The drafting of the Akaka Bill has been a challenging 11-year process, but we now have a carefully written piece of legislation that should be enacted into law. Its passage will benefit everyone in the state by establishing a formal process to address the injustices resulting from the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the continuing disenfranchisement of native Hawaiians. By officially recognizing native Hawaiians as indigenous people of the United States, it will protect the federal programs for native Hawaiians that bring millions of dollars into the state annually.
The Akaka Bill — formally called the native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act — was passed by the U.S. House of Representative in February and now awaits passage by the Senate. It will provide a framework to allow native Hawaiians to create a government similar to the 562 federally recognized indigenous groups in the United States. After that phase is completed, negotiations will begin for the return of land and resources currently held in trust by the state and federal governments.
|John D. Waihee III is
a former governor of Hawaii.
During the past year, revisions have been made to the bill based on input from groups such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the native Hawaiian Bar Association, the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement, the U.S. Justice Department and Hawaii’s Department of the Attorney General. Sen. Daniel Akaka revised the bill to give the native Hawaiian government sovereign immunity based on the strong recommendation of the Justice Department lawyers who wanted the bill to be consistent with existing federal policy toward indigenous peoples.
These changes have strengthened the legal foundation of the bill by conforming the structure of the native Hawaiian government to the structure of hundreds of native governments already established across the United States. Gov. Linda Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett, who have been consistent supporters of the Akaka Bill and of federal recognition of native Hawaiians as indigenous peoples, wanted some additional clarifications regarding the relationship between the native Hawaiian government and the state of Hawaii during the transitional period, and these clarifications have now been included in additional amendments to the bill. Obviously, the native Hawaiian government and the state will need to work together during this transitional period, but the bill ensures that native Hawaiians will have rights and responsibilities similar to those of other native peoples in Alaska and the continental United States.
With the changes agreed to earlier this month, the Senate is poised to pass this law. The House will need to agree to the clarifications, and then it will proceed to President Barack Obama’s desk for signature, and a new era will begin for native Hawaiians and the people of Hawaii.
The United States has recognized Alaska Natives and American Indians as indigenous people for many years, and Canada has been systematically restoring the rights of its First Nation people. New Zealand has been going through a similar process during the past 35 years with its indigenous people, the Maori. During this time, the rich cultural heritage of the Maori, a unique Polynesian culture like the Hawaiians, has been protected; lands, resources, factories, fishing rights, and ships have been transferred to Maori tribes; and Maori are now partners in many economic activities with the other New Zealanders. With the passage of the Akaka Bill, we can look forward to a similar partnership that will bring together all the people of Hawaii to promote economic prosperity while protecting the traditions and cultural heritage of native Hawaiians and ensuring that Hawaiians have a voice in guiding the future of our community.