The next time President Obama vacations in his native Hawaii, there could be something new on the island: an Indian tribe.
Two weeks ago, House and Senate committees approved the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act, which would create a separate government for Native Hawaiians. The legislation, better known as the Akaka bill after its sponsor, Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, originally stated that the new government's authority would be decided in negotiations with state and federal authorities.
At the last minute, however, Hawaii Democrats, working with the Justice and Interior departments, amended the bill to establish the Native Hawaiian governing entity as a sovereign Indian tribe.
The move ignited a furor in Honolulu. Gov. Linda Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett, who found out about the changes just hours before the Dec. 16 House vote, promptly reversed their support for the bill, saying the revisions could endanger Hawaii's economic and legal standing. Both officials are Republicans.
"The new bill explicitly states that it gives the state of Hawaii no authority to tax or regulate the new tribe, while ambiguously stating that nothing in the bill will itself pre-empt state authority over Native Hawaiians or their property," said Mr. Bennett in a statement. "Such a provision would guarantee years, if not decades, of litigation."
Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the state's senior Democratic senator, told local reporters in Honolulu last week that differences were being "ironed out" with the governor's office and predicted the Senate would vote on the amended bill in February. But to date, no final deal has been announced.
One problem is that a Native Hawaiian tribe's lands are likely to be far more vast and valuable than those of the average North American tribe on the mainland. Nobody knows exactly how much property would go to the new government — that would be settled in negotiations — but it could be as much as 40 percent of the state's land mass.
That property, known as the "ceded lands," is spread throughout the state, and includes some of Hawaii's prime tourist destinations and military installations, such as Pearl Harbor. The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and Beacon Hill Institute estimate that the Akaka bill would cost the state $689.7 million annually in lost state tax and land-lease revenues, not including the additional cost of setting up the new governing entity.
Supporters argue that Native Hawaiians need their own government in order to address the community's long-standing problems. Surveys show the average income and educational achievement of Native Hawaiians tends to be lower than that of other state residents.
Allowing Native Hawaiians to form an Indian tribe gives them "the exact same rights and protections afforded other native governments in prior federal reorganization legislation," said the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement in a Dec. 15 letter to the House Natural Resources Committee.
"The change … affirms the inherent authority of the Native Hawaiian government and puts it on an equal footing with other Native American governments," said the council.
Whether Native Hawaiians should be viewed in the same way as North American Indians is another topic of debate. Mr. Akaka and others argue that Native Hawaiians, like Indians, are an indigenous and conquered people. Critics say they were never conquered, they've never lived as a separate people, and they participated in the vote to grant Hawaii statehood in 1959.
The bill's foes also argue that the bill would balkanize the state, traditionally a harmonious mix of ethnicities and cultures, and create a race-based spoils system. The bill could also establish a precedent for other groups to try to organize.
"I wonder how long it will be before elements in the Muslim community demand to be separated by race and governed by Shariah law," said Rep. Tom McClintock, California Republican, at the House committee hearing.
At the Dec. 17 Senate Indian Affairs Committee vote, Mr. Akaka downplayed the revisions to the bill, saying the legislation's primary goal remained unchanged.
"While the bill has evolved over the years, it has maintained its true intent: to extend the policy of self-government and self-determination to Native Hawaiians, for the purposes of a federally recognized government-to-government relationship," said Mr. Akaka.
He also said he would be sure to keep the governor and attorney general in the loop in the future. Both of Hawaii's members of Congress, like their Senate counterparts, are Democrats.
The last-minute meddling may have endangered what was once viewed as a legislative slam-dunk. The bill languished for years under President Bush, who had vowed to veto it, but the election of Mr. Obama — who returned from a family holiday vacation to his native state Monday — appeared to remove the final obstacle.
While the bill enjoys the backing of Hawaii's most powerful leaders and institutions, the same can't be said of its popular support. A Zogby International poll commissioned by the Grassroot Institute and released Dec. 15 found that 51 percent of Hawaiians surveyed opposed the bill, while 34 percent supported it.