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Hawaii panel considers Akaka Bill

By Mark Niesse
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) 8-07

Supporters of Native Hawaiian recognition tried to convince a revamped state panel during August to back the proposal in Congress that would give them federal recognition similar to that of American Indians.

They faced a difficult task since the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights restocked its Hawaii advisory panel last month with more members who oppose the Akaka bill, including four members who have filed lawsuits and contributed money to fight Hawaiian programs.

The Hawaii panel, which has 14 new faces among its 17 positions, met for the first time during late August before deciding whether to submit its opinion to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Any advice from the panel to the federal panel wouldn’t come until October at the soonest, and the panel could decide not to issue an opinion at all.

Last year, the old state panel supported the Native Hawaiian legislation named after Sen. Daniel Akaka, but the federal commission opposed it before it was scuttled in the U.S. Senate.

“Federal recognition is about Native Hawaiians having an opportunity to achieve self-determination,” said Leimomi Khan, president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. “It is about the United States honoring and respecting an indigenous people. It is about correcting a wrong.”

More than 200 people packed the panel’s meeting at the state Capitol, which was arranged by the commission’s staff in Washington, D.C., with notice of the hearing posted 12 days in advance. At least three of the local panel’s members wrote letters complaining that the process was being rushed.

Hawaii’s four-member Congressional delegation, all Democrats who support the Akaka bill, sent a letter Friday to the commission protesting the hearing, saying it violated a 15-day advance notice requirement in the Code of Federal Regulations.

“It would almost appear that the commission has its own agenda and its own timetable, that it considers more important than ensuring that the HISAC (Hawaii State Advisory Committee) members are properly prepared and available to perform their important functions,” said the letter, signed by Democrats Akaka, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Rep. Mazie Hirono.

In response, panel chairman Michael Lilly said he scheduled additional hearings on the Neighbor Islands and Oahu over the next few weeks so everyone’s voice can be heard.

Opponents of the Akaka bill, including some Native Hawaiians, said the measure would cause racial divisions and sacrifice Hawaiian claims of sovereignty.

“The Akaka bill will change our national identity and our legal status to claim what rightfully belongs to our ... people,” said Henry Noa, elected prime minister of the Reinstated Hawaiian Kingdom, which was formed in 1999. “The Indians have no control over their land base.”

The hearings are largely symbolic in nature because the panel’s recommendation – if any – may carry little weight with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In turn, the commission’s opinion to Congress only has as much influence as lawmakers give it before eventually voting on the Akaka bill.

The bill has passed its committees in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, but it hasn’t come up for a full vote in Congress yet this year.

It’s believed that the state advisory panel’s new makeup gives it enough votes to oppose Native Hawaiian recognition, but few of the 12 members in attendance Monday made their intentions clear. Instead, they listened to the public and asked questions of two attorneys – supporter Attorney General Mark Bennett and opponent Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Va.

“Everyone needs to be heard from,” said Gerald Reynolds, chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who sat in on the hearing. “We have selected some smart people, some people with very good judgment,” referring to the new Hawaii panel members.

The commission used term limits to oust several members of the state panel and replace them with more conservative representatives who are believed to be more likely to agree with its opposition to Native Hawaiian recognition.

Among the new members are William Burgess, an attorney and activist who has fought Hawaiian-only government programs; James Kuroiwa Jr., who joined taxpayers in a lawsuit challenging state funding of Native Hawaiian programs; Tom Macdonald, a board member of the libertarian Grassroot Institute of Hawaii that has opposed Native Hawaiian recognition; Paul Sullivan, an attorney who has written against federal recognition; and Rubellite Johnson, a Hawaiian language scholar and opponent of the legislation.

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On the Net:

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: http://www.usccr.gov/
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