Bill May Restore Land, Government For Native Hawaiians

Native Hawaiians have long been deprived the benefits of other indigenous groups in this country, like native Alaskans and American Indians. This past week, a Senate committee approved a bill which would create a process for native Hawaiians to form their own government and reclaim land. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Hawaii Public Radio political reporter Wayne Yoshioka about the bill.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Native Hawaiians have long been deprived the benefits of other indigenous groups in this country, Native Alaskans and American Indians, for example. You may remember last month, we spoke with two men with differing perspectives on the issue of sovereignty for native Hawaiians. Well, this past week, a Senate committee approved a bill which would create a process for native Hawaiians to form their own government and reclaim land.

Hawaii Public Radio political reporter Wayne Yoshioka has been following this story, and he joins us from Honolulu. Welcome to the program, Wayne.


HANSEN: Talk a little bit. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee has approved legislation called the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, and there's a competing bill in the House. Exactly what's in the legislation?

YOSHIOKA: Well, the bill is named after Senator Dan Akaka from Hawaii and it proposes to, I guess, establish the ethnic Hawaiians as an indigenous people and give them federal recognition as an Indian tribe. The bill prohibits the Hawaiians, however, from gambling and other benefits available to other tribes. And it also prohibits them from pursuing their claims into courts, which is really at the heart of the matter, because the issue is really about the control of land. Control of 1.8 million acres of land in a state about the size of Rhode Island, is quite sizable. And it's very valuable land, which houses many of the federal and state government buildings and whatnot. So it's really a fight for control of land.

HANSEN: Hmm. How is native defined? I mean, who's going to be included in this group of native Hawaiians?

YOSHIOKA: Well, there would be the indigenous Hawaiian people. They call themselves the Kanaka Maoli. And there are about 240,000 native Hawaiians in Hawaii. It would also affect about 60,000 native Hawaiians in California, as well as about 100,000 in all the other states. So it's a very broad bill, which includes all of the native Hawaiian people who basically came from Polynesia and who were there before the pre-contact with the Europeans back in 1778.

HANSEN: President Obama, of course, hails from Hawaii. Is the White House taking a position on this legislation?

YOSHIOKA: Well, in August of this year, President Obama came out and said, you know, that he would sign the bill and the U.S. Justice Department has been working with Senator Akaka.

What happened was the U.S. Justice Department inserted an amendment, which is really contentious to the governor and the state attorney general because it gives federal recognition to the Hawaiians prior to instead of after negotiations. So, basically, what that does is it gives the federal recognition and the state really has no bargaining power in that concept.

HANSEN: And Senator Akaka has said that the president mentioned he will support it and sign it.

YOSHIOKA: Yes, he will. And I think for anybody who grew up in Hawaii, we all know the story of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy back in 1893. And, you know, Queen Liliuokalani, who was the monarch at the time, was a very popular monarch and she was held in house arrest until her death in 1917. But she wrote so many beautiful songs about Hawaii and one of the songs is "Aloha Oe," which we all sing, you know, all the time for the tourists.

HANSEN: So, how have the Hawaiians you've been speaking to, as part of your reporting, reacted to this?

YOSHIOKA: You know, everybody in Hawaii is all over the map on this issue. They've got those that oppose because of the self-governance and it would be a race-based government entity. And that the state would lose 300 to $700 million in revenue because of the Hawaiians controlling public lands.

And on the other side of the debate are the Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement people who don't want the Akaka bill to pass, because basically it would settle the claims that were back to 1893 and settle the issue. So, unfortunately - or ironically - both sides of the conversation really oppose the Akaka bill.

HANSEN: Wayne Yoshioka is a political reporter for Hawaii Public Radio and he joined us from Honolulu. Thank you.

YOSHIOKA: Thank you, Liane.

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