Last year, a leading opponent of native Hawaiian entitlements accused me of "unquestioning acceptance of the activists' party line" for an article advocating Hawaiian rights. He said he meant me no personal offense.
In reply, I asked him not to be insulted that I found it greedy and mean-spirited for people such as himself, who have so much, to so zealously covet the few assets of those who have so little.
Alas, he did take offense, and I've heard little from him since.
I remembered the exchange this week as I watched Hawaiians scream at Kamehameha Schools trustees for enrolling a non-Hawaiian student on Maui.
It saddened me to see their anguish over the erosion of yet another of their institutions in the face of relentless legal challenges by my pen pal and others.
Equally distressing is how Hawaiians can so easily unite in anger after each setback, yet can never pull together behind positive efforts to prevent more painful losses in the future.
If this doesn't change soon, expect more tearful scenes like Monday night's meeting at Kamehameha Schools.
Hawaiians never regained their footing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that Hawaiians-only elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs illegally discriminated against non-Hawaiians. The court ruled that Hawaiians are a racial minority, not an indigenous people with special political rights.
As long as Congress refuses to pass the Akaka Bill recognizing Hawaiian indigenous rights, exclusionary programs such as OHA, Hawaiian Homes and Kamehameha Schools remain vulnerable to legal assault.
Yet, more than two years after the Rice ruling, Hawaiians are splintered, with no clear strategy for dealing with the challenge.
OHA and Hawaiian Homes have tried to stall legal attacks on their legitimacy, hoping the Akaka Bill or some other lightning bolt will bail them out.
Kamehameha Schools has been more proactive in trying to protect against charges of discrimination. Besides admitting the non-Hawaiian student, trustees have pursued partnerships with the Department of Education that target areas of high Hawaiian population, but benefit students of all ethnicity.
Hawaiians bristle at diverting even a small share of Kamehameha Schools' assets to non-Hawaiians, but if discriminatory policies cost the school its tax-free status, 40 percent of the income now used to educate Hawaiian children will be lost to federal taxes.
As the stakes have risen, the battle has gone beyond land, entitlements and political rights. Hawaiians are fighting for stewardship of their own culture.
They see their language used against them as adversaries load their assaults with words like "aloha," "kokua" and "imua."
Hawaiians on Maui who tried to shut down a nude beach on cultural grounds had to listen to bare-bottomed haoles lecture them on how ancient Hawaiians "really" felt about public nudity.
Lately, some opponents of Hawaiian entitlements have taken up the argument that the Hawaiian culture belongs to everybody, not just native Hawaiians.
This is an ideal time for Hawaiians to assert their interests. Both parties in this year's election are courting them as a key swing vote. They do so because they know most people in Hawai'i are neither greedy nor mean-spirited. We respect our host culture and want to do the right thing to perpetuate its people and traditions.
Our country has found ways to accommodate the indigenous rights of American Indians and Alaskan natives within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. Surely, reasonable people working together could achieve the same for Hawaiians.
But that can't happen until Hawaiians focus their anger and take the lead by providing a cohesive vision of what they want done.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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