Did anyone ask the Hawaiians?

Mary Katharine Ham

6/5/2006 12:06:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

If I told you there would be a bill coming to the floor of the United States Senate this week that would create a sovereign government based on race, would you believe me? You can be forgiven for being skeptical. It sounds ridiculous.

If I told you that when it comes to the floor—most likely on Thursday of this week—that it’s not at all unlikely that it will pass, would you believe me then?

It’s time to start believing. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act comes to the floor this week. Among its goals, according to a report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights:

--Recognize a right of the Native Hawaiian people to reorganize the Native Hawaiian governing entity to provide for their common welfare and to adopt appropriate organic governing documents.

--Establish a commission to certify that the adult members of the Native Hawaiian community proposed for inclusion on the roll meet the definition of Native Hawaiian as “an individual who is one of the indigenous, native people of Hawaii.”

--Authorize the United States to enter into negotiations with the governing entity to lead to an agreesment addressing specified matters including the transfer of lands, natural resources, and other assets.”

After a briefing in January, the commission issued a report that portrayed the Akaka bill as “discriminatory and divisive.”

This bill has been skulking around the Senate for six years now. Unfortunately, when Hawaiian senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye go looking for supporters for something called the “Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act,” they find a lot of support from obliging fellow senators who assume the bill is a “Hawaiian issue,” and that the Hawaiian delegation can be trusted to speak for Native Hawaiians.

But one of the many problems with the bill is that no one has asked the Native Hawaiians themselves about this “Hawaiian issue.”

I spoke with Kilikina Kekumano and Leon Siu of the Koani Foundation--both Native Hawaiian activists opposed to the Akaka bill. They are opposed largely because the legislation seeks to deal with a Hawaiian issue without ever consulting the people of Hawaii about it.

Kekumano, who was adopted as a young girl by a mainland American family and now flies between her family’s land in Virginia and Hawaii while working on this issue, says the Akaka bill will create racial division in Hawaii where there has been none.

“I guess I got mad reading the newspapers…telling everyone that this is what the Hawaiians want,” she said.

It is not what they want, she contends. And, polls seem to back her up. A poll conducted by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in March of 2005 showed that 74 percent of Hawaiians were against the Akaka bill and federal recognition.

A conservative think-tank in Hawaii, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, commissioned a survey in 2005, which showed that 67 percent of Hawaii residents were against the Akaka bill, and 48 percent of Native Hawaiians surveyed agree.

The Institute’s most recent survey shows that 70 percent of Hawaiian residents want to vote on the Akaka bill before it’s considered on a national level, and 67 percent of residents continue to oppose the Akaka bill.

That’s all Siu wants—a say. He pointed out that no hearings have been held in Hawaii on the current or any previous version of the Akaka bill, despite the immense impact it may have on the state.

“We’re not opposed to the government helping us do something,” he said, “but together as a community, we should figure out what’s best.”

Kekumano is concerned that the racial preferences and race-based government will create “at least strong animosity between the people who have always lived together…We don’t have specific barriers between race. This would create an incredible apartheid really,” she said.

Supporters of the bill claim that the Akaka bill will just grant to Native Hawaiians the same recognition given to other Native American tribes. Unlike other Native American tribes, however, Native Hawaiians were never a racially and culturally separate sovereign entity.

When King Kamehameha became ruler of all the Hawaiian islands in 1810, the Kingdom of Hawaii welcomed the contributions and participation of non-natives. Even supporters of the Akaka bill admit that the Kingdom of Hawaii was a minority ethnically Hawaiian. The Akaka bill would create a racially separate entity that has never before been separate.

I grew up in the South. I’ve seen my share of racial tension. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you don’t create racial separatism where there is relative racial harmony. I can’t imagine anything more counterproductive.

The Akaka bill would be a disaster for all the people of Hawaii, according to Kekumano and Siu. It would divide them in ways they’ve never been divided, turn neighbor against neighbor. The majority of Hawaiians know this, and many Native Hawaiians agree.

“We can avoid a bad situation by simply letting Hawaiians have a say,” Siu said.

This “Hawaiian issue” will become a national issue this week. The Akaka bill’s attempt to create a race-based government is antithetical to American values. If the Senate knows that the people of Hawaii—even native Hawaiians—believe that, then maybe we can indeed avoid a bad situation.