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Scrap Yard: The Akaka Bill

This legislative session, Sen. Daniel Akaka has once again introduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, first proposed in 2000, which would grant Hawaiians the same federal recognition enjoyed by Native American tribes. In our first monthly Scrap Yard, we sought out two opposing viewpoints on the Akaka Bill.


Jere Krischel
a senior fellow with the Grassroots Institute of Hawai‘i

There’s no historical basis for the Akaka Bill. It’s a fairly transparent attempt to preserve race-based programs in Hawai‘i by trying to fit Native Hawaiians into the Native American box, inappropriately.

Take a look at the Navajo nation. The Navajo nation was essentially a monoracial, tribal government that existed before the United States ever came along. After we did terrible things to the Native Americans and moved them around, the existing government over their people was recognized and has been perpetuated to this day as the Navajo nation.

The Hawaiian analogy is a little bit different. The very first unification of the Islands happened in 1810, with Kamehameha the Great finally getting Kaua‘i to surrender. The kingdom that he built spent nearly 100 years being multiracial, being pluralistic, inviting immigrants to participate in society and at all levels of government. If we wanted to go back to a point in time when indigenous islanders were self-governing, it would be essentially ignoring almost 100 years of progress that they made.

A compromise that would make the bill more acceptable would be if it was called the Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, and there was no racial limitation on membership into this entity. It’s like segregation in the South. Would it be OK, as long as all the schools had the same toilets, the same books, the same chairs? Not really. There’s still the basic problem of splitting people up by race.

We can all agree that there are people who need help in Hawai‘i. These people are of all races, not just one. The Akaka Bill, at its heart, fosters a culture of Native Hawaiian victimhood, and I think that’s bad for our society and for life in the Islands.

William Meheula
a lawyer representing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in federal recognition issues

We believe that Native Hawaiians are like American Indians and Alaskan natives in that they are the indigenous people of this land, and therefore entitled to exception from equal protection challenges under the Indian Commerce Clause in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

The Akaka Bill provides some language encouraging the Native Hawaiian people to form a government that could be recognized by the United States. It would close the loop, making sure that, in the future, equal-protection challenges could never be successful.

In talking about the analogy between Native Americans and Hawaiians, it seems ironic that the criticism of the Native Hawaiian situation is that it was inclusive and not exclusive. That’s just the Hawaiian way, to include others. It doesn’t make sense to say that Hawaiians programs are in violation of the equal protection clause because the Hawaiian government before the overthrow was an inclusive one. It’s a form-over-substance argument, particularly since many Native American tribes had non-aboriginal members.

Most of the people who object to the Akaka Bill are people who generally object to any type of indigenous group receiving federal funding. They also object to any type of affirmative action, and they’re just trying to find an angle to try and cut off people’s rights in that respect. Their philosophy is that everyone should sink or swim, and that’s how we’re all going to be a stronger America—that, by handing out these government benefits, we’re actually suppressing the growth of these weaker people. Fortunately, most people in the United States disagree. This country is strong enough to admit its historical errors and try to take steps in a fair way to address them.

E-mail suggestions to scrapyard@pacificbasin.net.

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Honolulu Magazine December 2017
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