Their kingdom long ago overthrown, Native Hawaiians seeking redress are closer than they've ever been to reclaiming a piece of Hawaii.
Native Hawaiians are the last remaining indigenous group in the United States that hasn't been allowed to establish their own government, a right already extended to Alaska Natives and 564 Native American tribes.
With a final vote pending in the U.S. Senate and Hawaii-born President Barack Obama on their side, the nation's 400,000 Native Hawaiians could earn federal recognition as soon as this month — and the land, money and power that comes with it. They measure passed the U.S. House last month.
Many Native Hawaiians believe this process could help right the wrongs perpetuated since their kingdom was overthrown in 1893. The also point to the hundreds of thousands who died from diseases spread by foreign explorers before the kingdom fell.
Native Hawaiians never fully assimilated after the first Europeans arrived in 1778: They earn less money, live shorter lives, get sent to prison more often and are more likely to end up homeless than other ethnicities, said Clyde Namuo, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state-funded agency founded to improve the conditions of Native Hawaiians.
"It's about correcting the injustice," Namuo said. "When you look very closely at the numbers — prison, health, wealth, education — we are not at the level that our colonizers are at."
However, just what Native Hawaiians would receive if the federal recognition measure passes Congress is uncertain. The bill sets up negotiations between a new Native Hawaiian government, the state of Hawaii and the federal government, but it doesn't specify what resources Native Hawaiians would receive.
Namuo said he hopes the lives of Native Hawaiians would be improved if they had more control of their own destiny.
A disproportionate share of Native Hawaiians find themselves homeless, huddled beneath plastic tarps in beach camps or living in shelters. Native Hawaiians make up 28 percent of the state's homeless who received outreach services, while accounting for about 20 percent of the population, according to last year's report by the University of Hawaii Center on the Family.
"It's been far too long for the Hawaiian people to be suffering," said Bert Beaman, a Hawaiian who lives at Keaau Beach Park. "Whatever Hawaiians can get, get it and be grateful."
Opponents of the legislation say it would give Native Hawaiians special treatment at the expense of other taxpayers. One study commissioned by a group opposed to a Native Hawaiian government predicted it would cost $343 million a year in lost tax revenue if 25 percent of the state's lands were transferred.
"It is not the role of government to try and make up for past wrongs," said Jamie Story, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, which promotes free markets and small government.
Supporters view the proposal as a way to provide reconciliation to the Hawaiian people that was urged in the 1993 Apology Resolution, in which Congress acknowledged the United States' role in the Hawaiian Kingdom's overthrow 100 years earlier.
They hope Native Hawaiians could eventually get greater access to affordable housing, their own culturally focused education system, health centers and full-time jobs that would include teaching hula or Hawaiian language if the bill passes.
"Things would get better for Hawaiians," said Jade Danner, vice president of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. "When Native Hawaiians are truly empowered to make their own decisions, it's not that we'll make better decisions than anybody else. It's that we know our communities and we know what will work."
Others are skeptical, including some of the homeless, who wonder whether any of these changes would help them.
"I don't think it's going to be enough. Even if we get money, the homeless still need more help after living on the beach for so long," said Alice Greenwood, who lives in transitional housing.
The amount of money and land at stake could be substantial.
About $338 million is held in trust for Native Hawaiians by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. In addition, University of Hawaii law professor Jon Van Dyke, who wrote "Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawaii?", said a Hawaiian government should receive about 1 million acres — about 20 percent of the state's land mass that was once monarchy property.
How the trust money and land would be used is a big question, said Kaulana Park, chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which provides housing to Native Hawaiians on former kingdom lands.
"Where that goes nobody knows, whether it's housing, economic development or health," Park said. "The first hurdle is to get it passed."
A majority of Native Hawaiians favor this process of federal recognition, Namuo said. But it is opposed by pro-independence groups who want the Hawaiian kingdom restored.
About 109,000 Native Hawaiians have registered for Kau Inoa, a signature drive run by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to establish a list of voters who would be eligible for elections associated with a Native Hawaiian government entity.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the legislation could reach the Senate floor this month, but because of other national priorities, Akaka's goal is to get the vote by August.
"This is the moment of truth," said Van Dyke. "I'm optimistic that we're going to see it passed, and then it will be exciting to see what happens," Van Dyke said.
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