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What the Akaka Bill Means for Visitors to Hawaii

The Akaka Bill is back in the news, having once again passed the U.S. House of Representatives. ( It failed in two previous attempts to get Senate approval but prospects look better for passage this time.) Rather than describe the provisions of the bill, I’d like to give you a way to look at the efforts to establish self-governance for Native Hawaiians and what that process means to casual visitors to the islands.

The perspective to keep in mind is this: nearly everyone agrees that something needs to be done to both address past maltreatment of the indigenous peoples of Hawaii and to provide a means of moving forward for all residents of the state. However, it is much harder to agree on what, exactly, that “something” is. As one example: the bill includes a way to identify who is Native Hawaiian and, no matter where the line is drawn, some who consider themselves to have deep and abiding roots in the land and culture of Hawaii will fall outside the definition. As you might imagine, this is a deeply personal issue and it ignites passionate responses. Governance issues like these will be debated by Hawaii residents and government leaders in the years to come. However, if you have no interest in the discussion, it is unlikely to touch your daily activities.

The second thing to keep in mind is that many of the specific concerns of Native Hawaiians – not political governance, but how they are treated – are already being dealt with in one way or another. A state can’t just put important decisions on pause while Congress waits to act. There is an Office of Hawaiian Affairs that now serves as the focal point for Native Hawaiian concerns. ( It is a state agency but is not under the control of the governor.) The planned light rail project is a issue of this type because it is certain to displace many traditional burial areas. These issues often generate news stories, debates and protests as part of the way that conflicting concerns of citizens are worked out in an open society. Again, if you have no interest, you probably won’t even notice.

It helps to realize that Hawaii’s civil government contains both historical developments and future concerns that are contentious. But it is also true that much of what makes Hawaii such a special place is that it has a tradition of welcoming visitors and a spirit of aloha that transcends politics.

Posted by: Bruce Fisher on Feb 24, 2010