Friday, June 12, 2009

Native Hawaiian bill gets new airing

Native Hawaiian bill gets new airing

WASHINGTON (AP) — Granting Native Hawaiians the chance to form their own government, like those established by many of the nation's 562 American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives, would break new ground and eventually be ruled unconstitutional, critics of the proposal said Thursday.

Hawaii's congressional delegation has fought for much of the past decade for a bill that would allow for the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian government and federal recognition of that government. Their prospects for success have never looked better with President Barack Obama saying he supports the measure, which a House panel reviewed Thursday morning.

Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said legal precedent "cast a larger shadow than ever before on the doubtful proposition that Congress can and should extend recognition to a governing entity for Native Hawaiians."

Also, Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that granting ethnic Hawaiians tribal status for purposes of forming their own government would be comparable to letting Chicanos in the Southwest or Cajuns in Louisiana gain that same recognition.

Supporters of the bill, including members of the state's Congressional delegation, argued that a long line of legal cases have granted indigenous populations a special recognition and relationship with the U.S. They said that Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous group of people in the country without their own governing entity.

"We've never viewed this as a race-based issue," said Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, stressing that lawmakers from both parties in Hawaii support the measure.

The legislation allowing for a Native Hawaiian government passed the House on two occasions, including most recently in October 2007, but it routinely has stumbled in the Senate. The Bush administration opposed the bill. Obama's support has changed the political dynamic, however, and some supporters say they believe the bill can be passed before the year's end.

The bill would not automatically establish a Native Hawaiian government. Rather, it would provide a roadmap for how Native Hawaiians could organize such a government. Once established, the new government would negotiate with the state and the federal government over which assets the new government would own. Currently, the state administers 1.2 million acres of former monarchy land, and some of that land could revert to the new Native Hawaiian government.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said it would allow Native Hawaiians a chance to manage land and assets as they see fit.

"When the land wasn't worth anything and there was no money, nobody cared," Abercrombie said. "Now that the land is worth a considerable amount of money, now all of a sudden, everybody is interested."

In 2006, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended against passage of comparable legislation. The commission said it opposed any bill that would "discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege."

But Michael Yaki, a member of that commission, said little work went into the recommendation and that Congress should ignore it.

He said a resolution apologizing for the U.S. government's role in the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 also were never part of the commission's review. In the end, he said that warnings of race-based government is spread simply to instill unwarranted fear and opposition to the bill.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and the committee's chairman, called the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 a dark chapter in U.S. history.

"I can assure you that the committee will continue to press forward with re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiians," he said.

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