Ka Lahui Hawai'i: Akaka Bill Has Plenty of Vocal Opposition
In the islands, however, there is an undercurrent of largely ignored opposition to the so-called Akaka bill, even among the people it aims to help: native Hawaiians. A range of opponents were interviewed by the Associated Press in advance of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee vote on the bill Wednesday.
Opposition in the islands ranges from those who favor totally independent government for all of Hawaii's people to those who object to special privileges for any ethnic group in a state where no one race is a majority. About half of the estimated 400,000 native Hawaiians in the United States live in the islands.
The legislation has also raised concern in other states. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, has said it could deplete already scarce federal funds for American Indian programs.
Source: Star Bulletin News
Local opposition comes despite strong bipartisan support at last week's hearing from Republican Lingle, Democratic Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, and the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. The state Legislature also supports the federal bill, which has stalled in Congress's past three sessions.
Lingle told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee the bill is "vital to the survival of the native Hawaiian people" and to the character of the state. U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, called it "the most vital single piece of legislation" for Hawaii since statehood in 1959.
The unified political support comes even though the end result -- what form the Hawaiian government entity will take -- is unclear. The proposed law would formally recognize Hawaiians as an indigenous people and set up a process for a governing entity to negotiate with federal and state governments over land, resources and other assets.
"The only ones supporting it are those receiving federal benefits," said Kai'opua Fyfe, director of the Kauai-based Koani Foundation, an advocacy group that aims to educate Hawaiians and others on "the real history of Hawaii and the current situation."
The Senate committee heard oral testimony only from bill supporters. Fyfe, who was at the hearing, told the Associated Press that he and other opponents were refused permission to testify and were told to submit their testimony in writing.
"The bill is bad for Hawaii and bad for the U.S.," said Fyfe, who focuses his opposition on "the dysfunction of the Department of the Interior in serving its wards."
The bill provides a process for native Hawaiians to establish a governing entity. It also would set up an Office of Native Hawaiian Relations in the Department of the Interior to address native Hawaiian issues.
"It is absurd to think of placing Hawaiians under the Department of the Interior," Fyfe said.
Opponents also object to the fact that no hearings on the current version of the bill were held in Hawaii, saying it has been changed several times.
Fyfe said he hopes to encourage McCain, who has opposed the bill, to come to Hawaii to show the Senate Indian Affairs Committee chairman there is strong opposition in the islands.
Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele, leader of the pro-independence group Nation of Hawaii, believes the bill never should have gone to Congress without the education and full participation of the Hawaiian community.
Kanahele leads a community of 18 families living in a compound on 53 acres of leased state land in Waimanalo, and said he believes Hawaiians should determine their own future. A building at the entrance to the compound, which sits in the shadow of the lush green Koolau Mountains, flies the Hawaiian flag upside down as a symbol of distress.
"We can do this on our own without any intervention by our congressional representatives or state legislators," Kanahele said. He supports a native Hawaiian constitutional convention, run by Hawaiians, to "flush out all the different concerns and issues.
"We need to get to the root of the problem and make all Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians aware of what would really happen under the Akaka bill," he said. "The truth is not coming out."
Lela Hubbard of Na Koa Ikaika, a native Hawaiian ohana organization, said people are starting to change their minds about whether the bill would be good for Hawaiians.
"The Akaka bill demeans Hawaiians," she said. "It is disrespectful toward our previous status. We were citizens of a nation, and that's what we should return to."
Hubbard favors a compact of free association in which native Hawaiians would have their own nation with ties to the United States, while Fyfe of the Koani Foundation favors total independence for native Hawaiians.
Bruce Fein, a Washington attorney specializing in constitutional and international law, says the bill is unconstitutionally race-based.
"It divides people and makes people think less of themselves," he said. "It pits citizens against citizens rather than unifying people."
He said the bill is unconstitutional for the same reason the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Hawaiians-only voting in statewide elections for the state board that oversees Hawaiian affairs in its Rice v. Cayetano decision in 2000.
"The Akaka bill allows native Hawaiians to vote for delegates to determine a native government, but if you're not Hawaiian you cannot participate in this government entity," said Fein, who was in Honolulu last week for talks and a panel discussion of the bill.