Native Hawaiian government may be started by state

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) March 2011

Hawaii could step in to grant Native Hawaiians self-government rights after federal proposals to do so failed.

Two Senate committees voted last week to advance legislation setting up a process for Native Hawaiians to eventually negotiate directly with the governor for land and money.

The two bills move on for votes in the full Senate this month. If passed, they would be taken up in the House.

“The state holds most of the ceded lands, not the federal government, and having the ability to negotiate with the state for some of our lands back so that we can create a trust for the Hawaiian people is huge. It’s very important,” said Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Rowena Akana.

The proposals recognize Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the state and call for the creation of a commission tasked with forming a roll of qualified Hawaiians who could be part of their future government. One of the bills goes a step further by setting up a process for ratification of governing documents, forming a governing council and appropriation of money to be spent by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Native Hawaiians are the last remaining indigenous people in the United States who haven’t been allowed to establish their own government, a right already extended to Alaska Natives and Native American tribes.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sought federal recognition of Native Hawaiian for 11 years without success in Congress.

“The Legislature, especially after the Akaka bill has failed, is attempting to get into the act and trying to ... drive this process to essentially reflect the integrationist approach by repeating what the Akaka bill didn’t do on the federal level,” testified Poka Laenui, chairman for the Native Hawaiian Convention.

He opposed the measures because he said the Hawaiian community – not the state Legislature – should decide on a process for its future government.

“We Hawaiian people ourselves need to create our nation,” said Lela Hubbard in testimony before the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees.

A previous effort by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, called Kau Inoa, gathered 108,000 signatures of people showing interest in a Hawaiian governing entity. But those signatures wouldn’t have formed a roll of people eligible to participate in such a government.

There are about 400,000 Native Hawaiians nationwide, with about half of them living in Hawaii.

“There should be an effort at the state level to do what the federal government has not been able to accomplish,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Clayton Hee, D-Kahuku-Kaneohe. “This would be a nation within the state of Hawaii. This is not new ground. Other indigenous nations exist in other states.”

Eligibility for participating in the Native Hawaiian government varies between the two proposals.

One bill limits the government to people who are direct descendants of Hawaii’s indigenous people or descended from someone eligible for government programs authorized by the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. The other bill expands eligibility to those with significant connections to the Hawaiian community.

Eventual federal recognition for Native Hawaiians would remain a possibility.