After speaking before thousands of cheering journalists at the Unity 2008 convention in Chicago July 27, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) answered a question from the audience about the possibility of a federal apology to Native Americans.
Quoted by a Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter attending the convention, Obama said:
There’s no doubt that when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans as well as other persons of color in this country, we’ve got some very sad and difficult things to account for. …
I personally would want to see our tragic history, or the tragic elements of our history, acknowledged. …
I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it’s Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.
Resolutions apologizing to American Indians are now pending committee action in both the House and Senate. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) is a key sponsor of the Senate resolution. Governments in Australia and Canada have both recently apologized to the descendants of their native populations.
The comments by the Democratic presidential hopeful came on the same day the presumptive Republican candidate, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), announced his support for the Arizona Civil Rights Initiative, whose organizers July 3 filed 334,658 signatures to appear on the state’s general election ballot.
The initiative reads: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” It has been tagged in news reports as an initiative which “would outlaw affirmative action.” Similar civil rights initiatives backed by former University of California regent Ward Connerly are law in Michigan, California, and Washington. Others will be on the November 4 ballot in Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma as well as Arizona.
Obama’s remarks drew special attention in Hawaii, where Obama is known by local Democrats as “Hawaii’s third senator.” Just weeks after winning his Illinois Senate seat in 2004, Obama visited Hawaii and met with state Democratic leaders. At the top of their agenda was the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.
Also known as the Akaka Bill, if enacted it would create a Hawaiian tribal government — in spite of the fact that there never has been a Hawaiian tribe. Establishment of a tribe would allow Hawaiians to sidestep any restrictions on race-based benefits. McCain is strongly opposed to the bill.
Obama’s agreement to support the Akaka Bill led to his receiving important early-money support for his presidential campaign from Hawaii Democrats — many of whom had given similarly important early-money support to a little-known Arkansas governor in the early 1990s. Hawaii Democrats closely tied to Kamehameha Schools and former Governor John Waihe`e launched a draft Obama campaign in late 2006.
Waihe`e cronies were central to the Clinton administration’s Asian money scandals. That support lead to President Bill Clinton signing the so-called “Apology Resolution,” public law 103-150, November 23, 1993.
The Apology Resolution was sold as a “simple apology” by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) — as Obama would say, “just words.” Brownback is now using almost identical language to justify his Indian Apology resolution. The Akaka Bill, which is based entirely on the Apology Resolution, is “deeds.”
In practice apologies create obligations which must be paid — “reparations.” And the Hawaii State Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) is funded in part by revenues from state-owned lands. These lands were previously owned by the Hawaiian Kingdom government before it was overthrown in 1893 by the forces which created the Hawaii Republic, which was in turn annexed by the United States in 1898. Negotiations to fix the amount of revenue OHA receives collapsed during the 2008 Hawaii legislative session.
In the midst of the legislative debate on the proposed OHA settlement, the Hawaii State Supreme Court blocked the state from selling or transferring most of its massive land holdings. Its decision was based largely on the 1993 Apology Resolution. State Attorney General Mark Bennett is asking to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hawaii’s writ of certiatori on June 5 drew the support of 29 other state attorneys general.
According to Hawaii’s Supreme Court petition, the issue is “whether this symbolic resolution strips Hawaii of its sovereign authority to sell, exchange, or transfer 1.2 million acres of state land — 29 percent of the total land area of the state and almost all the land owned by the state — unless and until it reaches a political settlement with native Hawaiians about the status of that land.”
Many Indian tribes also have old claims on lands now outside their tribal reservations. But there is a larger question: sovereignty. Some highly sovereign tribal governments have their own president, legislature, judiciary, and police. Crimes — including white-collar crimes — committed on tribal lands must go through tribal courts.
The more “sovereign” a tribe, the less oversight there is from state and federal regulators or law enforcement. The rights and freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution often do not apply to tribal members on the reservation. In an indication of the direction debate would take if the Akaka Bill is passed, OHA provides financial and administrative assistance to numerous “pro-sovereignty” groups whom some researchers indicate are intimidating other native Hawaiians into silence.
There are also campaign contributions. Elaine Willman of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance writes about the roots of the tribe-connected scandals engulfing lobbyist Jack Abramoff:
Indian tribes are governments when in need of federal funds or special preferences, but for the American election process, they are not governments or federal contractors, so revenue from tribal government general funds and casinos are available for unreported, unaccountable, and unlimited influence in local, state, and federal elections.
Until tribal governments are restricted in the same manner as all other American and foreign governments respecting lobbying and elections, it is not enough to just throw out one “baby,” Abramoff; we must also throw out the corrupt “bathtub” that bred and fed him.
But instead of reform, Obama is moving to create more, larger, and wealthier tribes involved in activities far beyond mere gaming. If Hawaiians can become a tribe without having ever been a tribe in the past, the precedent will be created for tribes to be created for almost any group so inclined.
Contrary to popular opinion, Indian reservations have a history in Hawaii. An Oct. 12, 1999, article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin describes the efforts of Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate (KSBE) trustees in 1995 to evade oversight of their corrupt doings. The trustees’ self-serving investments caused losses of over $264 million in 1994 alone.
In hopes of shielding themselves from scrutiny, they paid Washington, DC-based law firm Verner Liipfert, whose Honolulu office was headed by former Governor John Waihe`e, to look into moving KSBE corporate headquarters out of Hawaii. After evaluating all of the other 49 states, Waihe`e’s firm proposed a move to the desolate Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota. Of all the reservations, Cheyenne River is the most highly “sovereign.”
Set up under terms of the 19th-century will of Hawaiian Princess Beatrice Pauahi Bishop, KSBE is a private trust intended to support the private K-12 Kamehameha School. KSBE is also Hawaii’s largest private landowner, with holdings currently valued at about $9 billion.
As the “Broken Trust” scandal broke, the trustees were raking in about $1 million per year in salaries, but their greed did not end there. Leading estate attorney Alexander A. Bove describes Broken Trust as follows: “the true story of a multi-billion-dollar charitable trust established by a Hawaiian princess and looted by its trustees — [it has] all the ingredients of a promising morality tale. For years, terrible wrongs were done: trustees, lawyers, and even justices of the Hawaiian Supreme Court openly committed unethical, underhanded, and often illegal acts.”
The KSBE trustees’ efforts to relocate to a reservation are also described in The Cheating of America by Charles Lewis and Bill Allison. Lewis and Allison quote former Hawaii Attorney General Margery Bronster explaining KSBE’s actions: “Their main motivation was to avoid oversight from the state attorney general and the IRS.”
KSBE was completely intertwined with the state government. Trustees were appointed by the State Supreme Court until the scandal broke. KSBE funds were used to back candidates and control the legislative process. When news of the KSBE scandals began breaking, both the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin had difficulty finding reporters who were not afraid to cover the story.
KSBE was, for a while, able to buy a state, but it was not able to buy the IRS. In December 1999, the IRS threatened to yank KSBE’s non-profit status, finally forcing the resignation of the five KSBE trustees.
Eight months later, the first version of the Akaka Bill was introduced before Congress, sponsored in the House by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), who had been years earlier a close college friend of Barack Obama’s biological father.
Unable to move to a reservation, the trustees and their political backers are trying to create a reservation around themselves. If an apology is issued by Congress to American Indians, “Broken Trust” will only be the first of many attempts to shield illegal activities behind tribal law.