whose nation was stolen," activist Pilipo Souza said.

The mood at the ceremony was mostly celebratory as lawmakers past and present, along with representatives from several Native Hawaiian organizations, packed the lanai to witness the historic occasion.

"I feel very good about it, obviously," said former Gov. John Waihee. "The main reason is that it lays a foundation for the Native Hawaiian community to take another step forward."

Although he was unable to attend, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who has championed federal recognition efforts, issued a statement praising the work of the state Legislature and the governor in approving the measure.

"The enactment of this bill is yet another example of Hawaii's ongoing desire to recognize the unique contributions and traditions of the native people in our state," said Akaka, who along with senior U.S. Sen. Daniel Inou­ye was in Washington, D.C., for continuing negotiations over the nation's debt ceiling.

"Native Hawaiian values shape our sense of identity, our sense of aloha for one another, and our sense of what is pono, what is just," Akaka added. "This new law complements our efforts in Congress and demonstrates that the people of Hawaii strongly support the right of Native Hawaiians to reorganize and perpetuate their culture and way of life."

The state's formal recognition sends a message to congressional opponents who have cited a lack of state support, and internal fighting among Hawaiian groups, as reasons for opposing federal recognition, supporters said.

"This law now constitutes the state's official position on recognition of Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the islands," said Office of Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Colette Machado. "It is also a strong statement of support for the reorganization of the Hawaiian government. This sends a clear message to the federal government to endorse the recognition of Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of Hawaii and to support native Hawaiian self-governance."

The federal Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, also known as the Akaka Bill, would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own governing entity and negotiate with federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues.

It was reported out favorably by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in April and awaits scheduling of a final vote on the Senate floor.

The measure reached a similar point in the legislative process last year but stalled as the Senate debated weightier matters such as health care reform and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military.

Regardless of whether the Akaka Bill passes, the state legislation — Act 195 of 2011 — would work toward establishing a governing entity in Hawaii.

Under the law, the governor is required to appoint a five-member commission to prepare and maintain a roll of qualified Hawaiians who meet specific criteria. Qualified members must be at least 18 years old, be able to trace ancestry back to 1778, show that they have maintained their culture and be willing to participate.

The commission would be funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs but operate independently of the agency.

Clyde Namuo, chief executive officer of OHA, estimated initial start-up costs for the commission to be about $300,000.

The agency already had begun work on maintaining its own registry of Native Hawaiians, known as Kau Inoa, which required only that participants be Hawaiian.

"I think that OHA, maybe seven years ago, realized that the enrollment was a critical first step for self-determination," Namuo said. "Beginning Kau Inoa was, for us, that critical first step. I think now with the passage of (Senate Bill) 1520, that's going to make all the work that we've done in trying to gather people to register a little bit easier for the commission."

Once the roll is finished, the commission would be required to publish the registry to start the process of holding a convention to organize a Hawaiian governing entity. The governor would then disband the commission.

The process is meant to be independent of federal legislation, however, maintaining and publishing the role of Native Hawaiians would satisfy both state and federal legislative proposals.

A convention would work toward drafting an "organic document," or constitution, to be ratified by the Native Hawaiian people.

"The organic document establishes the structure of the native Hawaiian governing entity," Namuo said. "Then the government will have to decide whether to begin negotiations to settle past disputes with the state, the federal government and others."

He said he respected the difference of opinion that opponents or activists may have about the best way to achieve a Hawaiian governing entity.

Protesters, about two dozen of them carrying signs and bearing T-shirts that read "Free Hawaii," issued a statement adamantly opposed to the bill, saying it "continues to violate the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom, a constitutional, independent nation" and describing it as "not the proper remedy for theft of a nation."

"The Akaka scheme is a diabolical plan to help the United States avoid lawful return (to) Hawaii of the Hawaiian Kingdom," it continues.

"The Akaka scheme offers a basely inferior ‘remedy,' setting up a contrived puppet ‘native Hawaiian government' run by select members of a fabricated ‘native Hawaiian tribe' to share in the governance of Hawaii."






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