HONOLULU – Their kingdom long ago overthrown, Native Hawaiians seeking redress are closer than they’ve ever been to reclaiming a piece of Hawaii.
Native Hawaiians are the last remaining indigenous group in the United States that hasn’t been allowed to establish their own government, a right already extended to Alaska Natives and 564 Native American tribes.
With a final vote pending in the U.S. Senate and Hawaii-born President Barack Obama on their side, the nation’s 400,000 Native Hawaiians could earn federal recognition as soon as this month – and the land, money and power that comes with it. The measure passed the U.S. House last month.
Many Native Hawaiians believe this process could help right the wrongs perpetuated since their kingdom was overthrown in 1893. They also point to the hundreds of thousands who died from diseases spread by foreign explorers before the kingdom fell.
Native Hawaiians never fully assimilated after the first Europeans arrived in 1778: They earn less money, live shorter lives, get sent to prison more often and are more likely to end up homeless than other ethnicities, said Clyde Namuo, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state-funded agency founded to improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians.
“It’s about correcting the injustice,” Namuo said. “When you look very closely at the numbers – prison, health, wealth, education – we are not at the level that our colonizers are at.”
However, just what Native Hawaiians would receive if the federal recognition measure passes Congress is uncertain. The bill sets up negotiations between a new Native Hawaiian government, the state of Hawaii and the federal government, but it doesn’t specify what resources Native Hawaiians would receive.
Namuo said he hopes the lives of Native Hawaiians would be improved if they had more control of their own destiny.
Opponents of the legislation say it would give Native Hawaiians special treatment at the expense of other taxpayers. One study commissioned by a group opposed to a Native Hawaiian government predicted it would cost $343 million a year in lost tax revenue if 25 percent of the state’s lands were transferred.
“It is not the role of government to try and make up for past wrongs,” said Jamie Story, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which promotes free markets and small government.
Supporters view the proposal as a way to provide reconciliation to the Hawaiian people that was urged in the 1993 Apology Resolution, in which Congress acknowledged the United States’ role in the Hawaiian kingdom’s overthrow 100 years earlier.
A majority of Native Hawaiians favor this process of federal recognition, Namuo said. But it is opposed by pro-independence groups who want the Hawaiian kingdom restored.