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  • Hawaiian Issues
  • Tracie Ku'uipo Cummings Losch (bio)

The year 2005 marked the fifth anniversary of the introduction to the United States Congress of legislation known as the Akaka Bill, after its primary benefactor and one of Hawai'i's senators, Daniel Akaka. The bill was prompted by litigation inthe US Supreme Court challenging the Hawaiians-only voting policies forthe state government's Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). In 1997, Harold "Freddy" Rice, a non-Hawaiian rancher, sued the State of Hawai'i to challenge its Hawaiians-only policy for OHA elections. The case, Rice v Cayetano (Benjamin Cayetano was then governor of Hawai'i), argued that the election policy was racist and unconstitutional, citing the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Rice appealed his case up the judicial hierarchy and finally won a hearing at the US Supreme Court in early 2000. The justices sided with Rice, annulled thestate's policy, and allowed non-Hawaiians to vote for OHA trustees.

In its original conception, the Akaka Bill was seen as a way of neutralizing the detrimental ruling inRice v Cayetano by recognizing Native Hawaiians as indigenous people of the United States, thus placing them in the same category as Native Americans. However, Hawai'i's congressional delegation was unable to push the controversial bill through Congress in time to preempt the Supreme Court's decision in favor ofRice. Since 2000, non-Hawaiians have been able to participate in the election of OHA trustees.

Undeterred, Senator Akaka has revised and resubmitted the bill every year since 2000. Meanwhile, other court cases have appeared, challenging the existence of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Department ofHawaiian Home Lands, and all programs, agencies, and federal grants designed to assist Native Hawaiians. Five years after its inception, supporters of the Akaka Bill continue their fight and hope for success before other lawsuits eliminate these support agencies.

Since the 1898 US annexation of Hawai'i, a political and legal relationship [End Page 143] has existed between Native Hawaiians and the United States. As apart of this special relationship, the United States has created legislative acts specific to Native Hawaiians and has also included Native Hawaiians in other federal laws pertaining to Native Americans. Federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people of the United States would formalize this de facto relationship and afford Native Hawaiians the same rights and protections enjoyed by other Native American nations.

Among the US federal legislative actions directly relevant to Native Hawaiians is the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, which set aside approximately 200,000 acres ofland for Hawaiian homesteading. When Hawai'i became a state of the union in 1959, the federal government required the newly formed State of Hawai'i to adopt the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. It bequeathed those lands, along with some 1.8 million acres formerly belonging to the Hawaiian national government (also known as "ceded lands"), to be held in trust for Native Hawaiians. These lands (two million acres total) continue to be under the jurisdiction of the State of Hawai'i.

The State of Hawai'i has also enacted legislation concerning Native Hawaiians. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was established during the state's 1978 constitutional convention to manage a portion of the revenues generated by these "public trust" lands. Because the Office of Hawaiian Affairs was intended to serve as a liaison between Native Hawaiians and the State of Hawai'i, the state allowed a Hawaiians-only voting policy for the agency.

Although the United States and itssubordinate, the State of Hawai'i, demonstrated through these acts recognition of a special relationship with the Native Hawaiian people, the United States had yet to officially acknowledge its role in the overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893. One hundred years later, in November 1993, the United States finally extended an apology to Native Hawaiians and recognized that as a people they had never relinquished their inherent claims to sovereignty. Public Law 103-150, known as the Apology Resolution, sparked a series of meetings to identify the next step of a process of reconciliation between the United States and Native Hawaiians. These meetings eventually led the US Departments of Interior and Justice...