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Liliuokalani’s Ghost


The United States Senate is due to vote in Senate Bill 147, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, otherwise known as the Akaka bill, sometime next week. This bill would grant self-rule to native Hawaiians, and extend to them the same recognition, including sovereignty, enjoyed by American Indians.

Over at, my colleagues and I considered adopting an official position to urge a Presidential veto of the Akaka bill. As conservatives, we are against even the appearance of racial preferences on principle; and our fellow travelers on the right, from John Fund to our own readers, almost unanimously oppose it. And yet, upon examination, we found we could not: not because our principles were unsound, but because law and history have established too definitive a precedent.

If we are to understand fully the Akaka Bill, we must understand the history of the American Indian.

The European colonization of the planet from the 16th through the 20th centuries was a good thing inasmuch as the United States of America was among its fruits. Our nation began as a product of the enlightened West perched on the eastern littoral of a continent dominated by the American Indian. This domination was swiftly ended; and in the early decades as settlers and armies moved west, it made some sense to separate the affairs of the United States from the affairs of the Indians. They were culturally and linguistically different, and their social and economic organization conflicted — often bloodily — with those of the Europeanized settlers who advanced into the vast continent. They were treated as sovereignties unto themselves: the Constitution excluded their numbers from the reckoning of House seats, and Congress held the sole power to regulate commerce with them.

So much for the theory. The reality was more complex: the sovereign rights of the Indians were respected only fitfully, and the Indians themselves were not uniformly resistant to the encroachment of Western culture. Notably, the so-called Five Civilized Tribes showed themselves more than willing to meet the whites on the latter’s terms:

[T]he Cherokee underwent the most remarkable adaptation to white culture of any Native American people. By 1817 the clan system of government had been replaced by an elected tribal council. A new capital was established at New Echota in 1825, and a written constitution modeled after that of the United States was added two years later.

Many Cherokee became prosperous farmers with comfortable houses, beautiful cultivated fields, and large herds of livestock. Christian missionaries arrived by invitation, and Sequoia invented an alphabet that gave them a written language and overnight made most of the Cherokee literate. They published a newspaper, established a court system, and built schools. An inventory of Cherokee property in 1826 revealed: 1,560 black slaves. 22,000 cattle, 7,600 horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 2,488 spinning wheels, 172 wagons, 2,942 plows, 10 sawmills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, 8 cotton machines, 18 schools, and 18 ferries. Although the poor Cherokee still lived in simple log cabins, Chief John Ross had a $10,000 house designed by a Philadelphia architect. In fact, many Cherokee were more prosperous and ‘civilized’ than their increasingly envious white neighbors.

The Cherokee were rewarded with the Trail of Tears; and the other four “civilized tribes” also found their bitter ends in Oklahoma.

The rationale for the refusal to accommodate even the conciliatory among the American Indians was simple enough: race, more than economics or culture, drove United States’ Indian policy. In a period where Ashkenazi Jews and peasant Sicilians with understanding of neither English nor Constitutional governance were being welcomed at Ellis Island, Plains Indians fluent in English and with lifelong experience with America and Americans were relentlessly hunted by United States cavalry. This, the era surrounding the turn of the 20th century, was the period of maximum official racism in America, from the Presidency of the deeply racist Woodrow Wilson to the efforts of eugenicists like Virginia’s Walter Ashby Plecker, who sought to eliminate all Indian identity through bureaucratic means.

This is not the place for an in-depth study of the vicissitudes of Indian policy since the closing of the frontier in 1890. Suffice it to say that that policy varied wildly according to the place and era: the American Indians were first confined to reservations with the intent of sealing them off to continue their ways unhindered; then the 1887 Dawes Act was utilized to dismember the reservations and the tribes piecemeal; then the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to “civilize” the Indians with an influx of government agents bent on social engineering; then the Indians were, in 1924, made American citizens and often as not forcibly assimilated on the theory that the tribes were now (again) irrelevant. Official policy since the 1970s has focused upon the principle of self-determination for both tribes and individual Indians: that which should have been done in the first place.

Why is the experience of the American Indian relevant to the Akaka bill? Supporters of the bill state that it is only fair: native Hawaiians will simply receive the same recognition that the Indians do. On one level, the parallels of history are there. The last native Hawaiian government of Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown by American settlers with the connivance of American government officials on the scene; the resultant settler republic was annexed by the United States five years later. This was a pattern of events already well-established in Indian dealings.

But here the parallels become tenuous. Native Hawaiians, unlike Native Americans, were not herded onto reservations and politically marginalized. The first post-annexation elections yielded a pro-Hawaiian Home Rule majority that agitated for redress of Hawaiian grievances for some years. Its decline was due to internal divisions rather than outside pressure. While racism was hardly absent from Hawaiian politics — see, for example, the infamous Massie trial — it was never the factor in native Hawaiian life that it was for American Indians or African Americans. Indeed, while the latter group was still fighting the lynch culture, native Hawaiians were accepted as full members of the Union in 1959.

To look to the Indian example as one to be emulated is therefore, on one level, absurd in the extreme: absurd because the Indians suffered as Hawaiians by the large did not, and because the outcome for Indians even under present policy is still dubious. Since Hawaiians cannot claim significant racial injustice, the proponents of the Akaka bill must — and do — focus upon historical precedent involving land and law. And here they are on more firm ground, not merely because of the circumstances of the eradication of the last Hawaiian kingdom, but also because de facto native Hawaiian reservations already exist. Since the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a series of Hawaiian Home Lands have been designated specifically for native Hawaiian settlement across the islands (see maps here). These are reservations in all but name; and even the US Census Bureau recognizes them as such.

We therefore have a situation with native Hawaiians that parallels that of the Indians in the prior recognition of sovereign nationhood, in the existence of territorial set-asides, and in the nature of entry into American rule. It does not parallel that of the Indians in collective suffering or persecution, but Indian legal status is not predicated upon that. It is predicated on the former conditions, and given that native Hawaiians broadly share them, it becomes impossible to oppose the Akaka bill.

Does this mean the Akaka bill is right? Philosophically, no. But it is a symptom rather than a cause. Conservatives may justly argue for the imposition of a single standard of law and sovereignty over all holders of American citizenship. That is principled and consistent. But to oppose the Akaka bill without doing so is deeply inconsistent. Given that there is no stomach in any political corner for an all-out assault on the centuries-old, Constitutionally-enshrined status of the American Indian, this one is, on the balance, one we ought to let get by.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 6:23 PM | Permalink

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