WASHINGTON — On a day when most members of Congress were back in their home districts, Olelo Hawaii echoed through the halls of power.

Dozens of Native Hawaiians traveled to Washington to drape lei over the statues of King Kamehameha and Father Damien that stand in the U.S. Capitol building as part of a celebration of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanialaole and his legacy in securing land for his people.

Friday marked the 100th anniversary of President Warren G. Harding signing the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a law pushed through the U.S. Congress by Kuhio when he was just a territorial delegate with no authority to move the legislation.

Hawaii Congressman Ed Case speaks during a press conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

“He did something wondrous without a vote in Congress,” said Mehanaokala Hind, one of a number of cultural practitioners at the Washington ceremony. “We want to honor that civic engagement and diplomacy.”

The Commission Act set aside 200,000 acres of land for Native Hawaiians as a form of reparations for the illegal overthrow of their kingdom in 1893, but it has since become a symbol of the many struggles still faced by the islands’ Indigenous people.

Under the law, individuals who are at least 50% Hawaiian can receive a lease for homestead lands on the islands at a price of $1 a year for 99 years through a program administered by the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Since its enactment, however, only 10,000 homesteads have been developed for Hawaiians while the queue for land has ballooned to nearly 30,000 people. People on the waitlist have died while waiting for a chance to secure a lease.

Kumu hula Mehanaokala Hind participated in a celebration of Prince Kuhio and his work to secure lands for Native Hawaiians. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele, who is the only Native Hawaiian in Congress, addressed these challenges during a press conference in which he lauded Kuhio’s efforts and called for renewed efforts to help Hawaiians obtain homes on their home lands.

“Native Hawaiians are overrepresented among the houseless population in Hawaii, and the high cost of living further threatens to increase this sad statistic,” Kahele said.

“Within the next year, for the first time in history, it is estimated that the number of Native Hawaiians living in Hawaii will fall below the number of Native Hawaiians living elsewhere. This is unacceptable. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act can help narrow the divide for homeownership for Native Hawaiians.”

His message was simple: “We need to do more. We must do more.”

Congressman Ed Case similarly expressed the need to revere Kuhio’s efforts while at the same time addressing the reasons why he sought to secure land for Native Hawaiians in the first place.

Like Kahele, Case said the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act should be recognized as an achievement while at the same time acknowledging the need to fix its shortcomings in the ways it has been implemented.

“As I am with you today, I have so many conflicting thoughts and emotions,” Case said.

“We, of course, are here on hallowed ground. We are on ground that for centuries now has stood for the very best of humanity. And yet we are on ground that would at a bare minimum tolerate the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. We are on a ground that has advocated and advanced equality, opportunity, compassion and justice and yet has seen so much toleration and tragedy towards our country’s Indigenous peoples.”

Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele speaks during a press conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

While Case and Kahele acknowledged the shortcomings of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and, in particular, the struggles to implement it in an effective manner, the congressmen did not provide specific policy proposals that would lead to more Native Hawaiians securing homesteads in a timely fashion.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Case described the conundrum faced by DHHL, which has access to undeveloped land, but not enough money to make it habitable for Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

He said the state has a “fiduciary responsibility” and that the federal government can serve as an oversight entity to make sure it follows through. Congress could also help by providing more money to build more infrastructure on Hawaiian home lands.

“There are remedies,” Case said. “The remedies are primarily at the state level, but the federal government certainly has a role in it.”

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