April 2, 2023

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By Tom LaVenture
AAP staff writer 

HONOLULU (June 19, 2006) – The Town Hall Meeting at the 2006 Asian American Journalists Association National Convention in Hawai‘i last month addressed the simmering issues regarding the history of native and colonial rule, and of the efforts of various groups to forge very different destinies for the island peoples.

The Akaka bill, which failed to get a cloture motion to the Senate floor and will not likely see a chance for a vote this session is a step toward federal recognition of Native Hawaiians that drew much debate.

The event was sponsored by Neilson Media Research and moderated by Gordon Y.K. Pang, Hawaiian and ethnic affairs reporter for The Honolulu Advertiser. He created a forum that addressed the Akaka bill, which supporters say is a step toward cultural protections and reparations for the overthrow of the monarchy; while opponents say it discriminates against non-Hawaiians and violates the basic American principle that no one should get special treatment based on race.

The panel included Poka Laenui, executive director, Hale Naau Pono, who supports federal recognition but ultimately believes there should be an independent nation; Sandra Burgess, Aloha For All, which opposes federal recognition for native Hawaiians as well as the sovereignty movement; Clyde Nãmuo, Administration for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, who supports federal recognition and believes in a nation within a nation model; and John Osorio, University of Hawaii at Mãnoa Center for Hawaiian Studies, who does not support federal recognition.

Clyde Nãmuo said the Akaka bill extends to native Hawaiians the federal policy on recognizing Hawaiians as aboriginal, indigenous, native Americans, as it does Native American Indians and Alaska Natives. He noted that Native Americans have tribal societies with leadership that lobbied Congress for recognition. The Hawaiians have not had such leadership since the Queen Liliu’okalani government was overthrown in 1893.

Nãmuo said that it is difficult to predict what type of governing entity would evolve, or how it would exercise provisions on civil criminal jurisdiction.

“It all would be subject to negotiation,” he added, noting that the level of fear of its impact is baseless and much of the speculation of things that could happen would likely not occur, such as calls for secession or calls of organizing race based government were raised 35 years ago with Alaska natives bill.

Nãmuo addressed other Akaka bill charges that it would bring in gaming, and called them inaccuracies, as state law forbids gaming. He said the bill failed, not because of the issues embedded in the legislation, but about the politics of the Senate. This concerns him that federal legislators need to be educated on the bill so that the bill will pass or fail on its own merits.

Nãmuo is most concerned about native Hawaiians as a group that are deprived basic necessities and losing a national identity. His ideal system would be a nation within a nation model of sovereignty that does not make Hawaii an independent nation.

Sandra Puanani Burgess was born and raised in Hawai‘i with a mixed ancestry of Chinese, Filipina and Hawaiian. She opposes Hawaiian sovereignty and the Akaka bill, because, she says they are based on the mistaken assumption that it is a correction of past injustices. She feels that Hawaiians already have full and equal sovereignty under U.S. law, and that sovereignty would recognize a privileged class and make all non-native peoples second-class citizens, dividing Hawaiian society forever.

“I see Hawai‘i as one, undivided state; the most integrated place on earth, where we care for everyone,” said Burgess. “The newly arrived immigrant, the Filipinos who have been here for 100 years, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Okinawans; we’ve worked side by side to make Hawai‘i what it is today.”

Burgess said sovereignty would discourage or outright bar non-natives in leadership roles, and forever skew the social structure of the Hawaiian society.

“The sovereignty movement is to give supreme, absolute power to native Hawaiians and everyone else subservient,” she added.

Poka Laenui (aka Hayden Burgess) is regarded as the founder of the modern Hawaiian Sovereignty movement. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, who, while studying the history of Hawai‘i challenged the U.S. military presence in Hawai‘i. After refusing to salute the flag he underwent a special court martial and found not guilty of refusing to obey a lawful order.

Laenui practiced law for 30 years and emerged as a leader in the independence movement. He feels that the Akaka bill is a temporary, but necessary recognition of Hawaiians as an indigenous people. Though it remains within the colonial structure, he says it will offer protection of culturally based structures and programs, to prevent attacks that challenge the legality of Hawaiians-only government programs such as the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the cultural-based Kamehameha Schools started during the monarchy.

“I don’t like what the United States is doing,” said Laenui, (saying the American definition of sovereignty is opposite from the international term of sovereignty and self-determination), “But, if you are stuck working within the constitutional framework, then it is better than what we have today.”

Laenui is concerned that people are taking the “sovereignty” issues out of context for lack of understanding the history of complexities of the issues.

Hawai‘i residents voted in favor of statehood and became the last state to join the United States in 1959. President Clinton signed an apology resolution passed by Congress in 1993, for the overthrow, acknowledging “the participation of agents and citizens of the United States, and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination.”

“Sovereignty is a state in which a nation expresses itself as an independent sovereign entity,” he said. “But, to reach that expression is really what is at issue – that means the issue is self-determination, sometimes called the father and mother of all human rights. And so. in exercising determination, the choice becomes independence, which is equivalent to sovereignty, or integration, which is to stay within the United States, whether it is in some form of federal recognition, or no recognition.”

The debate centered over the history of sovereignty, the intent and results of the 1893 overthrow of Hawai‘i Queen Liliu’okalani by a group of 13 Caucasian businessmen known as the Committee of Safety. Monarchists argue there was U.S. military intervention under the Office of Plenipotentiary under Minister Stevens, U.S. Representative to Hawai‘i. Opponents argued there is sworn testimony that native Hawaiians conducted the overthrow and that the U.S. Boston in the harbor acted as peace keepers, and the revolution would have taken place regardless.

Five years later, Hawai‘i was annexed to the United States. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 set aside former Hawaiian government lands to Native Hawaiians as homesteads in an attempt to foster self-determination and self-sufficiency. For purposes of this act, “Native Hawaiian” was defined as anyone having 50 percent or more Hawaiian blood. The program continues today under the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

John Osorio is a nineteenth century political and social history scholar and author of “Dismembering Lahui,” which details the colonization of Hawai‘i as a methodical process that “depended on Hawaiians being convinced of their inferiority to Europeans and Americans.”

He cautioned proponents and opponents of Hawaiian independence against the selective use of historical text to further their points of view, or passing them off as the popular view of entire society as the time.

Osorio considers present day America as a misguided, imperialist nation, and said the biggest tragedy in Hawai‘i was the loss of a liberal society and government that was not allowed to continue.

The Sovereignty movement comprised from a number of activist groups in politics, education, arts and many areas, said Osorio. He is concerned that government institutions and programs are created to deal with Hawaiians as a failed minority that needs help to become more American. He said the essence of the Hawaiian movement is about the revival of national identity, recapturing ancestral knowledge and become better Hawaiians.

“Federal recognition not the answer because don’t represent activist community and wish they would join the real movement,” he said.

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