WASHINGTON — Several members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Nov. 29 offered kind words for departing Chairman Daniel K. Akaka at what could be the final hearing he leads as he nears the end of his 36-year career in Congress.
“You, Mr. Chairman, have been a champion for Native Americans during your distinguished career in Congress,” said Vice Chairman Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “It has been a great honor for me to serve with you as vice chairman on this committee. You have been a great friend and a great teacher to so many of us who have had the great pleasure of working with and serving with you. You have led by example in carrying out our bipartisan tradition.”
Barrasso also noted Akaka’s reference to Native Hawaiian Olympic champion Duke Kanahamoku as being a big kahuna. “In your opening statement, you made reference to the big kahuna. I always thought of YOU as the big kahuna (laughter). You have been a good friend to Indian Country as well. As chairman of this committee, you have brought to the forefront many pressing issues facing Indian Country today. You have generated significant dialogue to build upon for future Congresses.
“The challenges facing Indian Country can sometimes be daunting, yet you so diligently worked to find and advance solutions that improve the lives of Indian people. So I just want you to know that I appreciate all of your work and all of your efforts on these matters.”
“I too want to echo the ranking member’s sentiments,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I have had the honor and privilege of serving on two committees now which you were chair. With you retiring out of the Senate after this session is over with, I just want to say thank you thank you for your advocacy of the veterans across the country on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which you chaired. And thank you very much for your advocacy for Native Americans across this country.
“Your quiet style of leadership I very much appreciate. You really have set the standard, and I want to thank you for it. And thank you for serving as chairman of this committee. I think you have made this committee what it is for the last two years, and I want to thank you for bringing up important issues that impact Indian Country up and down the line.”
“I would like to associate myself with the comments of the vice chairman and Sen. Tester in thanking you for your leadership on this committee and your consistent efforts to support Native people,” said Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). “The only part I don’t want to associate myself with — I never thought you were the big kahuna (laughter) … But I would echo everything else he said about your leadership and your bipartisanship. Even if what I just said didn’t sound bipartisan. Your dedication to American Indians, to Native peoples, is inspiring.”
Franken also noted Akaka’s help for Minnesota tribes. “With your help we were able to resolve a 60-year old issue and now six bands of a Minnesota tribe can access the funds that are rightfully theirs. I want to thank you Mr. Chairman. If ‘big kahuna’ sticks, I’ll go with it (laughter).”
The final hearing was titled “Reclaiming Our Image and Identity for the Next Seven Generations,” and Akaka touched on the theme in his opening statement: “Indian Country is privileged to have countless ambassadors, past and present, and many who are here today, to shine a positive light on Native cultures and identity. As we tell our stories, more people learn about our contributions to government, the military, science, and other fields.”
Akaka’s final day in office is Jan. 2, 2013. He is America’s first senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry and the only Chinese American member of the Senate. First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1976, he was appointed to the Senate when Sen. Spark Matsunaga passed away, subsequently winning election to the office in 1990 and re-election in 1994, 2000 and 2006. He has chosen not to seek another term.