Native Hawaiians Seek Right to Self-Govern

The Associated Press
Monday, May 29, 2006; 2:24 AM

HONOLULU -- Hawaii politicians are scrambling to gather enough votes in Congress to pass a bill that would grant Native Hawaiians a degree of self-government and possibly a share of the land ruled by their ancestors.

After seven years of debate, the proposal to recognize Native Hawaiians as indigenous inhabitants of the 50th state _ a legal status similar to that of American Indians _ has finally been promised a vote in the Senate. The vote could come as early as next week.

Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka says he has solid support from his party, but will need help from Republicans to pass the proposal.

The bill provides a process to set up a Native Hawaiian government and then start negotiations to transfer power and property from state and federal authorities to Hawaiians. The form of government and the amount of public land to be granted wouldn't be decided until then.

The new government would not be allowed to deny civil rights or set up gambling operations such as those allowed for Indian tribes on the mainland.

Akaka said the bill, which passed the House in 2000 but never made it to the Senate floor, will help right some of the wrongs done by the U.S. government in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

"It clarifies a political and legal relationship with the United States, and it will bring parity to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii," said Akaka, who has Native Hawaiian ancestry.

There are about 400,000 people of Native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, and 260,000 of them live in Hawaii. No one would be required to join a Hawaiian government if the so-called Akaka bill is approved.

A wide range of opponents stand in the way, from Native Hawaiians who won't support anything short of secession to lawyers who claim the bill is a racial entitlement program.

A report from the Washington-based U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended that Congress reject the bill because it would discriminate on the basis of race. Some Republican senators argue that recognizing a Native Hawaiian group is creating a subgroup with different rights from other Americans.

Another opponent, Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, said he fears a breakup of the state of Hawaii, the relinquishment of hundreds of thousands of acres of land and a new set of race-based privileges.

"Hands are constantly being held out for more and more and more. Gimme, gimme, gimme," Burgess said. "I don't think it's fair to anticipate this government is going to be one which doesn't discriminate on the basis of race."

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