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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 15, 2010

Akaka bill, as amended, deserves passage

By S. Haunani Apoliona

Many in Hawai'i have wondered recently about the fate of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, better known as the Akaka bill. Amendments to this bill, approved by the U.S. House on Feb. 23, have been scrutinized.

All observers now await Senate action on this bill, which enables a process for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and the reorganization of a governing entity for a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an active and steadfast advocate for enactment of the Akaka bill, consistently worked to assure all Native Hawaiians, wherever they live, have the opportunity to be active participants in the process. OHA successfully improved this milestone legislation with several amendments that were passed on Feb. 23.

For the first time in more than 10 years, the current version of the bill includes specific protections for Hawaiians on homestead land. It also provides protection for those individuals who are on the Department of Hawaiian Homelands waiting list for potential placement on homestead lands.

The inclusion of this protection for Hawaiian homesteaders was proposed by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. OHA applauds the members of Hawai'i's congressional delegation for including this protection under federal law for those Hawaiians who have waited many, many years for the opportunity to return to the lands that were originally set aside for their benefit under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

OHA supported a broader approach with these amendments. Among them:

• Adding language to ensure inclusiveness by acknowledging all of the Native Hawaiian homestead associations, rather than designating only one.

• Adding language to improve the definition of "Qualified Native Hawaiian Constituents," those eligible to participate in the reorganization of the entity, to assure the inclusion of Native Hawaiians as defined in the Apology Resolution, as "Native Hawaiian descendants of the aboriginal, indigenous, native people who prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the area that now constitutes the State of Hawai'i."

• Adding language to ensure that all Native Hawaiian organizations may be consulted by the commission that is responsible for certifying who is a Qualified Native Hawaiian Constituent.

After a decade of public discussion and debate about self-determination for Native Hawaiians, it is up to the Senate to act on the bill, which was held hostage by national partisan debate during two previous attempts at passage.

But this year is different. Hawai'i's two senators are high-ranking in seniority, and we have a president who understands Native Hawaiians and Hawai'i. Scores of Native Hawaiian organizations, representing thousands of voices, have united in a movement to reconcile past wrongs in order to chart a course toward a better future for all of Hawai'i. This is the year for the Akaka bill to become law.

OHA worked with the congressional delegation, the U.S. Department of Justice and the state attorney general to include several important amendments that strengthened the promise made by Congress to Native Hawaiians long before Hawai'i became a state. Language to protect and preserve the vested rights of Hawaiian homesteaders and those on the waiting list had not been part of the original bill.

More than a century after the overthrow, there will finally be an official mechanism in place that affords the United States, the state of Hawai'i and a single representative Native Hawaiian governing entity the opportunity to reconcile past wrongs and move forward to benefit all of Hawai'i. We look forward to passage in the Senate and continued support from President Obama.

E kūkulu a'e kākou no ke ea o ka 'āina me ke aloha a me ke ahonui.

Let us resolve to elevate and exercise our self-determination with the spirit of compassion and patience.