Aloha, 50th State

When affirmative reparations clash with minority rights, maybe it's time to cut the federal cord


What if you had an Indian reservation where at least 70 percent of the residents weren't Native Americans? What if the reservation also supported a $10 billion tourism industry, fed largely by Americans who don't want to travel with a passport?

This, very crudely speaking, is the quandary of Hawaii, the state brought into the union 46 years ago last Friday based on various agreements between its native population and the federal government—agreements that may either soon be declared invalid by federal courts, or entangled further into the national bureaucracy by a complicatedly vague new Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization bill that could reach the Senate floor for a vote as soon as next month.

Paradoxically, the indigenous "sovereignty" movement is being stoked largely by a desire to get out from underneath what are seen as onerous federal restrictions on activities affecting ethnic and national minorities. As this Honolulu Advertiser timeline illustrates, a series of court decisions over the past decade has challenged Native-only Hawaiian policies on education and governance, leading to a series of civil lawsuits. "If these challenges were to succeed," warned the Senate's Committee of Indian Affairs, in its May 2005 report on the sovereignty bill, "those elements of the United States' 1959 compact with the people of Hawai'i intended to benefit Native Hawaiians may be lost."

So not only do activist Hawaiians want to be left alone while pursuing home-grown remedies to historical injustices, they also want to protect the one-sided flow of tax dollars from Washington to Honolulu. This conundrum, complicated further by Hawaii's unmatched mixed-blood population (more than 20 percent of all Hawaiians claimed at least two ethnicities in the 2000 Census), has all the makings of a long-term legal, financial, and governmental nightmare. But it's one that might be circumvented if all interested parties focused instead on the real issue fueling much of the controversy: whether Hawaii really wants to be a full-fledged member of the United States.

Until last week, pro-sovereignty politicians from both parties had been able to talk out of both sides of their mouths without attracting unwanted national attention. But then last Monday, Democratic Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka, chief sponsor of the sovereignty bill, told National Public Radio that the legislation "could" eventually lead to Hawaiian independence. "I'm leaving it up to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren," he said. Even though the senator spent the rest of the week backtracking furiously, his remarks were factually correct, as well as politically attuned to many of his constituents.

Akaka's proposed law would create a new nine-member governing council for Hawaii, initially appointed by the federal government but eventually elected by "the roll" of those judged to be "Native Hawaiians" (via a presumably genetic definition to be determined at a later date by…Native Hawaiians). Within a few years, this new body would become a "native governing entity that would have a government-to-government relationship with the United States," according to the Committee report.

Washington and this new race-based body would then be set to haggle over "the transfer of lands, natural resources, and other assets, and the protection of existing rights related to such lands or resources; the exercise of governmental authority over any transferred lands, natural resources, and other assets, including land use; the exercise of civil and criminal jurisdiction; the delegation of governmental powers and authorities to the Native Hawaiian governing entity by the United States," and on and on. The actual state government of Hawaii—the one elected by all its adult citizens, and not just those with enough native blood—would self-evidently lose power.

Should non-Hawaiians care? I reckon so, and not just because of the distant notion that the sovereignty movement might eventually force travelers to pack a passport. (It is important to emphasize that some Hawaiians who are strongly pro-independence are opposed to the Akaka Bill, because it would delay the inevitable while further entwining Honolulu with Washington.)

There is something decidedly, um, European about the notion of some faraway islands, annexed under dubious imperialistic circumstances (which the U.S. officially apologized for), taking up a star on the American flag in these post-colonial times. If the historical relationship with America is indeed built on a stack of lies and unfulfilled promises, and if separatism is truly a growing phenomenon, is it not a matter of basic democratic morality to ask the islanders point-blank whether they want to remain in the union? If the vote is decisive, it may stave off ever-more elaborate (and costly) arrangements on Capitol Hill.? ?

Non-violent political separation is rarely as traumatic as opponents fear. Czechoslovakia, and an impressive amount of the former Soviet Union, devolved into nation-states without a shot being fired or the various predicted economic catastrophes coming to pass. Washington, it's safe to say, has enough economic clout to ensure that American citizens would not be maltreated by any fledgling new country. And there are no analogous admission histories in the continental U.S. (Hawaii shares more in common with The Philippines than the American Southwest), so even if hell were to freeze over and a decisive majority of, say, California residents wanted to secede, there wouldn't necessarily be any legal precedents created by Hawaiian independence. ?

Until that question is asked, beware every solution coming from Washington. If Hawaiians deserve a right to decide, so too the rest of us should know where they stand before signing off on some complicated new arrangement. Sometimes the simplest solution is the one everyone wants.