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The Contemporary Pacific 16.1 (2004) 153-158

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Hawaiian Issues

Tracie Ku'uipo Cummings
Center for Hawaiian Studies, University of Hawai'i, Manoa

In light of pending litigation (Arakaki v Lingle) attempting to invalidate the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL), as well as all other federal, state, and privately funded agencies that support Native Hawaiians, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs stepped up its campaign for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as indigenous peoples of the United States. Federal recognition would solidify a political relationship with the United States government and put Hawaiians on par with other indigenous nations within US borders. Provoked by such legal challenges, the OHA campaign for federal recognition has gone mainstream, producing a slew of public informational meetings in communities around the state of Hawai'i as well as high-profile televised forums.

Arakaki v Lingle was originally filed on 4 March 2002 by sixteen plaintiffs asking that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (established by a 1978 constitutional convention) and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands (established in 1921 by the US federal government, setting aside approximately 200,000 acres of land for Hawaiian homesteading) be declared invalid and unconstitutional. The suit also asks that any and all monies and properties be immediately returned to the State of Hawai'i to be used for all residents of the state, regardless of ancestry. In addition, the plaintiffs have asked that the creation of any similar laws in the future be prohibited. If successful, the suit would take away all current support systems and programs designed to redress historical wrongs perpetrated against Hawaiians, including the loss of Hawaiian sovereignty and the resultant, dismal socioeconomic conditions.

Arakaki v Lingle owes its standing to the 2000 Rice v Cayetano ruling, which forced the State of Hawai'i to allow non-Hawaiians to vote in the election of trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In anticipation of the ruling, Hawai'i's congressional delegation authored a bill for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians in 1999. They believed that the passage of such a bill would negate similar court cases and allow a certain degree of control for Hawaiians over lands and other assets currently administered by state and US federal agencies.

The latest incarnation of the federal-recognition bill, Senate Bill 344, was submitted to the 108th Congress in June 2003. While maintaining the general thrust of its predecessors, this version contains a new section that would establish a registration roll for Native Hawaiians, to be overseen and [End Page 153] approved by an Office for Native Hawaiian Relations within the US Department of Interior. Only registered voters would then be eligible to participate in the election of delegates and, subsequently, in the creation of organic documents for a future Native Hawaiian governing entity. Critics argue that this clause would amplify the US federal government's power over the ability of a Native Hawaiian governing entity to determine the composition of its own citizenry.

The new clause is reminiscent of the ill-fated state legislation that established the Hawaiian Sovereignty Elections Council and mandated a plebiscite to determine the will of the Hawaiian people in 1996. That vote was problematic on two levels. First, the Hawaiian people (as well as non-Hawaiians) were uninformed regarding the issues and implications of what came to be known as the "Native Hawaiian Vote." Second, because the Hawai'i State Legislature and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs jointly funded the vote, critics saw a clear conflict of interest between the sponsors and the electorate, and they accused the state of controlling the process. Although public awareness has continued to increase, it is clear that the same issues remain, and that the same conflict of interest may be replicated on the federal level.

Generally, the debate surrounding federal recognition has not changed. Supporters of the bill laud it as a shield for Native Hawaiian programs and trusts currently under attack, and see it as the only way Native Hawaiians can achieve autonomy. Detractors are unsatisfied with the domestic-dependent nation status the bill would create...