Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the retirement of longtime Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is three-fourths Native Hawaiian and one-fourth Chinese, introduced the first incarnation of his namesake legislation more than a decade ago. Unless something dramatic happens in coming weeks, he’ll leave Congress without passing it — or even getting a straight up-or-down vote on it.
“My problem,” Akaka says, “it sounds kind of weird, but the reason I cannot pass it in the Senate is I have never been able to get it on the floor. And I really believe that if I got it on the floor, I could pass it. I can’t even get it to the floor!”
Akaka says the bill is an attempt to promote self-determination for Native Hawaiians and allow for government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and a Native Hawaiian entity. He also says it’s a matter of equity, since Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been federally recognized, but not Native Hawaiians.
Opponents have criticized the legislation as racially driven, and Akaka responds that it’s not a matter of race but of indigenous peoples who existed in a place and governed themselves before U.S. intervention.
Akaka proposed the first version of what eventually became the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act back in 2000. This is part of what he said on the Senate floor when he introduced the bill:
This measure provides the process to begin resolving many longstanding issues facing Hawaii’s indigenous peoples and the State of Hawaii. In addressing these issues, we have begun a process of healing, a process of reconciliation not only with the United States but within the State of Hawaii. The essence of Hawaii is characterized not by the beauty of its islands, but by the beauty of its people. The State of Hawaii has recognized, acknowledged and acted upon the need to preserve the culture, tradition, language and heritage of Hawaii’s indigenous peoples. This measure furthers these actions.
Mr. President, the clarification of the political relationship between Native Hawaiians and the United States is one that has been long in coming and is well-deserved. The history and the timing of Hawaii’s admission to the United States, unfortunately, did not provide the appropriate structure for a government-to-government relationship between Hawaii’s indigenous native peoples and the United States. The time has come to correct this injustice.
He’s proposed at least one version of the legislation in every Congress since. Here’s what’s happened to every incarnation, including those introduced by Hawaii’s representatives in the House:
It’s a long record of disappointment, but Akaka has not been totally unsuccessful on Native Hawaiian issues. In fact, 1993’s Apology Resolution is one of his signature accomplishments. Adopted a century after the 1893 overthrow, the measure signed by President Bill Clinton accepted U.S. responsibility for the removal of the “highly organized, self-sufficient, subsistent social system” that exited before Western contact.
Still, if Akaka spent his career in Washington building relationships and effectively operating behind the scenes, why was he unable to get even an up-or-down vote on his bill?
“We’re all of different minds, and I respect that. For whatever reason, somebody objects and of course in some cases you never know really why, except they object. It could be many reasons,” Akaka said. “I think that part of it is racial, because that has been used at one time to say that I’m being racial. And I try to of course educate them by saying, look, this is not race, this is indigenous, like the American Indians, like the Alaska Natives. These are people who were there first and they had their own governments earlier. Hawaii had a kingdom, and after they lost their kingdom, what happened to the indigenous people?”
Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who worked with Akaka in both the House and Senate and is now the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, told Civil Beat that serving in the Senate requires patience.
“The day will come, and when it does, Danny Akaka will get great credit for it,” Durbin said of the Akaka bill.
Don Ritchie, the Senate historian, agreed that things happen slowly in Washington, and said there’s still a chance Congress will pass some version of the Akaka Bill after its namesake is gone from the halls of the Capitol.
“Your personal reputation often creates a certain amount of good will for the issues you support. And senators will come around and support that,” he said.
“I would say right now is an awkward time for anybody, because the House and Senate are just in total gridlock. Apple pie couldn’t be adopted right now in this Congress. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s done or dead,” Ritchie said. “It’s a real collapse of the system of collegiality that the Senate has always run on.”
Coming Wednesday: What does it mean to be the Ambassador of Aloha?