WASHINGTON — The only Native Hawaiian ever elected to the U.S. Senate is about to retire.

With nobody ready to take Sen. Daniel Akaka‘s place, will the void created by his departure provide the kick in the pants the Native Hawaiian community needs to incubate and organize a deeper “bench” of leaders?

After 36 years in Congress — 14 in the House of Representatives and 22 in the Senate — the 88-year-old Akaka decided against a re-election run. Neither of the candidates vying for his job, Democrat Mazie Hirono and Republican Linda Lingle, is Native Hawaiian.

And while both say they’ll continue Akaka’s advocacy for indigenous peoples, the loss of his unique voice will have impacts — symbolic and genuine — in Congress and in Hawaii.

“Let’s put it this way: It’s much easier to speak for Native Hawaiians if you are a Native Hawaiian,” state Sen. Clayton Hee told Civil Beat Tuesday. Hee, like Akaka, is part-Hawaiian and part-Chinese.

“I mean no ill will to anyone. But if it were Gov. Lingle or if it were Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, either of them could talk about Hawaiians, but they could not speak as a Hawaiian, and that is a huge testament to credibility,” Hee said. “So that’s the void that he leaves, not only the Senate but the United States.”

Those who have worked with Akaka say his Hawaiian-ness permeates everything he’s accomplished.

“His service in Washington was a testament to the fact that native people are fully capable of representing not only the interests of their native culture but also everyone else,” Hee said. “And he did so without stepping on others to move forward, and I think that’s quite a model to emulate for everyone.”

A former Akaka staffer, Noelani Kalipi, agreed.

“I think the greatest value that Senator brings on behalf of all native advocates is that he’s an excellent example of someone who can rise to the highest levels of authority and power in the federal government and still retain cultural values, customs and traditions,” Kalipi said.

As president of the Hilo-based TiLeaf Group, Kalipi was in Washington last month to testify before Akaka’s Indian Affairs Committee. She makes clear that having Native Hawaiian blood isn’t a prerequisite for being a strong advocate on Hawaiian issues.

“While I like having a Native Hawaiian in office, and while I think that’s important, what is most important is understanding of the issue and understanding the importance of federal trust responsibilities to indigenous peoples,” she said. “You want somebody who’s not just sympathetic. They got to understand it, they got to know it, believe it and advocate for it. And while it’s helpful to have that person be of Native Hawaiian descent or ethnicity, I don’t think it’s mandatory.”

She said Reps. Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Daniel Inouye, all of Japanese ancestry, have been strong advocates for Native Hawaiians.

“We’ve been somewhat spoiled in that we’ve had an outstanding set of elected officials at the federal level who have done well for us. And so we perhaps, to our detriment, haven’t necessarily been keeping the pipeline going, for lack of a better term,” Kalipi said. “But there are definitely people in the pipeline. And as they make themselves known, what we do as Native Hawaiian advocates is we go out and we talk to as many people as we can, so that whoever’s there understands the issue.”

Akaka himself takes this position. In an interview in his Washington office last month, Akaka talked of Hawaii as a place of diversity, with Japanese, Filipino, Portugese and other cultures all contributing to life in the islands.

“I’m hoping that what I’ve done will bring about young people to want to serve our country and serve the people of Hawaii in such a way that they would lead off with the spirit of Hawaii,” he said. “And when I say that, I don’t mean only the Hawaiians, but anybody who was born or came to Hawaii or even visited Hawaii and loves Hawaii can exhibit and use.”

‘A Big Lesson Learned’

Still, with Akaka’s final day in Congress rapidly approaching and an unknown future beyond it, some are crestfallen that no Native Hawaiian was ready to step up to take his place.

“It’s a very sad day for Native Hawaiians to not have that type of leader at the national level,” Esther Kiaaina said this week. “Not only to fight for Native Hawaiian issues but also being present in a policy-making role clearly is the underlying objective of our collective community, because you have to be part of the system to be able to effect change.”

Kiaaina lost her race for Hawaii’s Second Congressional District in August. She’s the new deputy director of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and a former chief advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. She also worked for Akaka in the 1990s.

“I would use the term ‘regrettable,’ but we need to figure out as a people how to overcome that,” Kiaaina said.

She and other leaders have formed a hui to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

“I think this is a big lesson learned for the Native Hawaiian community, that we did not adequately prepare our leadership to ascend when called upon,” said State Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, another member of the new group. “We have great faith in whoever we send to Washington, D.C., to hopefully carry the Hawaiian flag, but the lesson we learned as the Native Hawaiian community is we need to get the bench in order.”

The Hawaii Legislature has been active on Hawaiian issues recently. It created a Native Hawaiian Roll Commission and deeded 25 state-owned acres of prime Kakaako real estate to OHA to settle a $200 million debt.

Those bills gave Galuteria an excuse to invite people like OHA Trustee Peter Apo and John Waihee, the state’s first and only Native Hawaiian governor who now serves as chair of the roll commission, to his office. They’ve been talking about the future of the Hawaiian community, and strategizing about how to cultivate young leaders.

“It’s going to be real important to start to identify leadership. Not that we don’t have good leaders now, mind you, but most of the time what I’ve noticed is that very few of us make it in to the O.K. Corral,” Galuteria said. “The more people who are Native Hawaiian or who have Hawaiian sensibilities, per se, which is hard to define, but we get it. There’s only so many elected seats, but there’s office managers, there’s committee clerks, there’s policy analysts. The more people we get into governance, the better.”

‘A Post-Akaka Frame’

Many of the Native Hawaiians in governance and policy, including those already mentioned in this article, have Akaka to thank.

Kawika Riley is OHA’s young new Washington bureau director. A major line on his resume is a four-year stint on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee staff when Akaka chaired that panel from 2007 to 2011. Riley said Akaka will be a key part of Hawaiian leadership long after he’s gone.

“I almost have trouble with the idea of a post-Akaka frame, and saying ‘What’s the next generation of leadership?'” Riley told Civil Beat at the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs annual convention in Washington last week. “I understand that he’s retiring, but many of us who are working to advocate for the Hawaiian people, his work and his legacy is part of what empowers us to do our work. So, as he’s touched the younger generation of leaders and taught us things and instilled values in us, that’s part of whatever work we’re going to do. So it’s not post-Akaka in that sense.”

Riley’s new boss, OHA CEO Kamanaopono Crabbe, has a similar view of how Hawaiian leadership works.

“Right now, in my opinion, our community struggles for leadership, strong leadership that is very clear, that has good direction and vision of where we want to go,” Crabbe said in an hourlong speech at the convention. “I am only here for a little while. Our goal is to build a new foundation of Hawaiian leadership until the next person comes along and builds upon it. That’s Hawaiian thinking. That is leadership for the next generation. You leave something behind for them to carry on and to build further and take it further and develop and expand it.”

To that end, the hui has approached Akaka’s family about him playing an active role in the foundation-building and the development of future leaders.

“Senator Galuteria proposed this idea directly to several of Senator Akaka’s children to create a hui inspired by Senator Akaka’s philosophy of incorporating Native Hawaiian values in leadership,” Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said in an email this week. “His daughter Millannie says they like the idea and would like the hui to be able to inspire and help people who are Hawaiian and Hawaiian at heart get involved in public service. The children are hoping their father will want to contribute after he retires, but nothing has actually been created yet and no commitments have been made.”

What Comes Next

The effort has moved toward the end of the informal-conversation stage and is on the verge of bigger, tangible things. One next step would be incorporating the group as a nonprofit. Galuteria said the structure is coming together now and, if everything goes smoothly, the organization will be launching right about the time Akaka leaves office in early 2013.

It already has a tentative name: the Ohia Group, or Ohia Foundation.

“Ohia is the first growth after destruction or lava,” Galuteria explained. “For us, he’s the ohia, because he had to operate in that environment for so long.”

The idea of a hyper-partisan Congress as infertile ground and Akaka as the bold first sapling is inspirational. But there’s another, less-rosy way to interpet the group’s use of the ohia as its namesake.

Akaka’s retirement — and the absence of Native Hawaiian representation in Congress for the first time since the Hawaiian Renaissance — could be viewed as a sort of destruction, leaving a landscape of barren lava.

Under that interpretation, the new organization itself would be among the first growths in a new era of Hawaiian leadership.

It’s hardly the first time the topic of organizing Native Hawaiians politically has been broached. The question, then: With Akaka serving as the inspiration and perhaps playing an active role, is now the moment where the roots really take hold?

“I’m hoping that with the absence, leaders at the local level will step up their game,” Kiaaina said. “Before, they didn’t have to worry about it. They had Sen. Akaka to worry about it for them. And now, they can’t take it for granted. And I certainly take it to heart. We can no longer be resting on our laurels here waiting for direction from D.C.”

Pictured: An ohia tree. Photo by Nathan Forget used under a Creative Commons license.

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