Civil Rights Commission Now Backs Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians

By Cocke, Sophie | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, December 22, 2018 | Go to article overview

Civil Rights Commission Now Backs Federal Recognition for Native Hawaiians


Cocke, Sophie, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


DENNIS ODA / 2015 A bill granting federal recognition to a Native Hawaiian government would be difficult to get through a Republican-controlled Senate.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has reversed course on the issue of federal recognition of a Native Hawaiian government, announcing Thursday it supports the effort and is urging Congress to pass legislation to lay out a process for that to happen.

The sentiment was applauded by Hawaii’s political leaders. However, it’s unlikely that an Akaka-style bill granting federal recognition to a Native Hawaiian government will be sailing through Congress anytime soon.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation has mixed views on whether the debate should be left before Congress, and even if a bill akin to that advocated for years by the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka were to be introduced, it would likely be difficult to get it through a Republican-controlled Senate.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was the only member of Hawaii’s delegation to say that Congress should establish such federal recognition, though she didn’t respond to a question about whether she would be putting forward a bill.

“For generations, the Native Hawaiian community has fought for recognition equal to other native peoples across America, the first people of the lands that became our great nation,” said Gabbard in a statement. “Congress should establish federal recognition for Native Hawaiians so we can further enhance opportunity and access to education, job opportunities and health services, prioritize the Hawaiian language, and more.”

Other members of the delegation were more circumspect, stressing that at this juncture any decision about forming an independent government is best left up to Native Hawaiians. The issue of establishing a government- to-government relationship between the U.S. and Native Hawaiians, similar to those established with American Indian tribes, has long been divisive among Native Hawaiians, with some advocating for total independence from the U.S.

The debate came to a resting point of sorts when the U.S. Department of Interior finalized a rule in 2016 that sets out an administrative process for achieving such recognition. It’s up to Native Hawaiians to take the steps necessary to form a government and apply for recognition.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said that it’s best to leave the issue in front of the Interior Department.

“While I thank the commission for its work and for recognizing the special legal and trust relationship between the Native Hawaiian community and the federal government, it is not necessary for Congress to act to re-establish a government-to-government relationship,” said Schatz by email. “The Department of the Interior has already set up a process for this, and it is up to the Native Hawaiian community to determine the reorganization of their own government. …

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