When you’re in the islands on vacation, you may hear or read about the ongoing debate about ceded lands, and about the Akaka Bill, and wonder what’s going on. Here’s a briefing:

In 1893, the government of the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by a group of planters and businessmen — mostly American — supported by a contingent of U.S. Marines. The revolutionaries then established the Republic of Hawaii and entered into negotiations with the United States to seek Hawaii’s annexation.

When Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, the Republic of Hawaii ceded the public lands of Hawaii to the United States. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, the United States conveyed more than a million acres of that land to the new state, which was to hold the land in trust for five specific purposes, including “the benefit of Native Hawaiians.” The resulting “Ceded Lands Trust” is like the school lands trusts established in the admission acts of most states that joined the Union after 1820 or so.

In 1993, Congress issued an apology for the United States’ role in overthrowing Hawaii’s monarchy. Last year, based on that apology, the Hawaii Supreme Court held that the State cannot convey lands from the Ceded Lands Trust to private parties until the claims of Native Hawaiians to the lands have been resolved. Today, lot of work remains to resolve a lawsuit that was filed by the Office of Hawaiian over the issue.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the state Supreme Court’s ruling and sent the case back to that body, ruling that the apology does not prohibit Hawaiian officials from selling or transferring state land.

The Hawaii Attorney General and attorneys from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs are now trying to work out the future of the lawsuit.

In the meantime, The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2007 – commonly known as the Akaka Bill – is under consideration in Congress. (U.S. Senator Dan Akaka, pictured above, has proposed various forms of the bill since 2000.) The bill seeks to establish a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition that would be similar to the recognition that some Native American tribes currently have. It also prohibits Hawaiians from establishing casinos under current laws without banning the establishment of casinos under future negotiations from participation in programs and services enjoyed by Indians. It also prohibits Hawaiians from being included on the Secretary of the Interior’s list of tribes eligible for federal benefits because of their status as Indians.

There are several aspects of the Akaka Bill that have generated debate, but we won’t go into those here.

While you’re here on vacation, either or both of those issues may be in the news.

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