Hawaii Braces as Obama Talks Apologies for Natives

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.