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An important step for sovereignty

The enactment of a law that essentially begins the process of reestablishing Native Hawaiian self-governance on the local level is an important move, solidifying the state’s stance of reconciliation toward its native people in the hope that federal recognition may follow.

Act 195, signed on Wednesday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, got relatively scant attention as it moved through the Legislature as Senate Bill 1520, considering the intent of the measure. Efforts in Congress to pass what’s known as the Akaka Bill — after U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, its chief sponsor — have stalled yet again. Its long-suffering backers hope sibling legislation emerging from the state Capitol may regenerate some momentum for creating a nation-within-a-nation political entity that federal leaders in Washington, D.C., may later recognize.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is carving out $300,000 from its own resources to fund the organization of an independent commission that will assemble a roll, names of people who eventually will have voting power in a future native government. The law requires this panel to report its progress to the 2012 Legislature, a good instinct that needs to be renewed annually. Strict reporting procedures need to be in place, with goals and timelines set, to ensure that the process doesn’t lose steam.

This makes sense on a policy level, in part answering critics who charge that the state is indifferent on the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. Opposition by some remains heated — ranging from those who call it a weak substitute for independent nationhood, to those who argue that Native Hawaiians constitute nothing like a tribe and should be granted no separate recognition at all.

But passing the state law is, in fact, a declaration spoken through representative government, codification of a longstanding majority position that Native Hawaiians represent Hawaii’s "first nation," that regardless of the nontribal organization of the Hawaiian kingdom, they are as deserving of recognition as indigenous people as any tribe or Native Alaskan corporation. The general consensus — that the 1893 overthrow of the monarchy, which led inexorably to annexation, was an injustice — has been documented repeatedly. The Native Hawaiian Trust Fund was established as part of the settlement, but a broader accord on the "ceded lands," the former crown and Hawaiian government lands taken by the federal government and passed to the state, is needed.

Much of the bill’s language is borrowed from versions of the Akaka Bill. Establishing lineal descent from Hawaii’s aboriginal people is still required, but becoming a "qualified Native Hawaiian" eligible for the roll also means a person has maintained "a significant cultural, social or civic connection to the Native Hawaiian community and wishes to participate in the organization of the Native Hawaiian government entity."

This definition is a more recent variant, and an improvement on purely race-based criteria. National identity should require some cultural affinity; it’s the bond that holds people together and help sustain the process of government-making through its inevitable conflict.

OHA officials, and their lawyers, have looked into the state-recognition route in the past year, and believe it can withstand a legal challenge. Freedom of assembly is part of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and any group may incorporate and govern itself. Moving beyond that point into negotiations for a final settlement will require federal recognition, but Act 195 is a worthy step in the right direction.

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