The House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would grant Native Hawaiians special rights as reparations for the 1893 peaceful overthrow of their Queen Liliuokalani which led to the eventual annexation of their island by the United States.
The bill creates a new Hawaiian government that would negotiate with the U.S. over things like land rights and natural resources, and could cede large tracts of land that became U.S. government property when Hawaii became a state in 1959, back to Native Hawaiians.
The bill defines “Native Hawaiians” as a distinct ethnic group that can trace its lineage directly to indigenous inhabitants of the island prior to 1893, but there are no details on what percentage heritage or proof is required. The bill would establish a commission to determine the process of establishing native Hawaiian ethnicity. Native Hawaiians would be federally recognized as a tribe similar to the way Native Americans’, and the laws of their governing body would in some cases supersede state law.
“Congress doesn’t have the constitutional authority to recognize members of a sovereign Indian tribe,” says Jill Strait, Republican spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee.
Hawaii’s governor, who supported previous versions of the bill, announced her opposition to the latest version after new language was added which essentially removed state authority over the newly created Native Hawaiian governing body.
“You’re essentially creating different legal codes for different parts of society … they don’t all live on native or tribal lands there — you could have a neighbor or a business down the street that would be subject to different laws than you,” said Strait.
“Something is terribly wrong with this bill if the governor of Hawaii, an advocate for Native Hawaiian recognition, feels compelled to say she can’t support the rewritten text,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee. “The rewritten bill strikes at the heart of the state of Hawaii’s authority to enforce health and environmental regulations, taxes and criminal law enforcement equally among its citizens.”
“The state just wants to maintain the ability to bring a lawsuit against the Native Hawaiian government, and the Department of Justice has told them that there is no precedent for that kind of relationship between sovereign governments,” said Dave Helfert, a spokesman for Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii who sponsored the bill. “They will have to work things out in government negotiations. Besides, these changes in jurisdiction only deal with government-to-government stuff, Native Hawaiians that don’t live on Native Hawaiian lands will still have to pay taxes and license plates fees, etc — just like everyone else.”
Critics say the bill sets a dangerous precedent that could encourage other ethnic groups to seek similar recognition.
“If ethnic Hawaiians can be accorded tribal status, why not Chicanos in the Southwest? Or Cajuns in Louisiana?” testified Gail Heriot of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a hearing before the House Natural Resource Committee in June. “Indeed, it is implausible to say that Congress has the power to confer this benefit only upon racial or ethnic groups, since ordinarily congressional power is at its lowest ebb with issues that touch on race or ethnicity.”
The bill is not yet scheduled for a vote in the Senate, but many question whether it will be able to garner the necessary 60 votes to pass there. Versions of this bill passed the House during the Bush administration, but stalled in the Senate. President Bush vowed to veto it, but President Obama has expressed support.
Immediately after the House passed their version of the bill, several prominent senators issued statements in opposition.
“We believe it’s unconstitutional, it’s an affront to the national unity,” said Wesley Denton, a spokesman for Senator Jim Demint (R-S.C.). “It’s discriminatory and creates a race-based government that most American would be opposed to. The purpose of our nation is to bring people together, not separate them under governments based on race.”
Hawaii has a total population of about 1.2 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and about 22 percent of the population is considered Native Hawaiian. In 1959, more than 94 percent of Hawaiians voted to become the next American state. As of 2008, California had the largest number of Hawaiian Natives at 282,000.
A December 2009 poll showed that only 34 percent of Hawaiians supported the bill.
The bloodless 1893 coup d’état consisted of a small group of mostly white (American and European) farmers and businessmen who resided on the islands and opposed a new constitution the queen had proposed. The queen ceded her throne to avoid bloodshed, and then spent years petitioning the U.S. government for redress, to no avail.
The bill states, “Despite the overthrow of the government of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Native Hawaiians have continued to maintain their separate identity as a single distinct native community through cultural, social and political institutions, and to give expression to their rights as native people to self-determination, self-governance and economic self-sufficiency.”
“There has been opposition in the past, people said it created a racial preference, but as I look to the Native American reservations, I fail to discern any great preference that they get,” said Helfert. He added that it would be beneficial to the Native Hawaiians to be able to administer federal lands that have been held in trust for them since 1959. “A certain percentage of any revenues that comes from these lands are supposed to go to Native Hawaiians.”
“The stars seem to be aligned,” said Helfert of the bills prospects. Abercrombie is retiring from Congress this Friday and plans to run for governor of Hawaii.
Contact Aleksandra at: ak[at]dailycaller[dot]com.