U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye is fond of saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Hawaii’s senior senator is referring to his skill in maneuvering legislation favorable to the islands.

This week, however, the cat remained un-skinned as members of the U.S. House killed a provision in a bill that could have led to federal recognition of Native Hawaiians.

“This provision remained an active item of discussion between the members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee until the very end,” the senator said in a statement released Friday. “Unfortunately, it was opposed by members of the House, who wanted a variety of devastating anti-environmental riders which, if the Senate accepted, would have set back our nation’s air and water protections for many years to come.” 

Recognition By Other Means

Inouye inserted the provision into a draft of a funding bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior in late October.

Language in the provision referenced legislation passed by the 2011 Hawaii Legislature that called for state recognition of Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the islands. The measure, which was signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in July, also sets up a roll call process for registering Hawaiians.

In key ways, the Hawaii law accomplishes at a local level what the Akaka bill would do at the federal level. That bill has been stalled in the U.S. Senate by Republicans who say it is unconstitutional and racially divisive.

While not the equivalent of the Akaka bill, Inouye’s provision, if it had passed, would have been a significant step toward accomplishing the Akaka bill’s chief aim — the establishment of a Native Hawaiian government.

“The Hawaiian recognition provision embraced the excellent work of the State Legislature in beginning the process of Native Hawaiian self-determination and recognition,” Inouye said in his statement.

Renewed Efforts

The provision was killed in the same week in which the Office of Hawaiian Affairs called for renewed recognition efforts.

In a speech delivered Wednesday in Honolulu, OHA Chair Colette Machado said, “OHA spent 10 years pursuing the passage of the ‘Akaka bill’ and dealt with multiple obstacles along every step. We will not give up. We are committed to gaining federal protection of Kanaka Oiwi rights.”

Machado said OHA has been working with Inouye and U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka “to open up alternate legislative and executive routes” and would “aggressively pursue these legislative and executive paths throughout the next year.”

The renewed efforts come in a year in which Akaka, for whom the bill is named, will retire from the Senate. The leading contenders to replace him — Democrats Ed Case and Mazie Hirono and Republican Linda Lingle — support the Akaka bill, though Lingle opposes the most recent draft of the bill.

For now, the partisan battles in the 112th Congress will make make Hawaiian recognition a difficult task.

“I am very disappointed to report that I was compelled to give up our recognition provision at the end of the Conference,” said Inouye. “It was very difficult, but it needed to be done to conclude the negotiations and send an Omnibus appropriations package to the President for his signature. I will continue to fight for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians and I will work with the other members of the Hawaii delegation to plan our next move.”

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