Ka Wai Ola

I join Hawai‘i in mourning the loss of our greatest statesman, a true ambassador of aloha, U.S. Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka, who passed away last month at the age of 93. Senator Akaka was the first and only Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate, and was the living embodiment of our Hawaiian values of ha‘aha‘a, pono, and aloha. We remember him as a tireless champion for Hawai‘i and Native Hawaiians.

Senator Akaka was a remarkable leader who came from humble roots in Pauoa Valley. As a student cadet at the Kamehameha Schools for Boys when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, he was one of 29 students sent to guard the mountains for a month to keep patrol against potential raid by paratroopers and to protect Honolulu’s water supply. From this moment, at just 17 years of age, Dan Akaka began a long and illustrious career in public service to his beloved Hawai‘i and to his nation. He served in the U.S. Army and as a longtime educator in Hawai‘i’s schools, before being elected to serve Hawai‘i in the House of Representatives in 1976. In 1990, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate following the death of Senator Spark Matsunaga.

The importance of being the first Native Hawaiian in the U.S. Senate was never lost on him. In fact, in his first address on the Senate floor, he told his colleagues, “To serve as the first senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry, to be in the highest legislative body of our land and in the world, fills me with enormous pride and profound humility.”

Throughout his career, he fought for Hawai‘i and for the Native Hawaiian people. The culmination of this work was the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act which he first introduced in 1999. Commonly known as the “Akaka Bill,” this bill would have provided parity in a government-to-government relationship between the Native Hawaiian people and the federal government. Political pundits try to call the fact that this legislation never passed a great failure of the Senator’s. I disagree. He succeeded in raising the cause of our lāhui to a national platform and in building a strong legislative record of consistent support. All ensuing legislation for Native Hawaiians introduced at the federal level, and even legislation enacted locally in Hawai‘i, comes on the heels of Senator Akaka’s never-ending commitment to us.

He was a work horse, not a show horse. In a town like Washington, where people are boastful about the tiniest of accomplishments, Senator Akaka worked quietly yet diligently and dutifully. I got to experience this drive firsthand in working with Senator Akaka on federal programs for Native Hawaiians. In all of my interactions with Senator Akaka, he was always humble, forthright, and genuine. You could feel the aloha he had for you just by talking with him. He and his wife, Aunty Millie, brought the Aloha spirit to the halls of Congress.

His retirement in 2013 left behind a great void for our lāhui and for Hawai‘i but his passing leaves an even bigger void. I will forever cherish my interactions with Senator Akaka and the time we spent together. He was truly a one-of-a-kind treasure of Hawai‘i.