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Daniel Akaka (1924–2018), first Native Hawaiian elected to Congress

by Linnea Crowther

Daniel Akaka, the first U.S. senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry, died Friday, April 6, 2018 after a long illness. He was 93.

Akaka, a Democrat, became the first — and, to date, only — Native Hawaiian U.S. senator when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1990 by Gov. John Waihee, replacing Sen. Spark Matsunaga upon his death. In an election later that year, the voters chose Akaka to continue in the position. Akaka went on to win the elections in 1994, 2000 and 2006 with a strong lead each time.

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Akaka’s performance as a U.S. senator was both praised and maligned. He was called “an enormous champion … for his people” by Sen. Al Franken, while Sen. Frank Lautenberg praised “… the wonderful character of this man.” Hawaii News Now pointed out the work he did on behalf of the Native Hawaiian population and called him “a gentleman, a patriot, and a true statesman of aloha.” 

Yet when Time magazine presented a 2006 roundup of best and worst senators, they put Akaka on the “worst” list, calling him “a master of the minor resolution and the bill that dies in committee.” They cited the many small resolutions and bills Akaka sponsored. Still, they maintained personal admiration for the senator, leading the article with the praise, “By all accounts, Daniel Akaka is an affectionate and earnest man.” 

Akaka’s legacy may not have been one of sweeping change, but he was far from a do-nothing senator. He served on committees including the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and the Committee on Veterans Affairs. As chairman of the latter committee, Akaka strove to provide better health care and benefits for veterans, and he was particularly devoted to ensuring that the U.S. recognized the contributions of Japanese-American veterans. 

The bill that could have been Akaka’s legacy met opposition time and again when introduced in Congress. The Akaka Bill sought the federal recognition of Native Hawaiians, similar to Native American tribes. Though the bill’s supporters included President Barack Obama, the American Bar Association and Hawaii’s state legislature, it also met strong opposition. Many opponents voiced concern that it was racially motivated, as it only made provisions for those of proven Native Hawaiian ancestry. Both supporters and opponents saw an opening to Hawaiian independence in the bill, a potential result that met with mixed support. 

Among Akaka’s other positions while in the Senate was a vote against the Iraq War, part of a long-held belief that the war was misguided. An initial supporter of the USA Patriot Act, he later voted against extending the act amid concern that it would open Americans up to electronic surveillance. Akaka also wished to advance financial literacy for young people, and he worked toward the expansion of Hawaii’s national parks. 

Akaka’s path to the Senate was paved by a background in education. Born Sept. 11, 1924, Akaka served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II before earning degrees in education from the University of Hawaii. He began teaching high school, later becoming vice principal and then principal of his school. His educational leadership experience led to placement in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1969, the first of several government jobs Akaka held. 

It was in 1976 that he was first elected to public office, representing Hawaii’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served in the House until his 1990 appointment to the Senate. After 22 years in the Senate, Akaka chose not to run for re-election in 2012 and served his final day Dec. 12, 2012. In a farewell speech to his fellow senators, Akaka evoked his Native Hawaiian ancestry with his closing, “a hui hou” (until we meet again). 

Akaka is survived by his wife, Millie, and their five children.

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