Love. Courage. Care. Empathy. Collegiality. Dignity. Respect. Humility. Kindness. Grace. Compassion. Warmth. Aloha.
These are just some of the words Hawaii officials are using this morning to describe former U.S. Senator Daniel Akaka, D–Hawaii, who died this morning at the age of 93. The first Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate, Akaka was a schoolteacher and administrator who went one to spend more than three decades in public service.
“Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka embodied the Aloha Spirit,” U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, who succeeded him following his 2012 retirement, said this morning. “He dedicated his life to serving the people of Hawaii as an educator, and in the U.S. Army, state government, the U.S. House, and the U.S. Senate. In Congress, Senator Akaka’s care, empathy, and collegiality served as an example for us all. It’s an honor to sit at his desk in the Senate chamber, and we continue his work to improve the lives of veterans and the Native Hawaiian community. My thoughts are with Millie and the Akaka ohana in this difficult time. As he so often said, mahalo nui loa, my friend.”
Most famous for his Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act (the “Akaka Bill”) which he first submitted in 2000, the bill recognized Native Hawaiians and officially granted them the authority to form their own government. But the bill never became law–racists on the right hated it because it assisted people who weren’t white while many Native Hawaiians themselves opposed it because they felt the U.S. government, which stole Hawaii in the 19th century, was in no authority to convey any sort of legitimacy on the Native Hawaiian people.
“This bill basically makes the Hawaiian people wards of the federal government through the Department of the Interior [DOI], similar to the Native American Indians,” activist Dennis “Bumpy” Pu‘uhonua Kanahele told MauiTime back in this 2005 story. “The bill is also missing the infrastructure to provide the badly needed services to improve the lives of Native Hawaiians. The bill does not set up a sovereign state; instead it sets up a committee to elect a group of people. Then this group has to negotiate with the federal government to be recognized, to have land, to have rights. This is not self-determination. This bill does not immediately address the issues we have.”
Indeed, today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser story on Akaka’s legacy couldn’t help but notice that, though loved by most everyone in Washington, the late Senator was often derided for not being particularly effective:
His propensity to avoid the media spotlight led to some notoriety. Congressional Quarterly’s “Politics in America” described him in 1994 as “virtually invisible,” and Time magazine in 2006 ranked him among the five worst senators, describing him as a “master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.”
At the time, many people who knew Akaka thought the Time ranking was subjective and unfair, mistaking his humility and focus on Hawaii for weakness.
Akaka was reliably–but not exclusively–liberal in his voting. Indeed, in 2005 Akaka absurdly voted for oil drilling in Alaska. At the time he claimed it was to assist a tribe of Alaskan natives, but given the far greater number of Indigenous opponents to the drilling, Akaka’s vote accomplished little beyond outraging many progressives throughout Hawaii.
Governor David Ige, who said Akaka “led a life of service and aloha,” has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until sunset on the day of Akaka’s internment.
Photo courtesy US Senate/Wikimedia Commons