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Obama moves forward on Hawaiian recognition

    Assistant Secretary of the Interior, Rhea Suh promoteS the "Let's Move Outside" program at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area outside Las Vegas on June 1, 2010 in Red Rock Canyon.

The Obama administration is taking the first formal steps in a long process that could result in an official relationship between the federal government and a future Native Hawaiian governing entity.

The administration is scheduling public meetings in Hawaii starting next week to gather feedback on several fundamental questions, including whether a government-to-government relationship should be re-established and, if so, how to go about doing that, the Interior Department’s Rhea Suh, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, said Wednesday in a teleconference from Washington with reporters.

If pursued, the administration could accomplish what backers of the so-called Akaka Bill in Congress failed to do over more than a decade.

Suh said the administration is starting this process in response to requests from the Native Hawaiian community, Hawaii’s congressional delegation and state leaders.

Among the other questions the administration seeks to answer is whether Interior should assist the Hawaiian community in reorganizing its government and whether conditions should be established to pave the way for federal recognition of a new governing entity formed by Hawaiians.

“We want to hear from the community on how to proceed,” said Sam Hirsch, a Justice Department attorney who participated in the teleconference.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation issued a joint statement lauding Wednesday’s development.

“We applaud the administration’s commitment to an open dialogue, starting with listening sessions in Hawaii to provide ample opportunity for Native Hawaiians and the general public to contribute their comments and concerns,” the statement said. “This notice represents an historic opportunity to address years of injustice and marks a positive step forward in the push for Native Hawaiian self-determination.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, in a press release, also applauded the latest move. “I commend the Obama Administration for recognizing and supporting Native Hawaiians as it works to reconcile its relationship with Native Hawaiians at the federal level,” he said.

But any attempt by the administration to move toward the re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship is expected to be resisted by those who believe Obama is overstepping his authority as a way to bypass Congress, where many of his top domestic priorities have been blocked.

It also likely would be opposed by those who insist that the federal government has no role in Hawaiians’ right to political self-determination.

The issue would be complicated by the controversy over how and what form a Native Hawaiian government would take.

The Akaka Bill — named after it’s primary sponsor, former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, and first introduced in 1999 — would have granted Native Hawaiians federal recognition similar to that of American Indians and Alaska natives. But the bill, which passed the House, never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Akaka retired last year.

Once a 60-day comment period ends, the Obama administration must decide whether to pursue the re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship administratively and how that would be accomplished, then propose rules to achieve that.

Throughout the process, Suh stressed, the administration will be seeking comments from Hawaii residents. The department will also be holding public meetings on the issue in Native American communities on the mainland.

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