The Blog

Aloha Means Goodbye

Will the Senate vote for Hawaiian separatism?

12:00 AM, Jun 5, 2006 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR NEARLY AS LONG as Hawaii has been a state, its most famous pop culture icon has been the organ-playing singer Don Ho. Born in Honolulu in 1930, Ho claims Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and German ancestry. Few figures better epitomize the Aloha State's proud history of ethnic intermingling and racial comity. Its senior senator, Democrat Daniel Inouye, has hailed Hawaii as "one of the greatest examples of a multiethnic society living in relative peace."

Inouye made that remark in 1994, on the 35th anniversary of Hawaiian statehood. It is no small irony that, in June 2006, he is cosponsoring a bill that would fracture Hawaii along ethnic lines and create a de facto apartheid system of racial privileges.

That bill is the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, the outgrowth of legislation first introduced by Hawaii senator Daniel Akaka in July 2000. It would essentially grant Native Hawaiians the same sovereign "tribal" status that American Indians and Native Alaskans enjoy, and permit them to form a race-based governing entity. After much wrangling, Akaka has been promised a cloture vote on his measure sometime this week.

Don't expect a filibuster. The Akaka bill has five Republican cosponsors. The entire Democratic caucus appears to be in favor. Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, is behind it, as are Hawaii's state legislature and its two congressmen, Democrats Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case. (Abercrombie has sponsored a companion bill in the House.) Should it come up for a floor vote, it would presumably need only one Senate Republican to join the five GOP cosponsors to ensure passage. And Lingle has told the New York Times that at least six Republicans are on board.

One can only hope they have not actually read the legislation. For the Akaka bill would promote a baleful hodgepodge of specious history, racial separatism, and legal codes reminiscent of Jim Crow.

START WITH THE REVISIONIST HISTORY. The Akaka bill largely stems from the 1993 Apology Resolution, in which Congress expressed its "deep regret" for the January 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, an event that led to U.S. annexation of Hawaii five years later. The Apology accused U.S. minister to Hawaii John L. Stevens of conspiring with American military forces and "non-Hawaiian" insurgents to topple the monarchy. It further hinted that the interests of American sugar planters were central to the conspiracy.

These claims are dubious, at best. According to the Morgan report, an 800-page document issued by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Tyler Morgan of Alabama in February 1894, the U.S. troops who landed in Honolulu during the (nearly bloodless) coup were peacekeepers, seeking to ensure the safety of American citizens and defend their property. The revolt was mostly a domestic struggle, brought on by Queen Liliuokalani's bid for quasi-despotic powers.

If you discount the Morgan findings as biased--Hawaii was a grossly politicized issue even in the 1890s--consider the work of the late Ralph S. Kuykendall, widely deemed a preeminent historian of the Hawaiian islands. In The Hawaiian Kingdom, Kuykendall acknowledges that Stevens, a fervent annexationist, sent mixed messages during the uprising. He did indeed ask Captain Wiltse, the commander of the USS Boston, docked in Honolulu Harbor, to send the Marines ashore.

But Wiltse had already issued the order himself, in accordance with standard naval and diplomatic protocols. Moreover, his instructions were that U.S. troops should "remain neutral in any conflict" and exercise "strict impartiality . . . in preserving order and protecting property"--which they did. As for the sugar planters, they "were conservatively inclined" and came to oppose the monarchy only reluctantly.

Whatever the peripheral extent of U.S. aid to the rebels, the 1893 revolution was remarkably peaceful--not a single person died. By contrast, the Hawaiian Kingdom itself was forged in 1810 after decades of savage warfare led by the future King Kamehameha I.

WHICH BRINGS US to the Akaka bill's next piece of dodgy history: the racial dynamics of that kingdom. For membership purposes, the legislation defines "Native Hawaiian" as anyone whose lineage traces back to the "the aboriginal, indigenous, native people" who "occupied and exercised sovereignty in the Hawaiian archipelago" before 1893, or whose relatives were eligible for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921 (which required at least one-half blood relation to the Polynesians living in Hawaii before 1778, when Captain Cook arrived).

The Akaka bill thus implies that, prior to 1893, Hawaiian politics was a racially exclusive affair limited solely to Native Hawaiians. This is patently untrue. Under the monarchy, both the executive and legislative branches of government were multiracial. The Hawaiian Kingdom boasted Caucasians (or "haoles"), Chinese, Japanese, and other non-natives.

Since the Akaka bill stipulates no precise blood quantum, the new tribe would apparently get to decide the racial worthiness of its prospective members. There are an estimated 400,000 people scattered throughout Hawaii and the broader United States who identify as either partly or wholly Native Hawaiian. (Though that number would likely swell if the Akaka bill became law.) Unlike Indian tribes, they are not geographically segregated--quite the opposite. They make up about 20 percent of the Hawaiian population, but are sprinkled across the archipelago. Widespread intermarriage has further attenuated the strength and cohesion of Native Hawaiian culture.

This raises serious constitutional questions. Everyone agrees that Congress can recognize existing Indian tribes. But can it create a new "tribe" at the behest of a particular ethnic lobby? Probably not; and if so, only in the rarest of circumstances. Surely there are Hispanic separatists in the American Southwest who would love to get their own sovereign "nation" as reparations for the Mexican War. The Akaka bill would encourage them to press their case.

It would also designate a privileged caste of Hawaiians who could feasibly be subject to a different legal regime than their next-door neighbors--all on the basis of race. The racially chosen Hawaiians might enjoy special tax and welfare benefits. They might be able to petition state and federal officials over land and natural-resource spats, which would no doubt trigger an avalanche of lawsuits. And their new government would presumably be exempt from important bits of the U.S. constitution, as Indian tribes are.

Given two recent court precedents, the Akaka bill would almost certainly invite a constitutional challenge. Last summer, the Ninth Circuit Court struck down a pro-native racial preference policy at an elite Hawaiian private school. In 2000, just months before Akaka introduced his legislation, the Supreme Court ruled against race-based statutes governing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. (Voting rights in OHA elections had been restricted to Native Hawaiians who fulfilled a blood quota--which, the Court said in Rice v. Cayetano, violated the Fifteenth Amendment.)

ARE SUPPORTERS OF the Akaka bill aware of these facts? Do they know that recent polling by the anti-Akaka Grassroot Institute of Hawaii found that 67 percent of Hawaiians oppose the legislation? Or that, according to the same poll, some 70 percent of Hawaiians desire a statewide referendum before the matter goes to Congress?

The five GOP cosponsors include Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Gordon Smith of Oregon. The one Republican who may tip the scales is John McCain of Arizona, who initially opposed the bill but has dropped hints that he might vote for it under certain conditions. "Here in Washington," McCain told the Honolulu Advertiser last June, "it's hard for us to go against the view of the governor, the legislature--Republican and Democrat--the senators, and the congressmen."

Should Akaka win over McCain, that could clinch Senate approval for Native Hawaiian sovereignty. The House would have to approve its own bill, but it passed nearly identical legislation six years ago. As for the White House, Justice Department officials have raised both legal and pragmatic concerns, such as the prospect of tribal casinos and potential interference with U.S. military bases. But few expect George W. Bush to make the Akaka bill his first presidential veto.

That is unfortunate. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act remains a noxious affront to E pluribus unum, and to anyone who gives a fig about colorblind justice and equal protection. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded last month, it deserves an emphatic rejection--if not from the Senate or the House, than from President Bush.

Duncan Currie is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.