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Editorial | Island Voices

Lamenting Akaka Bill


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With all due respect to U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka, it should be clear to any observer that the Akaka Bill is dead. Unless there is a complete Democratic swing in the next election, the ball game is over and self-governance for native Hawaiians is "dead, dead, dead," as we used to say when I was in the state Legislature.

On Nov. 15, your editorial labeled the current situation as "inexcusable" and seemed to lay much of the blame on our two senators. Actually, the debacle was caused by certain Hawaiian organizations, including the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the White House and Gov. Linda Lingle. But in the long view the real culprits are the Republican members of the United States Senate.

After the bill was sent to the Senate from the House of Representatives, the White House amended it so as to provide the Native Hawaiian Governing Entity with the attributes of sovereignty upon its establishment, before beginning negotiations with the federal and state governments over the distribution of land and governmental authority. The White House staff discussed this initiative with the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA), which persuaded Akaka’s staff to present the amendment to the senate committee. It does not appear that the proposed amendments were previously discussed with Hawaii’s senators or with Lingle. They were not discussed with OHA.

Lingle strongly opposed the amended bill and conducted negotiations with OHA to eventually bring about a form acceptable to her. The fact that Akaka has introduced another form of the bill clearly indicates the original bill is dead.

How did native Hawaiians play a role in the death of the bill? OHA and CNHA must share the blame.

OHA considered the bill as its "property" and felt that it should be allowed to "vet" all proposals affecting the bill’s contents.

CNHA had its own ideas and constantly sought to advance the entitlements of the Hawaiian Home Land "homesteaders." The two organizations were competing.

In the end, CNHA worked with the White House to prepare the amendments that went to the Senate committee. OHA had nothing to do with them. Those amendments aroused Lingle’s opposition.

Once Lingle voiced her opposition, the bill lost its key Republican supporters: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. They could not afford to be seen as ignoring the demands of a fellow Republican, notwithstanding their long-standing support of native Hawaiian self-governance. The amended form of the bill has not been brought to the floor, primarily because of the Senate’s crowded calendar and Republican opposition. That opposition has gained added strength since the mid-term elections.

The real "stopper" is the U.S. Senate. Controlling the calendar when they were in the majority, the Republicans never allowed the Akaka Bill to go to the floor. Since they lost the Senate in 2008, they have used the threat of filibuster prevent the Senate from considering the bill.

The opposition is led by Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona, John Cornyn of Texas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. The group, Kyl in particular, is part of a larger movement seeking to remove all rights of self-determination accorded to American Indians as indigenous people by the Constitution and federal legislation. This anti-indigenous movement gained strength after the dispute in Washington state over the claims of Indian tribes to priority rights to salmon fishing in the Columbia River Basin. The opposition is further fueled by reaction to Indian gambling casinos. That anti-indigenous philosophy fuels opposition to native Hawaiian self-governance.

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Walter Heen, a former judge, is an outgoing Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.

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