More than four years ago, after two years of interisland discussions, the Hawaii Legislature took action to fix a 100-year-old problem, but the solution stalled on the federal level, leaving the lives of thousands of Native Hawaiians in limbo.

Now there are reasons for hope as Hawaii Congressman Kai Kahele is trying to get the legislation back on track.

Dozens of people submitted testimony in Hawaii in 2017 about the need to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, first enacted by federal law in 1921, to make it possible for more part-Hawaiian children and grandchildren of homeowners to inherit properties that had been in their families for decades.

Many homestead leaseholders expressed concern that the “blood quantum” standards in the law are too tight and exclude the children of people who have married spouses from other ethnic groups.

They spoke from the heart about their fears for their grandchildren’s futures if the law wasn’t changed; some flew to Honolulu at their own expense to make a plea to the Legislature.

Then-state Rep. Lynn Decoite, a third-generation homestead farmer from Molokai, now a state senator, sponsored the legislation on the House side; then-state Sen. Kahele, whose family comes from a fishing village on the Big Island, introduced the measure in the state Senate.

There was little controversy over the bill. In Hawaii, it has long been recognized that the blood quantum limitations, modeled on discriminatory rules imposed a century ago by lawmakers in segregated Washington, D.C., are rigid, unjust and cause problems for romances and family stability in Hawaii, where interracial marriages are common and respected.

In April 2017, state legislators overwhelmingly voted to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which is now administered by a state agency, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The basic criterion to get leasehold property remains the same: Only people who are one-half Hawaiian are eligible to become the primary leaseholder for property through the program. But the amendment allows a change in the law to make it possible for more descendants to inherit homes their families have occupied for decades.

It would do so by loosening the blood quantum rules that currently dictate that heirs need to be at least one-quarter Hawaiian, to instead permit people with as little as 1/32nd Hawaiian blood to inherit as well.

Three months later, Gov. David Ige attended a ceremonial signing of the legislation, Act 80, at Kalamaula, Molokai, where the first eight program pioneers took possession of their homes in 1922. A portrait of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, an heir to the Hawaiian throne who became a popular 10-term U.S. congressman, hung on the wall as the governor symbolically signed the amendment into law.

Gov. David Ige Hawaiian Homes Commission Act homesteaders home lands OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs 2017
Gov. David Ige went to Molokai in 2017 for a ceremonial signing of a bill amending the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. A portrait of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole hangs on the wall to his left. Courtesy: OHA/2017

Prince Kuhio had championed the federal legislation in Washington as a way of improving financial and family stability for native Hawaiians, accepting some terms he found distasteful in exchange for making the program a reality. Kuhio wanted all Hawaiians to be eligible for the land grants and the land to be leased to them for up to 999 years.

Hawaii’s politically powerful sugar planters and some U.S. lawmakers opposed the legislation until its scope was restricted by applying the concept of “blood quantum,” a term used by the U.S. government in determining citizenship within Native American tribes. The lease term was limited to 99 years.

Kuhio saw the measure as essential to preserving Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture from annihilation. Hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians lived in the islands when Capt. James Cook arrived in 1778, but the population began declining almost immediately.

In the decade between 1910 and 1920, the number of pure Hawaiians fell by almost 10%, dropping from 26,000 to 23,700, as a result of disease, starvation and poverty, according to historian Davianna Pomaikai McGregor, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii.

Kuhio sought to set aside some 200,000 acres of land, a small percentage of the state’s land area, most of which was in less desirable areas, to create Hawaiian preserves. He envisioned the homesites including not just single-family dwellings but also small farms and ranches, allowing families to maintain the agricultural lifestyle that was universal before the crush of newcomers arrived in the 1800s and 1900s. He hoped it would help Hawaiians survive.

Stalled In Washington

It was not an easy sell in Washington for Kuhio, who was a non-voting delegate because he represented Hawaii when it was a territory, before Hawaii became a state in 1959.

In congressional testimony in 1923, Californian Rep. Charles Curry recalled Kuhio’s delight upon learning he favored the legislation.

“I recall the committee meeting when this legislation was under consideration, when, past midnight, the project had been under attack, he left his place at the committee table, and standing by my side, his voice aquiver with emotion, his head held high, he spoke of his race, of their valor and their high honor,” Curry said.

“He pleaded that the act might be passed in order that a grave injustice might be rectified even at that late date. I never heard a man speak more sincerely or with greater feeling. When he had concluded his plea the committee was unanimously in favor of the project.”

Kuhio had intended to leave Washington and work in Hawaii establishing the program, but died of heart failure at age 50. The program, eventually operated under DHHL, has had a number of problems over the years, including a long waiting list for housing sites.

But it also has enabled tens of thousands of Hawaiians to establish themselves on the leased properties and to maintain a financial foothold in the islands even as the general cost of housing soars.

Consequently, Kuhio’s name remains revered within the Hawaiian community, with many citing him and his intentions when they testified at the Legislature.

However, the state did not have the final say. Because the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was originally established by federal law, the U.S. Department of the Interior had to approve the change, and the U.S. Congress needed to pass legislation affirming the state action.

But instead of receiving a quick rubber stamp of approval for a program of deep importance in Hawaii, the effort stalled.

Kukana Kama Toth, a Hawaiian Home Lands resident in Waimanalo, worries that her grandchildren might not be able to inherit her home if a measure doesn’t get approved in Washington, D.C. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2021

The Interior Department blamed the problem on a paperwork glitch. In a statement to Civil Beat, the department said officials at the agency, then headed by former President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, sent a list of follow-up questions about the measure to state officials in February 2018 but did not receive an answer.

“We continue to await the State’s response,” according to the Interior Department, now under Biden Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a Native American who refers to herself as a 35th-generation New Mexican.

Asked what state agency received the request, the Interior Department press spokeswoman said that was all she knew about the matter but the agency would conduct the review after receiving the information.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation was equally disengaged, according to Decoite, who sponsored the 2017 state legislation. She called the delegation’s disinterest in pursuing the necessary federal legislation “very sad and very frustrating.”

She said that over the years, the issue was raised repeatedly to the staffs of various members of the congressional delegation, including Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, but they declined to take action on it. Then-Rep. Tulsi Gabbard “said she would look at it, but it went nowhere; it never got introduced,” Decoite said in a phone interview Friday.

“For whatever reason, no one would move on it,” she said.

Families In Limbo

The 39,000 families who lease homes and land through the DHHL program — including approximately 10,000 who have gotten homes and 29,000 on the wait list — have been stuck watching from a distance and wondering when the amendment would take effect. A death in the family before the amendment is finalized could mean that a beloved adult grandchild who is only one-eighth Hawaiian would be unable to inherit.

Robin Puanani Danner of Kauai, who testified in support of the bill in 2017, is on the waiting list for an agricultural homesite in Anahola, which she expects to receive some day. Her children would be able to inherit it when that time comes because they are one-quarter Hawaiian, but her grandchildren are not, something that worries her.

“This is very personal,” said Danner, who chairs the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homesteads Association. “It’s personal for thousands, for tens of thousands.”

It’s also troubling to Kukana Kama-Toth, a teacher and community activist whose family has lived in Waimanalo for generations. She inherited her single-family home in the Waimanalo homelands from her mother, who inherited it from her own parents. She hopes that when she dies, her children, then their children, will be able to inherit from her. Her adult children meet the one-quarter threshold; their children may not.

“We can’t control who we are going to love and who our children are going to love,” she said.

For Hawaiians like Danner and Kama-Toth, there’s recently been a glimmer of good news. Kahele, who was elected to Congress last year, introduced the measure in Washington in July, six months after he was sworn into office. He has called it the Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole Protecting Family Legacies Act, moving through Congress as House Joint Resolution 55. A hearing on the bill was held on Oct. 5.

U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele has introduced a measure in Congress to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

Kahele has gathered 16 co-sponsors, including fellow Hawaii congressman, Rep. Ed Case, who is also a strong proponent of the bill. Kahele, the junior congressman, also has had good success in attracting bipartisan support. Six of his co-sponsors are Republicans, including Reps. David Joyce of Ohio, Doug LaMalfa of California and Tom Cole and Markwayne Mullion, both of Oklahoma.

Rep. Don Young of Alaska, a veteran Republican congressman, said he was pleased to be a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I have been a long-time ally of Hawaii and Native Hawaiians,” Young said in a written statement. “I have worked hard in Congress to support and empower our Alaska Native communities, and they share many of the same goals as Native Hawaiians.”

He added that although changing the successorship qualification from one-fourth to 1/32nd “may seem like a small legislative change,” it would have a big impact on “future generations of Native Hawaiians.”

He said he hoped to get it passed this Congress and pledged to “keep working with the Hawaiian delegation to get it across the finish line.”

Danner, who has been tracking the reform effort for years, said she was delighted that Kahele already had made so much progress.

“We’re thrilled,” she said. “We’re really pleased Kai Kahele introduced this right out of the gate,” an achievement for a man whom she called still “a rookie Congressman.”

Getting It ‘Across The Finish Line’

But nothing in Washington is easy. Kahele needs a companion bill on the Senate side, but his Hawaii colleagues have refused to introduce similar legislation.

In separate statements, Schatz and Hirono said the political environment in Washington is too toxic to make the effort, although they said they remain very supportive of Hawaiian programs generally.

Hirono said that although she supports the state legislation, “there is stiff longstanding partisan opposition by Republicans to supporting Native Hawaiian programs.”

“A standalone bill to provide consent to changes in the HHCA will need 10 Republican Senators’ votes, which they will not provide,” she added.

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that continues to explore disruption and discord in Hawaii, especially as we emerge from a pandemic that exposed new points of contention, and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

Schatz, who chairs the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, similarly thinks trying to fix Hawaii’s blood quantum problem is doomed to failure at this time.

“Since joining the Senate, I have always supported the state’s efforts to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and lower its blood quantum policy so that more Native Hawaiians have the chance to become homesteaders,” he said. “While I strongly support this policy change, I am clear-eyed on the difficult path it faces in the Senate, where Republicans continue to block our efforts through the use of the filibuster. It is a tough reality.”

Decoite finds their positions disappointing. She said she believes it is important to try to do things even if they don’t succeed, and wishes that Schatz and Hirono would work together more effectively with the rest of Hawaii’s delegation to push this measure forward. She would also like to see them try harder to reach across the aisle.

“If you don’t try you won’t know. This is too important to Native Hawaiians,” she said. “I would think this should be on the top of the list for any lawmaker representing Hawaii.”

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