HONOLULU — After six years of trying, Sen. Daniel Akaka hopes to finally see a vote in the Senate this week on one of the hardest-fought measures of his congressional career — his bill to grant his fellow Native Hawaiians federal recognition.
“It will have a historical impact,” said Akaka, D-Hawaii. “It affects Hawaii, the Pacific, the nation.”
The measure is tentatively scheduled for debate Monday night and Tuesday, with a vote on Wednesday. Akaka and Hawaii’s other Democratic senator, Daniel Inouye, say there are enough votes for approval.
It would grant Native Hawaiians the same rights of self-government enjoyed by American Indians and Native Alaskans, and would lead to U.S. recognition of a native governing entity.
The bill has the support of Hawaii’s Democratic and Republican leaders of all races, including Gov. Linda Lingle and the state Legislature. Several thousand Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians signed an advertisement in support of the bill that appeared in last Sunday’s Honolulu Advertiser.
Lingle says it also is supported by the majority of the people of Hawaii, but opponents dispute this, touting a recent automated and unscientific phone survey in which 67 percent of respondents said they opposed the bill. Both sides argue over whether the questions were loaded.
A group of mostly Native Hawaiians issued a declaration saying the bill “debases our sovereign heritage and our right to self-determination.” It also said the bill “would attempt to label us with an identity as Native Americans that is not and will never be who we are as a people.”
Kelikina Kekumano, who said she spends much of her time lobbying for Native Hawaiian rights, objects to the bill “because it makes us another Indian tribe.”
The retired flight attendant is scheduled to testify Tuesday before a House Judiciary subcommittee considering an identical bill. The House last passed an earlier version of the bill in 2000, but it has never before made it to the Senate floor.
Also opposed to the bill is a group of mostly Caucasians who say it is race-based.
“It would destroy the basic reason I chose to make Hawaii my home 50 years ago — we don’t have racial discrimination,” said Honolulu attorney H. William Burgess, who has challenged the constitutionality of Hawaiians-only programs.