Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate, leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Wednesday after delivering his farewell speech. Akaka has been in Washington for 36 years, 14 of those in the House and the last 22 years in the Senate. He didn’t seek re-election. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)
HONOLULU — Retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka on Wednesday urged Congress to do all it can for U.S. veterans and their families and made one last appeal to allow for Native Hawaiians to form a federally recognized government, an issue he’s unsuccessfully pushed for years.
In his aloha speech, Akaka, 88, said he was humbled to have left his mark on the U.S. Senate, in which he served for 22 years, after 14 years in the House. Akaka was the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate and is one of the few U.S. Army World War II veterans to still be serving there.
Despite his tenure, he is Hawaii’s junior senator; Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is the Senate’s most senior member, having served for 50 years. In a statement, Inouye, who was hospitalized earlier this week so doctors could monitor his oxygen intake, called Akaka his “friend and partner in Washington for 36 years.” Inouye said he is “sad at the thought of the Senate without him.”
Akaka did not seek re-election this year. His seat will be taken by a fellow Democrat, Rep. Mazie Hirono.
He called his tenure “an incredible journey that I never imagined.”
“My goal was to bring the spirit of aloha to our nation’s capital in everything I do. In Hawaii, we look out for one another, we work together, we treat each other with respect. I hope I succeeded in sharing a little bit of Hawaii with all of you,” he said.
Akaka spoke of his work on veterans’ issues, born of his own experience. He said his life was forever changed by the attack on Pearl Harbor and that he believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. He credited the GI Bill with allowing him and other veterans to build a “successful, new kind of life.”
“And I say with certainty that I would not be standing before you today without the opportunity the GI Bill gave me, not only to get an education but to have structure and a path forward and a feeling that there was a way for me to help people,” he said. “This proved to me that when Congress asks responsibly, it can build a better America.”
While chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he said he dedicated himself to the helping members of the military, veterans and their families, by expanding services and passing a “21st Century” GI Bill. He urged his colleagues and incoming members of Congress to do all they can for veterans and their families.
Akaka also said it was long-overdue for Native Hawaiians to have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government, similar to what American Indian tribes have. For years, Akaka pushed legislation that would allow for this, but was never successful.
“It is our responsibility as a nation to do right by America’s Native people, those who exercised sovereignty on lands that later became part of the United States,” he said. “While we can never change the past, we have the power to change the future.”
He said the federal government “has recognized hundreds of Alaska Native and American Indian communities.
“It is long past time for the Native Hawaiian people to have the same rights, same privilege and same opportunities as every other federally-recognized Native people,” he said.
While he won’t be authoring such a bill in the future, “it will forever bear my highest aspirations and heartfelt commitment to the Native Hawaiian people, the State of Hawaii and the United States of America,” he said.
Akaka said he believes Hawaii has much to teach the nation and Congress. He said in this country and Congress, we are all in the same canoe: paddling together we can go great distances but if we paddle in opposite directions, we will go in circles.
“I urge my colleagues to take this traditional Hawaiian symbol to heart, and put the American people first, by working together,” he said.