Last week, Mr. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, reintroduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, better known as the Akaka bill. The proposal would give Native Hawaiians, those who can trace their ancestry to the arrival of Capt. James Cook, the explorer, in 1778 similar status to that of American Indians by allowing them to acquire public lands and form their own semisovereign government.
Lining up in support of the Akaka bill are House and Senate Democrats, the Hawaiian Legislature, the governor of Hawaii and President Obama, himself a native-born Hawaiian, albeit not a Native Hawaiian, who said during the campaign that he would sign the bill.
Waging a frantic campaign to stop the bill are a cluster of conservative think tanks, a few Republican lawmakers and a handful of conservative columnists. If it doesn’t seem like a fair fight, that’s because it’s probably not.
The bill’s backers argue that Native Hawaiians deserve the same rights of self-governance and self-determination as other indigenous people. They point to the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii by American and European businessmen in 1893, calling it a wrong that needs to be addressed by repatriating lands and sovereignty to Native Hawaiians.
The Akaka bill doesn’t say how much land would be turned over to a newly formed Native Hawaiian government, only that no private lands would be confiscated. That leaves about 2 million acres, now controlled by the federal and state governments, that could be up for grabs, or about 38 percent of the island’s landmass.
A study conducted by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University and released Monday estimates that the bill could cost the state up to $690 million a year in lost revenue, given the loss of land and tax base.
The Akaka bill doesn’t explicitly say that Native Hawaiians, who number about 400,000, or 20 percent of the state’s population, would be exempt from state income and sales taxes, but that’s the expectation among supporters.
At a recent conference here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, sponsored by the Federalist Society, critics said the Akaka bill’s passage could lead to similar separatist movements by other distinct racial minorities, such as those of Mexican ancestry in the Southwest or Cajuns in Louisiana.
There’s also the fear that the bill could lead Hawaii to break from the union, although Mr. Akaka insisted the legislation allows neither secession nor the authorization of gambling.
“If ethnic Hawaiians can be an Indian tribe, then why not Chicanos in the American Southwest? There are people who firmly believe that the Southwest United States is part of Aztlan,” said Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego School of Law professor. “What about the Amish? Who’s going to have the political will to draw the line here?”
This comes despite polls showing that most Hawaiians oppose the bill and even Native Hawaiians are divided when told that they would be subject to a different legal and tax system, she said.
However, critics argue that without a plan in place, the result could be mayhem.
“Suddenly the state of Hawaii won’t have this money any more. Then there’s the question of which services the state of Hawaii will no longer be provided to Native Hawaiians,” Miss Heriot said. “It’s going to be chaotic, but the bill itself cheerily goes on.”