Bill Allowing Native Hawaiians to Establish Own Gov’t Poised to Pass Two Congressional Committees

December 16, 2009 - 7:59 AM
Two congressional committees are considering legislation this week that would let native Hawaiians establish their own government, much like those organized by hundreds of Indian tribes.
Washington (AP) - Two congressional committees are considering legislation this week that would let native Hawaiians establish their own government, much like those organized by hundreds of Indian tribes.
 
The House Natural Resources Committee takes first crack at the bill Wednesday. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee takes up the legislation Thursday.
 
The legislation had been expected to easily win the committees' approval, but Hawaii's governor and attorney general voiced objections late Tuesday to some of the changes that sponsors plan to propose. In light of the objections, Republican lawmakers have asked for a delay. Democrats, however, sensing they have the votes to prevail, are determined to proceed.
 
"Consideration of this bill should not go forward when the people and government officials who would be directly impacted by this legislation have raised serious objections and have not even had a chance to properly review the text," said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.
 
The legislation, known as the Akaka bill after its lead sponsor, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, has a long history. The bill would provide a road map to gradually establish a Native Hawaiian government.
 
Once established, the Native Hawaiian government would negotiate with the state and the federal government over which assets it would own. Currently, the state administers 1.2 million acres of former monarchy land. Some of that land, which is quite valuable, could eventually revert to the new government.
 
Supporters say the bill is about righting an injustice to Native Hawaiians that occurred when Hawaii's monarchy was overthrown in 1893. They note that Indian tribes and Alaska Natives have the right to self-governance.
 
"I believe we must provide parity between Native Hawaiians and our country's other indigenous people," said Akaka.
 
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and state Attorney General Mark Bennett have been supporters of the Akaka bill in the past. However, in a letter to federal lawmakers, Bennett said changes being made to the legislation are "detrimental to the state."
 
Bennett said authority granted the new government entity should come about only after negotiations and after the passage of legislation enacted by Congress, and when applicable, by the state. But an amended version of the bill makes immediate changes that are not subject to negotiation.
 
"These changes may immediately incorporate into the law governing Native Hawaiians a vast body of Indian law, much of which is unsuited for the state of Hawaii, and none of which (to our knowledge) has been evaluated for its impact on Hawaii," Bennett said.
 
Congressional aides said changes being proposed to the bill were sought by lawyers at the Justice Department.
 
"The Obama administration requested that we make it consistent with U.S. policy toward other native groups," said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for Akaka.
 
The legislation allowing for a Native Hawaiian government has passed the House on two occasions, most recently in October 2007, but it routinely has stumbled in the Senate. While the Bush administration opposed the bill, the support of President Barack Obama, who was born in Hawaii, has changed the political dynamic.