A House committee approved legislation Wednesday that would let Native Hawaiians establish their own government, but supporters acknowledge that some behind-the-scenes negotiations are still in order before the bill progresses to the full House.
The legislation would provide a road map to gradually establish a Native Hawaiian government that would operate in much the same way that hundreds of Native American tribal governments operate. Nearly 240,000 people in the state identify themselves as Native Hawaiians.
The bill has passed the House during previous Congresses but faltered in the Senate. Supporters sense the time for passage has finally arrived with President Barack Obama's backing.
Sponsors attempted some refinements to the measure to deal with legal concerns. When state officials objected to the changes, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, decided to continue with his original measure.
The committee approved the bill by a vote of 26-13. Abercrombie promised that he would work with state officials to address concerns that the measure doesn't protect the state's rights and interests as the new government is formed. A Senate committee will take up the legislation on Thursday and is expected to pass it as well.
Supporters said the legislation is about righting an injustice to Native Hawaiians that occurred when Hawaii's monarchy was overthrown in 1893. They should be recognized as an indigenous people and given the chance to govern their own affairs, supporters said.
"It is time that Native Hawaiians be treated in the same manner as American Indians and Alaska natives," said Rep. Nick Rahall, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Opponents criticized the measure as attempting to set up a separate government for people based on race _ an effort they predicted would be deemed unconstitutional.
"There is no more effective way to destroy a nation than divide its people by race." said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.
Abercrombie said an effort to establish a native Hawaiian government has widespread support in Hawaii.
"This is to bring us together," he said to McClintock. "It's precisely why we are doing this."
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 land that once belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy. Some of that land could eventually revert to the new government.
Abercrombie was quite emotional after the vote as colleagues saluted him for his work on the committee over the years. The mark-up of the bill was his last as a member of the Natural Resources Committee. He recently announced his resignation to run for governor.
"To have (the final vote) revolve around native Hawaiian issues is something I couldn't have calculated and must have been fated," Abercrombie told colleagues.
On the Net:
Natural Resources Committee: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov
Indian Affairs Committee: http://indian.senate.gov/public