Testimony of Congresswoman Hirono


Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Hastings, and members of the Committee:

Thank you for this opportunity to testify today on H.R. 2314, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, which provides a measure of justice for the indigenous, native people of the Hawaiian islands.

I would like to begin by wishing all of you a happy Kamehameha Day. Today is a state holiday in Hawaii, where we celebrate King Kamehameha I, who united all of the Hawaiian islands and established the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1810. It is for his people, the Native Hawaiians, that H.R. 2314 seeks to end years of injustice and provide a path to self-determination.

The Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown in 1893. Hawaii ‘s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, was deposed by an armed group of businessmen and sugar planters, who were American by birth or heritage, with the support of U.S. troops. The Queen agreed to relinquish her throne, under protest, to avoid bloodshed. She believed the United States, with which Hawaii had diplomatic relations, would restore her to the throne. It is important to note that the sovereign nation of Hawaii had treaties with other nations, including the United States, including: Great Britain , France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia. As we now know, despite the objections of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, the injustice of the overthrow of an independent nation was allowed to stand, and the Republic of Hawaii was established.

In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii. Prior to annexation, a petition drive organized by Native Hawaiians secured signatures of almost two-thirds of the Native Hawaiian population opposing annexation. The total was 29,000 signatures out of an estimated Native Hawaiian population of 40,000. These historical documents are now a part of our National Archives.

Native Hawaiian culture was under siege. The Republic of Hawaii prohibited the use of the Hawaiian language in schools. Everyday use of the Hawaiian language diminished greatly, and it was in danger of dying out. Hula dancing, which had been suppressed by the missionaries and then restored by King Kalaukaua, who preceded Queen Liluokalani, survived but did not flourish. Hawaiians were pressured to assimilate and much of their vibrant culture was lost.

In 1903, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole was elected to serve as Hawaii’s delegate to Congress. One of his most notable achievements was the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, which set aside some 200,000 acres of land for Native Hawaiians. The reason for the legislation was the landless status of so many Native Hawaiians, who were displaced by newcomers to the islands and became the most disadvantaged population in their native land. Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which is still in force, in recognition of its trust responsibility toward Native Hawaiians.

Hawaii became a state in 1959. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Native Hawaiian cultural rediscovery began in music, hula, language, and other aspects of the culture. This cultural renaissance was inspired by hula masters or kumu hula, who helped bring back ancient and traditional hula; musicians and vocalists, who brought back traditional music and sang in the Hawaiian language; and political leaders, who sought to protect Hawaii’s sacred places and natural beauty.

This flourishing of Hawaiian culture was not met with fear in Hawaii, but with joy and celebration and an increased connection with each other. People of all ethnicities in Hawaii respect and honor the Native Hawaiian culture. We are not threatened by the idea of self-determination by Native Hawaiians.

In 1978, Hawaii convened a constitutional convention that was designed, in part, to right some of the wrongs done to Native Hawaiians by proposing changes to the state constitution. The constitutional convention created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs or OHA so that Native Hawaiians would have some ability to manage their own affairs on behalf of Native Hawaiians. The people of Hawaii ratified the creation of OHA in the state constitution and voted to allow the trustees of OHA to be elected solely by Native Hawaiians.

The provision relating to the election of OHA trustees was challenged in Rice v. Cayetano all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in 1999. I attended the hearing at the Supreme Court while I was serving as Hawaii’s Lieutenant Governor. The Court ruled that the State of Hawaii could not limit the right to vote in a state election to Native Hawaiians. This decision does not stand for the proposition that Native Hawaiians are non-indigenous people.

The 1978 Constitutional Convention, or ConCon as it is known in Hawaii, also laid the ground work for the return of some federal lands to Native Hawaiians, including the island of Kahoolawe, which is currently held in trust for a future Native Hawaiian governing entity. The ConCon also designated the Hawaiian language along with English as the official state languages of Hawaii for the first time since the overthrow in 1893.

I was in the Hawaii State Legislature when we approved creation of Hawaiian language immersion schools, recognizing that language is an integral part of a culture and people. The Hawaiian language was in danger of disappearing. Public Hawaiian language preschools, called Punana Leo, were started in 1984. We now have Hawaiian language elementary, middle, and high schools in Hawaii, and a new generation of fluent Hawaiian language speakers are helping to keep this beautiful and culturally important language alive. Other native peoples are looking to the Hawaii model as a means of preserving and perpetuating their native languages.

I believe how we treat our native indigenous people reflects our values and who we are as a country. Clearly, there is much in the history of our interactions with the native people of what is now the United States that makes us less than proud. But one of the great attributes of America has always been the ability to look objectively at our history, learn from it, and when possible, to make amends.

H.R. 2314 is supported by the great majority of Hawaii’s residents, by its Republican governor, by our State Legislature, and by dozens of organizations. In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 505, an earlier version of the bill, by a vote of 261 to 153. This was the second time the House had recognized the need for Native Hawaiian self-determination.

The State of Hawaii motto, which was also the motto of the Kingdom of Hawaii, is “Ua mau ke ea 0 ka aina i ka pono,” which translates to “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Native Hawaiians, like American Indians and Alaska Natives, have an inherent sovereignty based on their status as indigenous, native people. I urge your support ofH.R. 2314.

Mahalo nui loa (thank you very much).


2 comments for “Testimony of Congresswoman Hirono

  1. admin
    June 11, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Native Hawaiian bill gets new airing
    Thu Jun 11, 1:52 pm ET
    WASHINGTON – Granting Native Hawaiians the chance to form their own government, like those established by many of the nation’s 562 American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives, would break new ground and eventually be ruled unconstitutional, critics of the proposal said Thursday.
    Hawaii’s congressional delegation has fought for much of the past decade for a bill that would allow for the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian government and federal recognition of that government. Their prospects for success have never looked better with President Barack Obama saying he supports the measure, which a House panel reviewed Thursday morning.
    Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said legal precedent “cast a larger shadow than ever before on the doubtful proposition that Congress can and should extend recognition to a governing entity for Native Hawaiians.”
    Also, Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that granting ethnic Hawaiians tribal status for purposes of forming their own government would be comparable to letting Chicanos in the Southwest or Cajuns in Louisiana gain that same recognition.
    Supporters of the bill, including members of the state’s Congressional delegation, argued that a long line of legal cases have granted indigenous populations a special recognition and relationship with the U.S. They said that Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous group of people in the country without their own governing entity.
    “We’ve never viewed this as a race-based issue,” said Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, stressing that lawmakers from both parties in Hawaii support the measure.
    The legislation allowing for a Native Hawaiian government passed the House on two occasions, including most recently in October 2007, but it routinely has stumbled in the Senate. The Bush administration opposed the bill. Obama’s support has changed the political dynamic, however, and some supporters say they believe the bill can be passed before the year’s end.
    The bill would not automatically establish a Native Hawaiian government. Rather, it would provide a roadmap for how Native Hawaiians could organize such a government. Once established, the new government would negotiate with the state and the federal government over which assets the new government would own. Currently, the state administers 1.2 million acres of former monarchy land, and some of that land could revert to the new Native Hawaiian government.
    Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said it would allow Native Hawaiians a chance to manage land and assets as they see fit.
    “When the land wasn’t worth anything and there was no money, nobody cared,” Abercrombie said. “Now that the land is worth a considerable amount of money, now all of a sudden, everybody is interested.”
    In 2006, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended against passage of comparable legislation. The commission said it opposed any bill that would “discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege.”
    But Michael Yaki, a member of that commission, said little work went into the recommendation and that Congress should ignore it.
    He said a resolution apologizing for the U.S. government’s role in the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 also were never part of the commission’s review. In the end, he said that warnings of race-based government is spread simply to instill unwarranted fear and opposition to the bill.
    Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V., and the committee’s chairman, called the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893 a dark chapter in U.S. history.
    “I can assure you that the committee will continue to press forward with re-establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the Native Hawaiians,” he said.

  2. admin
    June 12, 2009 at 4:06 am

    New interactive chart on the structure of the Akaka Bill

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