The warmth and aloha that U.S. Sen. Daniel Kahikina Akaka spread from Hawai‘i to Washington, D.C., flowed back in waves last month upon news he had passed away at age 93.
Akaka’s congressional career spanned nearly four decades, beginning with his election to the U.S. House in 1976. He had the distinction of being the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate when he was appointed by Gov. John Waihe‘e in 1990. He remained the highest-ranking elected official of Hawaiian ancestry until he retired in 2013.
“During his lifetime of service to Hawai‘i, Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka reminded us that the best way to lead in these islands, whether in the 21st century or in the time of our kūpuna, is through the Hawaiian values of ha‘aha‘a (humility), pono and aloha,” said OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado. “As the first and only Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate, he was a tireless champion of Native Hawaiians and our rights as an indigenous people.”
Akaka’s advocacy on behalf of native people throughout the United States gave Hawaiian issues national attention and improved conditions for Native Americans. “He loved his people,” said Jon Osorio, interim dean of the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa’s Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge in a UH release. “He had a deep and abiding aloha for Hawaiians and was legendary for his hospitality to visitors from Hawai‘i to his office in Washington.” Visitors to the senator’s office in Washington often also met his wife of 69 years, Mary Mildred “Millie” Chong.
The senator’s best-known piece of legislation,widely known as the “Akaka Bill,” would have paved the way for federal recognition of Hawaiians but never made it through the Senate. However, Akaka was instrumental in the passage of the 1993 Apology Resolution in which the United States acknowledged and apologized for the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Before retiring from Congress, he also championed the Stand Against Violence and Empower (SAVE) Native Women Act that offers greater protection for women and children living on federally-recognized reservations..
“Danny worked quietly, steadfastly, and effectively – usually behind the scenes – showing respect for even his most stubborn rivals and, in turn, winning their deep admiration.”
—U.S. Vice President Al Gore, One Voice: My Life, Times and Hopes for Hawai‘i
Former President Barack Obama, who was a teenager when Akaka went to Congress, recalled that Akaka was the among the first to welcome him to the Senate. In a statement, he said, “Michelle and I celebrate the life and service of our friend, Senator Daniel Akaka. He was a tireless advocate for working people, veterans, native Hawaiian rights and the people of Hawai‘i.”
As chairman of the Veterans Affairs committee, Akaka was instrumental in increasing health care funding for soldiers returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, expanding education benefits under the G.I. Bill and getting long overdue compensation to Filipino veterans who fought for the United States during World War II. His call for a review of Distinguished Service Cross medals awarded to Asian Americans led to 22 members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team being awarded the prestigious Medal of Honor, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye among them.
Akaka was an educator before he was a politician, at one point teaching music at Kamehameha Schools, recalled his former student, KS Kāpalama study hall supervisor Moana Akana: “He was so ‘olu‘olu and kind to us. He never raised his voice, nor did he scold us. We learned a lot of church songs that he grew up with at Kawaiaha‘o Church and also Hawaiian songs.” Her family also belonged to Kawaiaha‘o Church and Akana recalls that when her parents died on the same day, Akaka reached out with a phone call and attended the burial. “We were so happy and joyful that he took the time to come and comfort my family,” she said.
Last year, Akaka published his memoir One Voice: My Life, Times and Hopes for Hawai‘i, written with Jim Borg. The forward is penned by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Akaka’s 1976 freshman classmate in the U.S. House, who wrote: “In the House, and later in the Senate, Danny worked quietly, steadfastly, and effectively – usually behind the scenes – showing respect for even his most stubborn rivals and, in turn, winning their deep admiration. He didn’t grandstand on the floor, a rare quality in Washington even then, but he kept his word and was willing to compromise to make our country a better place. Danny’s low-key Hawaiian style – soft spoken, humble, unfailingly polite – won him admiration and respect, and stands in stark contrast to the bitter, partisan atmosphere that permeates Capitol Hill today.”
In addition to his wife Millie, the late senator is survived by four sons and one daughter, 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.
“In 2017, Senator Daniel K. Akaka, reflecting back upon his work with and on behalf of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation stated, ‘The NHLC will be there for present and future generations of Hawaiians, and will be like the… ‘a‘ali‘i shrub, which no wind can push over.’ Throughout his life of service, Senator Akaka was the quintessential ‘a‘ali‘i shrub we at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and the Hawaiian community in general counted on for shelter and protection against the strong headwinds we as a people continue to face.”
— Moses Haia, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation
“Senator Akaka was an honorable Hawaiian whose service to Hawai‘i was informed by his strong and abiding faith to which we hold great reverence.”
– Brickwood Galuteria, Hawai‘i State Senate
“Wai‘anae Comprehensive Health center would not have been the health force it is today with out the leadership of Senator Akaka and Inouye,” together they were the best team Hawai‘i has ever had.”
— Tony Guerrero, Chair of Wai‘anae Comprehensive Center
“Senator Akaka strongly believed in the elimination of people needlessly suffering from chronic kidney disease and other related chronic diseases. After his service in public office, he passionately and with great enthusiasm, dedicated much of time to raise awareness and resources because the challenges could no longer be ignored and he wanted to expand the services of the National Kidney Foundation of Hawai‘i so the future generation will not suffer the same fate. His graciousness was a gift to everyone he met.”
— Glen Hayashida, Kidney Foundation of Hawai‘i
“Senator Akaka taught me the importance of respecting people before politics. Whether meeting with a constituent or high-ranking political or military figure, his greeting was always the same.” In his raspy voice, he’d ask ‘Ehhhh, how you? And how’s the family?’ He was always genuinely interested in your response and had an amazing ability to recall names and family ties. He made people feel special, and valued their opinion. Senator Akaka truly embodied what it means to ‘Live Aloha.’ He will be missed, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he inspired.”
— Kekoa Kaluhiwa, former Senior Executive Assistant (1999 – 2010), Currently with Kamehameha Schools