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Akaka Bill, not nationhood, protects Hawaiians’ future

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Criticism of the Akaka Bill for native Hawaiian recognition has focused mainly on the concerns of the political right, which considers the legislation race-based preferential treatment.

But there is also opposition from many Hawaiians, especially nationalists who believe the bill would kill chances of restoring the independent Hawaiian kingdom that existed before the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.

This group was rankled more than ever by amendments advanced by Sen. Daniel Akaka at the behest of the Obama administration to give Hawaiians similar legal standing to Indian tribes, a comparison that left many Hawaiians insulted.

"Hawaiians are not a tribe," one sovereignty group said. "They are a nation—and their nation is occupied."

That sentiment is deserving of respect as the Akaka Bill moves closer to passage now that Gov. Linda Lingle is back on board after the latest tweaks.

It’s not for me to tell Hawaiians what they should want for themselves. But as a practical matter, there’s no realistic chance of Hawaii ever becoming independent from the United States, whether the Akaka Bill passes or not.

The nationalist groups are many, often working at cross-purposes, with conflicting claims to the throne. Support for any of the groups is scattered, with no leadership or agenda that is widely accepted within the Hawaiian community.

There are deep divisions between some 50 percent Hawaiians who are Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiaries and those with less native blood. The broader community would never accept a split from the United States.

If U.S. leaders decided to give Hawaii back to the Hawaiians, who would they give it to? There’s no accepted governing entity—now or on the horizon.

I’ve always supported the original intent of the Akaka Bill, which was less about nationhood and more about protecting Hawaiian assets such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawaiian Home Lands and Kamehameha Schools after the U.S. Supreme Court left them vulnerable to legal challenge with the Rice v. Cayetano ruling that Hawaiians are a racial minority and not an indigenous people with special rights.

Hawaiian Homes and Kamehameha Schools existed long before statehood, and OHA was created to give Hawaiians their share of state ceded lands guaranteed by the 1959 Admission Act.

These Hawaiians-only assets were part of the deal when Hawaii voted to become a state, and it’s grossly unfair to come back a half-century later and disallow them under U.S. law.

But wrong or not, it’s the reality of what could happen.

If something like the Akaka Bill isn’t enacted to clarify that Hawaiians are an indigenous people with the same political rights as other indigenous Americans, Hawaiians could not only fail to achieve nationhood, but also lose control of the most important assets for perpetuating their culture.

David Shapiro can be reached at or


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