For some Native Hawaiians, today was a day to celebrate. For others, it was a day to protest. At the center of the mixed emotions and continued controversy was Senate Bill 1520, signed into law by Governor Abercrombie this afternoon.
The bill officially recognizes Native Hawaiians as the only “indigenous, aboriginal, maoli people of Hawaii”, an acknowledgment that will allow for the establishment of a Native Hawaiian government. Until now, Native Hawaiians were the only indigenous people in the United States who have not been granted this right.
But some view this acknowledgment as an insult and “US colonial device”, claiming that the bill is asking Native Hawaiians to follow rules set up by the US government, and in doing so, will be evidence of acquiescence.
Opponents of the bill include Pilipo Souza of Ke Aupuni o Hawaii and Kai’opua Fyfe of the Koani Foundation. Fyfe asserts that Native Hawaiians, “are not a tribe”, and as such, should not be compared with Native Americans and Alaska Natives. In a press release by the Committee of Hawaiian Nationals, Fyfe stated, “We are a sovereign, independent nation” and warned the government to “Expect strong, vigorous opposition from Hawaiians at every step as the state attempts to implement this grotesque Akaka Bill agenda”. Souza echoes Fyfe’s sentiment, stating that the government is “not the Hawaiian nation, we’re the Hawaiian nation”.
The bill calls for the creation of a five-member commission tasked with putting together a roll of Native Hawaiians interested in participating in their government. Governor Abercrombie explained, “This is an important step for the future of Native Hawaiian self-determination and the ability for Native Hawaiians to decide their own future” (Source).
And others, like Senator Inouye, agreed. In a statement released today, he expressed his support for the bill and its ability to “facilitate their [Native Hawaiian] efforts toward self-governance,” noting that a bill such as this “is right, just, and long overdue”.
What the new law will look like in action remains to be seen. The governor has 180 days to appoint the commission. From there the five members will begin to build the list of qualified Native Hawaiians, a job likely to prove more difficult than it sounds. It is estimated that there are currently about 400, 000 Native Hawaiians in the world, with only about half living in Hawaii. And of those, it seems at least some will decline participation based on their opposition to the bill. They may cite the same reasons stated by Fyfe and Souza, or may not side with either supporters or opponents of the bill, as some Native Hawaiians see the bill – and its call for a commission – as divisive to the multicultural society living in Hawaii today. So although Native Hawaiians have finally received official recognition as the only indigenous people of Hawaii, the celebration may quickly be clouded by the controversy that is at the heart of the issue, and the bill’s inability to satisfy the diverse interests and aims of the people –native and otherwise – of Hawaii.