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Native Hawaiian recognition bill gets another shot

A bill to recognize a Native Hawaiian governing entity is on the fast track in the Senate after seeing years of delays.

Hawaii's Congressional delegation introduced S.147, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, last month. Sponsors cited the bipartisan support they have garnered over the years for a measure that would clear up legal doubts about the relationship between the United States and Hawaii.

"I pray that the Congress and the administration will join us in concluding that the cause set forth in this measure is not only just but it is long overdue," said Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

With a hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee scheduled on March 1, backers are hoping for speedy resolution during the 109th Congressional session. Republican leaders have promised a floor vote later this spring.

A similar bill introduced nearly five years ago easily passed the House but ran into problems in the Senate, where it was held up by an anonymous senator. Opposition also came from the Bush administration, which backed away from the Clinton administration's support for a Native Hawaiian government.

Some of the White House concerns were echoed by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, earlier this year. Although he said he would not hold up consideration of the bill, he argued that the federal government never meant to treat Native Hawaiians the same as American Indians or Alaska Natives in the continental U.S.

That reasoning was behind a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that a state-based election limited to Native Hawaiians violated the U.S. Constitution. The ruling had a ripple effect, leading to lawsuits challenging education, housing, land and other programs meant to benefit Native Hawaiians.

Some fear that the trend will spread to federal programs even though Congress and the executive branch have long treated Native Hawaiians as a distinct entity. The Department of Education and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are just two agencies that have established programs to benefit Native Hawaiians, who suffer from high rates of unemployment, poverty, poor health and incarceration, much like American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The Alaska Federation of Natives and the National Congress of American Indians have expressed solidarity with Native Hawaiians. They note that indigenous people of all backgrounds have served in the military at higher per capita rates than any other racial or ethnic group in the country.

Gov. Linda Lingle, Hawaii's first Republican governor in 40 years, is also on board. She is expected to testify in favor of the bill at the hearing next month.

Among other provisions, the bill sets up a process by which a Native Hawaiian governing entity will be recognized. It states that the policies of self-determination and self-governance shall be extended to Native Hawaiians.

The Interior Department would oversee the process through the Office for Native Hawaiian Relations. The office would work with other federal agencies and the state of Hawaii on actions that affect Native Hawaiians. Interior would also lead an Interagency Coordinating Group.

The recognition process itself would be carried out by a nine-member commission of Native Hawaiians. The commission would establish a roll of all eligible adult Native Hawaiians who want to participate in the governing entity.

Eligibility is defined as a person who is a lineal descendant of a Native Hawaiian as of January 1, 1893, when the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown, or a lineal descendant of a Native Hawaiian as defined by a 1921 federal law.

A companion bill was introduced in the House as H.R.309. It would need to go before the House Resources Committee.

Get the Bill:
Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005 (S.147)

Relevant Links:
Native Hawaiian Sovereignty Site -
Native Hawaiians, Department of Interior -
Native Hawaiian Federal Recognition Site -