Heated in Hawaii

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, or Akaka Bill, has been wildly mischaracterized and misinterpreted since its passage by the House on Oct. 24, nowhere more so than in George Will’s syndicated column “Social engineers in paradise.” Mr. Will began by drawing an astonishing and rather grotesque parallel between the definition of a Native Hawaiian and Nazi Germany’s selection of people to load on boxcars bound for gas chambers. On a slightly more rational yet equally absurd note, he claimed that, under the bill, “Native Hawaiians would be members of a new ‘tribe’ conjured into existence by Congress.”
As the House and Senate sponsors of the legislation, we can assure you that our bill conjures into existence no new “tribes.” Rather, it acknowledges the historic fact that Native Hawaiians were on their land centuries before anyone from the United States ever came ashore. It acknowledges the fact that the Kingdom of Hawaii was recognized as a sovereign nation by the United States more than 175 years ago and accorded full diplomatic relations in treaties and conventions in 1826, 1842, 1849, 1875 and 1887, all ratified by Congress. And, it allows the federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people of the United States, very much like Native Americans or Alaska Natives.
In 1893, American business interests — backed by U.S. troops from an American naval ship — illegally overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, in what President Grover Cleveland later called “an act of war.” Twenty-eight years later, Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, setting aside more than 200,000 acres for homesteads and farms for Native Hawaiian families. In addition, 1.8 million acres were ceded from the former Hawaiian royal family. It was no accident, but rather, by deliberate action that the United States and people of Hawaii expressly recognized and preserved the rights of its indigenous people in the 1959 Hawaii Admissions Act. By law, a portion of the revenues from the lands, administered by the state of Hawaii, is intended for the betterment of the Native Hawaiian people.
The Akaka Bill enables the Native Hawaiian people to decide on the organization of an entity to represent them in government-to-government relations with the U.S. And, the state of Hawaii will be able to transfer responsibility for the administration of cultural resources to a Native Hawaiian government recognized by the United States. If, as Mr. Will states, this somehow conveys special privileges or immunities to its citizens, they are certainly not apparent.
The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act does not create a program or entitlement. It doesn’t require an appropriation. It isn’t based on racial groups or set-asides or preferences. It doesn’t turn over assets of the U.S. government, nor give anyone title to anything they don’t already own. It is unfortunate that some who oppose the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act misstate its meaning and effect.
The Akaka Bill doesn’t divide Americans. Today’s Native Hawaiians are proud citizens of the United States. They work hard. They raise families. They pay taxes. And, they have been front and center in the ranks of our military for decades.
The Akaka Bill has been supported repeatedly by Hawaii’s state legislature, and has been endorsed by our Republican Gov. Linda Lingle. It passed in the House by a margin of 108 votes, 39 of them Republican. Until recently, the measure was never partisan in the House. We hope it will not be partisan in the Senate. It has never been partisan in Hawaii.