In one session, the 2011 Hawaii Legislature was able to do what the U.S. Congress has not been able to do in a decade’s time: recognize Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of Hawaii.

Quite possibly, it has also given re-birth to a movement toward self-governance that has been generations in the making and often seemed stymied.

Senate Bill 1520, which Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law Wednesday at Washington Place, will not of itself create a governing entity. That requires federal approval, and the Akaka bill still awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate.

But local leaders gathered in the historic home of Hawaii’s last monarch, Liliuokalani, agreed that SB 1520 is landmark legislation that may mark a critical turning point.

As the kia aina (the governor) himself put it, SB 1520 — now Act 195 — is the “first step” to a Native Hawaiian governing entity.

Counting Hawaiians

Abercrombie now has 180 days to appoint a five-member Native Hawaiian roll commission to begin a process of counting qualified Hawaiians (as defined by the act) who will form a new government. Four of the members will represent the island counties, while a fifth will be appointed at large.

While there are many unanswered questions about exactly how the governing entity would work — or whether it will work at all — its core mission will be to protect cultural rights, ceded lands and other entitlements. U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka welcomed Act 195, saying it could help persuade some of their Senate colleagues to finally vote on the federal bill named for Akaka.

But SB 1520’s passage through the Senate almost collapsed because of lack of funding for the commission. At the last minute, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs agreed to help with funding. While OHA remains focused on the federal legislation, the semi-autonomous state agency also came to recognize the value of the Hawaii bill.

Chairwoman Colette Machado stressed at the bill signing that OHA would only have an administrative role in Act 195’s implementation, but also that it would fund the roll commission’s executive director position and help facilitate statewide meetings on the process.

It won’t be easy.

With a nod to the (sometimes) loud presence of about two dozen protesters outside the gates of Washington Place, Machado said, “We want to be able to do this in my lifetime, in our lifetime. This is major work, and there are indications from those individuals outside that some are never satisfied. But we must aloha them, because we are all part of the koko.”

One of the protesters, Leon Siu of a group calling itself Hawaiian Nationals, handed out fliers that objected to the state’s efforts to “jump-start” the Akaka bill.

“The Akaka scheme is a diabolical plan to help the United States avoid the lawful return (to) Hawaii of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” the flier stated.

“Hell, no, we won’t enroll,” read a sign. “Neither would the Queen.”

Role of the Hawaiian Caucus

Inside Washington Place, the sentiment was of unity of purpose.

The VIPS included top legislators, former Gov. John Waihee, the Royal Order of Kamehameha I, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Hawaiian legal and business groups and many others. Separate press releases and a compact disc were issued by the administration, the state Senate and OHA, and an event program featured the sad visage of Liliuokalani.

While Abercrombie was the ranking official, Big Island state Sen. Malama Solomon was the emcee. Solomon, who was chiefly responsible for pushing SB 1520 through the Senate, was also one of the featured speakers along with three other Hawaiian lawmakers (like Solomon and Abercrombie, all Democrats): state Sen. Clayton Hee, Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria and state Rep. Faye Hanohano.

In fact, it was the Native Hawaiian Senate caucus that fought most for the bill. Galuteria, who explained that the caucus met weekly in his second-floor office overlooking Iolani Palace, said, “It would have been easy to go our separate ways and fortify the notion that Hawaiians can’t work together. We wanted to create the new model.”

At one point, Akaka himself visited the caucus, and Galuteria said his colleagues had the odd experience of being thanked by the senior senator for their work toward self-determination.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” he said.

Abercrombie, in his remarks, choked up several times as he recalled a visit with his late mother to Waianae, where he was accepted into the family of Aunty Aggie Cope, who sat in the front row of the VIPs.

But the governor largely turned the occasion over to others, and the message was obvious: It was a day for Hawaiians. A pule, oli, hula and music marked the program, and many speakers pointed out that in that very room there were people who are living links to ancestors who lived at the time of the 1893 overthrow and 1898 annexation.

“This brings to a conclusion the long journey that began with Queen Liliuokalani in this home,” said Abercrombie.

A conclusion, but also the start of a new, and possible transformative, chapter.

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