The Obama administration has floated a proposal that would provide a path for Native Hawaiians to be treated similarly to members of an Native American tribe.
According to the Washington Examiner, The Department of the Interior announced recently that it “is considering whether to propose an administrative rule that would facilitate the re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiian community, to more effectively implement the special political and trust relationship that Congress has established between that community and the United States.”
President of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, Michelle Kauhane, applauded the proposal.
"It is extraordinary that the federal government is going through a process that would implement a policy that would be specifically for Native Hawaiians," she told Hawaiian news station KHNL.
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The proposal, however, also has numerous critics. Grassroot Institute of Hawaii president Kelii Akina is among them.
"The government cannot just create an Indian tribe. And Hawaiians were never an Indian tribe. We were citizens of all races in a constitutional monarchy," he said.
Carissa Mulder, a spokeswoman for the Commission on Civil Rights, agrees.
“There is no constitutional basis for conferring such status, and Congress has repeatedly refused to confer this status,” she told Fox News. “This seems to be yet another case of the Obama administration ignoring the law to achieve its policy objectives.”
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Mulder was referring to efforts by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, to pass a bill with goals similar to the current proposal.
Akaka proposed the bill in response to a Supreme Court case, Rice v. Cayetano, in which the court decided in 2000 that Hawaii’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs was racially discriminatory. The case involved the governance of a land trust that was set aside in Hawaii. Many hoped the trust would be established as a reservation. The court ruled that the trust could not be governed solely by Native Hawaiians.
Akaka’s bill would have helped establish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as a sort of tribal government. The Senate has rejected it every time it has come up for a vote since 2010. Akaka left the Senate in 2013.
Gail Heriot of the Commission for Civil Rights said that the Supreme Court’s decision in 2000 shows that the court does not want to move towards further racial division.
“The land was awarded as trust, not a reservation, because Hawaiians were full citizens,” she said. “They’re part of the mainstream.”
Akina claims the support of Native Hawaiians for the new policy comes down to nothing but money.
"Who it benefits is so-called tribal leaders, who will have a greater hand in grabbing land, money and possibly gambling rights," he said.
"I think that this opportunity that's presented before us allows us to have real solutions to the issues that are facing Native Hawaiians — our health care, our education and our incarceration rate," she said.
The Department of the Interior is currently taking public comment on the proposal.