Sunday, June 11, 2006

What's the difference between a native Hawaiian and a Native American?

I've thought about this topic a lot given the bill I discussed a couple of posts down. It is a topic I generally don't like discussing much, for reasons I shall not bore anyone with. As I thought about this post, I decided I could take one of two routes. I could write a very detailed post that looks at all of the legalities of the situation, a post which approximately three people would read because of its necessary length, or I could write the ultra-slimmed down version, which leaves the door open for unnecessary debate. I've chosen a mid length compromise between the two (yes, this post could have been much longer).

When the United States finally threw off the yoke of Great Britain and found itself an independent nation, it looked westward and found dual claims to the lands it wished to expand into. For example, the French had claimed the lands that would be purchased in the Louisiana Purchase, and Britain had claim to the land that would become Canada. Despite the land claims, neither nation had a strong rule over the land. Because of that, the various tribes or nations of that land still had what was for all intents and purposes, full sovereignty over the territories in which they lived. These territories had fluid boundaries as the natives of North America had never had their version of the Treaty of Westphalia that had established nation-states in Europe. The way the United States approached this was thus: They would buy or take by military force the land claims of other nation-states. In the Western legal tradition, this was necessary in order for the United States to have its own legitimate claim to the land.

Once the land was claimed as territory of the United States, there was a second level of land ownership/occupation to deal with, that of the Native Americans. Typically, the United States government tried to deal with this by treating the various tribes as if they were Western nation-states. This meant that they purchased land by treaty were they could, and by military force where they could not. By 1912, the contiguous United States had been established from sea to shining sea with 48 states. In 1912, all of the various Native American tribes or "nations" had been placed onto reservations. At that time, it was possible for Native Americans to become U.S. citizens, but their tribes and reservations were in a limbo status. They were within the boundaries of the United States, but their residents were not automatically U.S. citizens. The reservations were treated as if they were wards of the state (i.e. the Federal Government), but not necessarily American.

In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed by Congress. This act gave full citizenship to all Native Americans. It did not change the limbo-like status of the tribes/nations, though. The plan all along had been to slowly assimilate Native Americans into the mainstream of American life, which would allow the tribal governance to slowly disappear. Assimilation, and later extermination, did not occur as naturally as was anticipated, and at times the brutal and/or heartless ways it was imposed actually acted as a roadblock to the process, and generally failed. Neither Congressional Act nor Constitutional Amendment has ever been implemented that has changed the unusual status of the Native American tribes/nations in American society. As such, the tribes/nations of Native Americans still retain a partial sovereignty and certain rights accorded to them via various treaties. These are not "special rights" but rather rights which they retain by treaty (think contract) with the Federal Government of the United States of America. The only ways to change this is to abrogate the treaties and/or to pass a Congressional Act or a Constitutional Amendment which will eliminate this partially sovereign status. This is why there is a limited self governance amongst Native American tribes/nations. From the outside, it looks like a racial preference, but the race portion of it is coincidental to the fact that the United States chose to absorb the various tribes as if they were their own nations.

The native Hawaiians never had this kind of interaction with the United States. Yes, there were Americans that they dealt with on the islands, but they also dealt with many other nationalities that came to the island. The point is that they never really had this official war/treaty relationship with the United States government. When Hawaii voted to become the 50th state, native Hawaiians, unlike Native Americans in the lower 48, were part of that process. By the democratic process, they opted to become a part of the United States. They did not come into the United States as a separate nation without American citizenship. They came in as citizens of a U.S. territory, citizens who were allowed to participate in that territory's process of becoming a state. If they wanted a certain form of self governance, than they should have worked to reject statehood as Puerto Rico has done several times.

This bill could have ultimately been bad for native Hawaiians. They would have found themselves with the same ambiguities that Native Americans face. Perhaps native Hawaiians would have parlayed the status into wealth via something like casino operations, but it pays to remember that it is only a minority of Native American Nations that are reaping the rewards of gaming. For most, life on the reservation is just as poor as it ever has been. If you don't believe, I'll gladly take you through many reservations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota where mansions are not popping up from casino profits. What native Hawaiians would have instead felt was the incredible yoke of the Federal Government on their shoulders. Many see government aid and programs as compassionate things for many of the poorer Native American reservations, and given the poverty they are to a certain degree. But think of how deeply the Federal Government is involved in your life, and then think of how difficult it would be to get ahead if the Feds were twice as involved in your life. Such is life on the reservation, and so to would it be for Native Hawaiians. And in their case, the result would have indeed been "special rights."

No comments: