WASHINGTON - A new administration has brought a change of view about the legality of Native Hawaiians establishing their own government.
During the past decade, members of Hawaii's congressional delegation have worked to pass legislation allowing for the reorganizing of a Native Hawaiian government that was overthrown in 1893. Their legislation, also known as the Akaka Bill, sets up a process for that reorganization and would allow Native Hawaiians to be treated on par with Alaska natives and more than 560 American Indian tribes.
Sam Hirsch, deputy associate attorney general for the Justice Department, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday that the department ''strongly supports the core policy goals'' of a bill allowing for self-governance by Native Hawaiians.
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.
Prospects for the legislation seem better than ever now that Democratic lawmakers have strengthened their majority in Congress and President Barack Obama has voiced his support.
That's a marked shift from the Bush administration's viewpoint. Two years ago, the White House threatened to veto a comparable bill, saying it would ''formally divide sovereign United States power along suspect lines of race and ethnicity.''
Hirsch took issue with some of the key issues raised by the Bush administration, which cited court rulings stating the ''history of indigenous Hawaiians . . . is fundamentally different from that of indigenous groups and federally recognized Indian Tribes in the continental United States.''
Hirsch said Native Hawaiians have much in common with Indian tribes. Congress recognized that similarity when it set aside lands expressly for their benefit. He noted that Native Hawaiians exercised self-rule prior to the arrival of Western explorers, and have collectively worked to preserve traditional culture just as Indian tribes have.
Hirsch also said no court has squarely answered the question of whether Congress has the authority to treat Native Hawaiians in the same manner as members of an Indian tribe.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held that chamber's first hearing of the year on legislation establishing a Native Hawaiian government, though Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, noted that it was the 10th time the committee had met to consider the issue.
The hearing was for informational purposes only, and no vote occurred.
The legislation is commonly referred to as the Akaka Bill because of his sponsorship.
''The United States has not always acted honorably in its treatment of our nation's first people,'' Akaka said. ''However, I am proud that as a country we have pursued actions acknowledging past wrongs and building a mutual path forward.''
Stuart Benjamin, a professor at Duke Law School, told the committee that the bill would test the minimum requirements for what constitutes an Indian tribe. ''No tribe has ever had the paucity of connections that exist among Native Hawaiians,'' he said in his written testimony.
Benjamin said that limiting the organizers of the new government to Native Hawaiians who are state residents would prevent people connected to Hawaii only through an ancestor from participating in the reorganization effort.