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Hawaiian Rights Movement Reaches a Critical Moment


HONOLULU — More than a century after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian nation, the long-simmering struggle of native Hawaiians for self-determination is coming to a head on Capitol Hill and in Hawaii courtrooms.

The question facing legislators and judges: Are native Hawaiians an indigenous people who deserve the same rights to self-government as Native Americans, or simply a racial minority agitating for "special rights" and benefits?

A bill that would give native Hawaiians a political status like that of Native Americans--federal recognition as a distinct people--sailed through the House in September. A similar version is pending in the Senate. If approved, the bill would help preserve publicly funded programs set up to boost the welfare of native Hawaiians--programs now under attack as racially discriminatory.

"The recognition bill is a step toward justice and a way to undo the terrible blot on America's record," said Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii. "They took our freedom . . . our country. Federal recognition must be the first step in reconciliation."

The Hawaiian rights movement and its opposition picked up steam after the U.S. Supreme Court in February ruled that it was unconstitutional to block non-Hawaiians from voting for trustees of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which manages a fund to benefit native Hawaiians.

The decision, while limited to voting rights, threw open to challenge the state and federal programs aimed at native Hawaiians. Two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu last week charge that using public funds for such things as housing, education and health assistance for Hawaiians is racially biased.

Backers of the legislation believe federal recognition would undercut such claims by giving native Hawaiians political status as members of a "domestic, dependent nation." The bill has the support of Hawaii's congressional delegation, most native Hawaiian leaders and American Indian and Alaska native groups. It was approved by unanimous consent in the House, but some opposition has emerged in the Senate. Hawaii's Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye hope to push it through before Congress adjourns in the next few days.

Critics fear the bill would divide Hawaii along racial lines, give "superior" rights to some people and possibly pit Hawaiians against other native groups seeking federal funding.

"We are a multiethnic, intermarrying population assimilated and blended together by the aloha spirit," said H. William Burgess, an attorney who successfully sued for the right of non-Hawaiians to serve as trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. "The bill would erase aloha and impose apartheid."

Warned Kenneth Conklin, the first non-Hawaiian to run for OHA: "If Congress can recognize native Hawaiians in that fashion, they could be prevailed upon to do the same for people living in Texas . . . and California who are descendants of Mexican Indians. There's no end to this Balkanization."

The bill would allow native Hawaiians to set up a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. More than 500 native governments now are formally recognized--the largest being the Navajo Nation, with 170,000 members. Such "nations-within-a-nation" define their members, manage their resources and may set up businesses exempt from state and federal income taxes. Members retain U.S. citizenship.

Although a few Hawaiians would prefer full independence from the United States, many see the bill as their best opportunity yet to reclaim lost sovereignty. The Hawaiian nation was internationally recognized until its 1893 overthrow by a group of Western businessmen who seized control with the help of the U.S. military. Five years later, the United States annexed Hawaii.

Roughly 200,000 Hawaiians trace their ancestry to the islands' original Polynesian inhabitants. There has been a resurgence in Hawaiian culture and language in recent decades, along with agitation for self-determination. In 1978, the OHA was set up for the betterment of native Hawaiians, using revenue from a public land trust dating back to Hawaii's annexation.

"We're infuriated by these [court] challenges," said Keali'i Gora, lieutenant governor of Ka Lahui Hawaii, a native initiative for Hawaiian self-governance, which claims 23,000 members. "They are trying to commit another type of overthrow of the Hawaiian movement."

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