Native Hawaiians Seek Self Rule

Congress considers legislation that would set up a governing body for native Hawaiians. Proponents say the measure, known as the "Akaka Bill," grants native Hawaiians the same rights given to Native Americans. Opponents say it's a slap in the face of Hawaiians who are not of native descent, and who fear a two-tiered political system.

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Congress is considering legislation that would give native Hawaiians their own government. It would essentially grant them political status similar to that of Native American tribes. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

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MARTIN KASTE reporting:

You'll find no more potent symbol of Hawaiian independence than 'Iolani Palace, a Victorian-style mansion in downtown Honolulu.

Ms. ZETA KUPCHOY(ph) (Tour Guide): 'Iolani Palace is the last official residence of the monarchs who ruled Hawaii.

KASTE: When Zeta Kupchoy gives tours of the palace, she points out the corner suite where Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Lilioukalani, was imprisoned after her overthrow in 1893. The coup against the queen was organized by American businessmen backed by the US Marines. Kupchoy says the palace is a reminder of what was lost.

Ms. KUPCHOY: We were an independent nation, recognized internationally by over 70 different nations, and that's the symbolism, that we were a proud country all our own. We were our own country.

KASTE: Today, the old Hawaiian national flag, which is now the state flag, flies again from the palace roof. The US flag is conspicuous by its absence, and the palace grounds have become a rallying place for native Hawaiians.

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KASTE: Earlier this month, thousands came out to protest a recent appeals court decision striking down the Hawaiians-only admissions policy at a prominent private school. Illegal racial bias, the judges said. The problem is favoring natives is the whole point of the Kamehameha Schools, which are funded by the estate of a 19th-century princess who wanted to help her fellow natives.

And she wasn't the only one. After the overthrow, the old Hawaiian royalty often used its lands to set up institutions to benefit natives, but in 21st century America, this ethnic exclusivity has come under attack in the courts. Natives, who are now only about 20 percent of the state population, worry that their special institutions are in danger of being swallowed up, and that's where the Akaka Bill comes in.

Senator DANIEL AKAKA (Democrat, Hawaii): It creates a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

KASTE: Democratic Senator Dan Akaka, himself a native, wants Congress to let Hawaiians re-establish their national identity. He says his bill would give them a kind of legal parity with tribal governments on the mainland, but he says this sovereignty could eventually go further, perhaps even leading to outright independence.

Sen. AKAKA: That could be. As far as what's going to happen at the other end, I'm leaving it up to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

KASTE: The native Hawaiian bill leaves many important details unresolved. Once established, the new governing entity is supposed to negotiate with the US to settle major issues such as legal jurisdiction and land ownership. It even puts off defining who would qualify as a citizen of the native nation. The bill's vagueness alarms some non-natives such as Dick Roland.

Mr. DICK ROLAND (The Grassroots Institute): It's empty, and it's got an enormous sucking machine in it that is going to suck in there all these people and all this land and so forth.

KASTE: Roland, who moved to Hawaii three decades ago, is the president of a local public policy group called The Grassroots Institute which has opposed the bill. One of his collaborators is attorney Bill Burgess, who's argued in court against the preferences for natives.

Mr. BILL BURGESS (Attorney): Creating a new nation and giving the citizens of that nation political privilege that other citizens don't have, not to mention assets and all kinds of other privileges, that's all about inequality.

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KASTE: But for some native Hawaiians, the Akaka Bill doesn't go far enough.

Mr. BUMPY KANAHELE (Native Hawaiian): My Hawaiian name is U'u Koanoa(ph). Of course, the American name I've got, it's Bumpy Kanahele.

KASTE: Kanahele is a burly man who calls himself the head of the Nation of Hawaii. At the moment, his domain consists of a small village nestled in the shadow of green mountains on Oahu. The village also flies the flag of Hawaii, but it flies upside down as a sign of distress over what residents see as the illegal occupation by the United States. Kanahele is a prominent figure in the independence movement which received a boost in 1993 when Congress formally apologized for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kanahele says that apology opened what he calls a can of worms for the United States.

Mr. KANAHELE: They never thought that Hawaiians would take the road to restoring their independence. Well, what do you expect? You just admitted to a crime--Right?--the crime of the overthrow.

KASTE: After the congressional apology, Kanahele says, native Hawaiians started to think seriously about independence, and he says the Akaka Bill is an attempt to divert natives toward more tribal-style sovereignty.

In Washington, the bill's prospects are unclear. The House passed a version back in 2000, but in the Senate, the bill has been stuck in an open-ended debate. Leaders say they'll try to get a vote on the legislation in September. The Justice Department has recommended a few changes, such as a safeguard for the US military presence on the island, something the bill's supporters see as a positive step. They believe it means the White House is willing to accept some version of native Hawaiian self-government.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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