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Senate To Vote On Bill To Grant Native Hawaiians Rights Of Self-Government

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tentatively scheduled for debate Monday night and Tuesday, with a vote on Wednesday. Akaka and Hawaii's other Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, say there are enough votes for approval.

It would grant Native Hawaiians the same rights of self-government enjoyed by American Indians and Native Alaskans, and would lead to U.S. recognition of a native governing entity.

The bill has the support of Hawaii's Democratic and Republican leaders of all races, including Gov. Linda Lingle and the state Legislature. Several thousand Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians signed an advertisement in support of the bill that appeared in last Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser.

Lingle says it also is supported by the majority of the people of Hawaii, but opponents dispute this, touting a recent automated and unscientific phone survey in which 67 percent of respondents said they opposed the bill. Both sides argue over whether the questions were loaded.

A group of mostly Native Hawaiians issued a declaration saying the bill "debases our sovereign heritage and our right to self-determination." It also said the bill "would attempt to label us with an identity as Native Americans that is not and will never be who we are as a people."

Kelikina Kekumano, who said she spends much of her time lobbying for Native Hawaiian rights, objects to the bill "because it makes us another Indian tribe."

The retired flight attendant is scheduled to testify Tuesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee considering an identical bill. The House last passed an earlier version of the bill in 2000, but it has never before made it to the Senate floor.

Also opposed to the bill is a group of mostly Caucasians who say it is race-based.

"It would destroy the basic reason I chose to make Hawaii my home 50 years ago — we don't have racial discrimination," said Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, who has challenged the constitutionality of Hawaiians-only programs.

But supporters say the measure addresses the loss of the government, lands and even cultural identity that many Native Hawaiians feel as a result of the U.S.-backed 1893 overthrow of their monarchy.

Economic and social changes since then "have been devastating to the population and to the health and well-being of the Hawaiian people," according to a 1993 resolution in which Congress apologized to Hawaiians for the overthrow.

Studies have shown that Native Hawaiians, who make up roughly 17 percent of the islands' 1.2 million people, have the lowest health and social indicators among the state's varied ethnic groups.

"The United States has been a paternalistic nation, taking American Indians and Alaska natives under its wing," Akaka said. "Hawaiians also are indigenous people and are trying to gain parity with other indigenous people."

Approval of the bill will "help Hawaiians develop themselves and be productive and this will be beneficial to Hawaii and the nation," Akaka said.

The bill will need changes to meet Department of Justice concerns that it might interfere with military operations or allow gambling operations such as those set up by Native Americans on the mainland.

Akaka said these concerns wouldn't delay the debate and vote.