August 11, 2009

Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians: Will This (Finally) Be The Year?

When it's all said and done, 2009 could be a special year for Native Hawaiians.

Thanks to President Obama's recent endorsement of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (S.1011), better known as the Akaka Bill, Native Hawaiians are closer than ever to gaining federal recognition status comparable to Native American tribes and Alaska Natives. Once Congress returns from its August recess after Labor Day, the bill is expected to clear the Indian Affairs Committee to be voted on by the full Senate. In addition to Mr. Obama and all four of Hawaii's Democratic representatives in Congress, the bill is supported by a diverse range of public officials and organizations here in the islands including our Republican Governor, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and the editorial boards of both the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin.

[If you're not familiar with the Akaka Bill, here's a helpful article and timeline from the latest issue of Maui No Ka 'Oi magazine summarizing the nearly decade-long efforts of Senator Dan Akaka to pass this bill, as well as the opposition coming both from conservatives who say it goes too far and activists who don't think it goes far enough.]

As someone who interacts daily with low-income families receiving public assistance on Oahu's Leeward Coast, I can personally attest to the disproportionate socio-economic hardships experienced by the Native Hawaiian community. Measurements of poverty, homelessness, incarceration, obesity, infant mortality and other indicators of well-being reveal that Native Hawaiians are at a clear disadvantage in relation to other ethnic groups comprising Hawaii's multicultural landscape. But this isn't about pity, class warfare or bleeding heart sentimentalism. It's about acknowledging a systemic social injustice and creating a framework for reconciliation. It's about respecting the history, culture and dignity of an indigenous people group who inhabited these islands long before America's manifest destiny came ashore.

Being a locally-born hapa haole, I understand that while Hawaii is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation, we are by no means "colorblind" to the beauty and diversity of many cultural heritages. So how exactly are Native Hawaiians different from Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Filipino-Americans and hapa haoles like myself? The answer is quite simple: They are indigenous. They are the original inhabitants of lands that later became part of the United States. You cannot say the same about any other people group in the islands today. It is a simple historical fact that a fully independent monarchy exercised sovereignty in Hawaii centuries before it became a U.S. territory. As I see it, this places Native Hawaiians in the same category as Native American tribes and Alaska Natives. If you disagree with this comparison, you will probably oppose the Akaka Bill.

But given the reality of federal recognition for 561 Native American tribes (Cherokee, Sioux, Navajo, etc.) and Alaska Natives, there are only three positions available if you are opposed to the Akaka Bill:

1) You could argue that indigenous people groups are no different from other ethnic minorities and therefore none of them (Native American tribes, Alaskan Natives or Native Hawaiians) deserve any special federal recognition. This view would require Native Americans and Alaska Natives to be stripped of their semi-autonomous status, including the right to form domestic dependent "nations within a nation." In addition to losing their powers of self-government, 561 tribes would be denied access to benefits, services and protections currently in place. Or...

2) You could argue that Native Americans and Alaska Natives deserve recognition, but Hawaiians somehow do not. This view would require you to ignore the similarities between the lands taken away from Native American tribes and the overthrow of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893, in which power was seized at gunpoint from a self-governing indigenous people group. The U.S. government's 1993 Apology Resolution admitting wrongdoing in the overthrow of Queen Lili'oukalani makes this argument even harder to defend. Or...

3) You could argue that in order to turn back the clock on the injustices of American imperialism, everyone should be sent back to "wherever they came from." This all-or-nothing view would presumably require Caucasians to be sent back to Europe, Asians back to Asia and so forth. Some Hawaiian sovereignty advocates are demanding the United States to completely withdraw from Hawaii, but this essentially requires secession from the Union, something that is neither realistic nor beneficial in my opinion.

Since I disagree with all three options above, I support the Akaka Bill. It is not a silver bullet solution to the complex disputes over ceded lands and entitlement programs, but Native Hawaiians are far better off with federal political recognition than without it. Until they are validated on par with other indigenous people groups, attempts to improve conditions for Native Hawaiians (through Kamehameha Schools for example) will always be threatened by lawsuits and accusations of "race-based" discrimination. The way forward through these convoluted realities is not an endless barrage of litigation, but the establishment of a legal framework allowing Native Hawaiians to form their own nation within a nation (while still under the authority of federal and state laws) so that a new dialogue can begin.

Enacting the Akaka Bill is not the final goal, but the starting point.


Adam Bailey said...

This is by far the most informed and best characterization of the debate over the Akaka bill I've seen from a non-Indigenous person. I'm delighted you've come down on the pro-Akaka bill side, warts and all, and that you recognize that Native Hawaiians are actually indigenous (and deserve the recognition that comes with that), and not a group of people who have been engineering for the last 100 years a massive affirmative action scheme to shut out white people. Bravo!

The Common Loon said...

Thanks Adam for your kind words. Glad you stopped by (again).