His dream of giving Hawaiians self-sufficiency through land ownership became law but implementation has stumbled for a century.

As a troubling economic recession deepened in Hawaii in 1914, throwing hundreds out of work and amid looming food shortages, Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress, invited a large gathering to his home in Honolulu to look for ways to help the Hawaiian people.

This fateful gathering, according to historian Davianna Pomaika McGregor, led to Kuhio’s most significant, and more than 100 years later, still his most controversial achievement. It was the creation of the Hawaiian Home Lands Program, which was designed to provide open and airy homesteads to Hawaiians who had been dispossessed by waves of change and the U.S. annexation of the Hawaiian Islands in 1898.

It allows people who are at least one-half Hawaiian to own homes on land they lease for a 99-year term for $1 a year. They need to buy or build their own houses on the sites, which can be a steep hurdle for many, but it also substantially subsidizes the cost of home ownership in a state where even moderate-income people are locked out of the market altogether.

Big Island Kohala DHHL Hawaiian Homelands Lalamilo Roads Mauka
The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has a mandate to house Hawaiians but the program has long been underfunded. (Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civli Beat/2022)

The Homelands program has benefited tens of thousands of people, but its reputation has been blackened by decades of bureaucratic mismanagement that has left three times as many others dangling in limbo, forlornly awaiting their turn. Many eligible claimants have died while politicians squabbled over how best to implement a workable program. The program today is being used in many ways Kuhio did not envision, including leasing commercial space and for apartment rental assistance.

Just last week, state officials clashed over the nomination of a new director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, with former City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson, a Native Hawaiian, forced to withdraw his name from consideration for the post. This occurred amid speculation over whether the newly elected governor, Josh Green, is planning to try to redirect spending on $600 million of new construction money the state is turning over to DHHL.

The $600 million isn’t just government largesse. The Legislature’s appropriation reflects a recognition that the DHHL program has been underfunded and that many people with claims to homestead lands were treated unfairly.

Over the years, many Hawaiians said their claims for homestead lands, containing intimate genealogical information, had been mishandled or lost outright by the state government. In 1999, a group of them filed a breach-of trust lawsuit against the state on behalf of more than 2,700 claimants. The state fought the lawsuit but after a series of court rulings in favor of the plaintiffs, last year it reached an agreement to pay $328 million to settle claims for the losses families suffered.

One of the claimants has been waiting for a homestead for more than five decades. “Aunty” Liberta Hussey Albao, a resident of Kauai, first made a claim for a homestead 51 years ago, when her daughter was 6 months old.

“It’s been a struggle,” she said, noting that 1,100 of the claimants died during the 23 years the case was fought in the courts. “It’s not right.”

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On the other hand, and what makes the situation more poignant, others have benefited from the program during those same years and found their lives changed for the better.

Lori Kuuiponoheaokahalelaulani Nordlum, 79, has received good news about a homestead twice in her life. Her mother was a statuesque Native Hawaiian from Maui and her father was an optimistic Filipino who was 4 feet, 11 inches. They fell in love and started their married life living in a boarding house in downtown Honolulu, but in 1947, when Nordlum was a child, they qualified for a two-bedroom homestead in Nanakuli. The family came to include eight children, who grew up swimming at the beach, playing football with the neighbor kids and singing Hawaiian-language hymns in the evenings.

Her parents eventually left the house to their son, Nordlum’s brother, but after she got married and was living in Honolulu, her husband suggested that she apply for a homestead lot herself. She was eligible because she was half-Hawaiian, he reminded her.

She hesitated.

“I think it should go to poor Hawaiians, old Hawaiians; I can rent,” she recalled saying, adding that he persuaded her to apply anyway, just to see what would happen.

Within five years, they moved into a home in Princess Kahanu Estates in Nanakuli where she has lived for 29 years, amid a carefully tended garden and in a house full of Hawaiian memorabilia. Now widowed, her walls are covered with pictures of her extended family and memories of many happy times in the past.

Lori Nordlum, a Hawaiian Homesteads beneficiary, relaxes in the backyard at her home in Princess Kahanu Estates in Nanakuli. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“I’m so thankful for my life,” she said.

The series of events that brought Nordlum to Nanakuli, and that took Hussey Albao to the courthouse steps, started at that consequential gathering in Waikiki in 1914.

Some 200 Native Hawaiians converged at Kuhio’s estate, Pualeilani, close to the site of today’s Kuhio Beach Park, to establish a new group they called the Hawaiian Protective Association, McGregor has recounted. Their goal was to help steer the Hawaiian people, who were dwindling in number and low in spirits, many living in squalid urban tenements in Honolulu, and try to find ways to revitalize the culture and give people hope.

The members of the new group engaged in community outreach, set up an information exchange, started a Hawaiian-language newspaper and eventually came up with a concrete plan. Some 200,000 acres of former Crown lands that had been commercially leased to ranches and plantations were scheduled to revert to the government starting in 1918, as their leases ended. They reasoned that these were Hawaiian national lands that could be channeled instead to Hawaiian people to homestead, reestablishing themselves in rural, outdoors locations that would permit some traditional subsistence farming or ranching.

In 1914, some 200 Native Hawaiians converged at Kuhio’s estate, Pualeilani, close to the site of today’s Kuhio Beach Park, to establish a new group they called the Hawaiian Protective Association. (Courtesy: Hawai Digital Archive)

“The only method in which to rehabilitate the race was to place them back upon the soil,” Kuhio wrote, according to McGregor.

This was particularly welcome because it happened at a time of great financial stress in the islands.

The Democrats had come into power in Washington. They had faith in free markets, believing that lower prices for imported goods would save consumers money. Republicans at that time were more interested in protecting American industry and jobs, and they had enacted tariffs that gave an economic advantage to producers of American products, including sugar. Once the Democrats were elected, they enacted the Tariff Act of 1913, which cut the tariff protections for sugar, Hawaii’s dominant crop.

These changes had only modest effects on the U.S. mainland, but Hawaii took a serious hit because other countries could produce sugar more cheaply than in the islands.

By 1914, in Hilo, for example, joblessness was rampant.

“For the first time since my residence in Hawaii, covering 15 years, we have a large surplus of unemployed labor — men anxious for an opportunity to work for bread,” wrote Delbert Metzer, president of the Hilo Board of Trade, to Kuhio’s legislative aide, John Desha. “The plantations, the railroads and many other concerns were retrenching expenses and letting out men and nowadays the shores of the sea swarm with men and women of all nationalities fishing, day and night, and I frequently find Filipinos out on the lava, gathering and eating guavas.”

Meanwhile, the federal government also sought to protect the U.S. shipping industry by making it harder for foreign ships to carry cargo in and out of Hawaii’s ports, which made transportation to and from Hawaii more difficult.

And then World War I came. The Germans developed terrifyingly lethal submarines and within a few years had destroyed 30% of the world’s merchant shipping fleet. Americans didn’t want to get drawn into the war, but when the SS Aztec was torpedoed and sunk, with five Hawaiian sailors dying in the attack, Hawaii was inevitably affected. Then the United States declared war on April 4, 1917, and eventually, some 10,000 people from Hawaii joined the fight, many of them eager volunteers.

The war brought additional hardship and food shortages to Hawaii. The U.S. government commandeered many of the remaining available vessels to transport goods and troops to Europe, which meant that some of the remaining ships that served Hawaii, both importing and exporting food and goods, stopped coming to the islands.

“We are virtually marooned,” Kuhio told his fellow lawmakers.

Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole wanted Hawaiians to have access to their land and established the Hawaiian Home Lands Commission. (Courtesy: Hawai Digital Archive)

It took Kuhio, a federal elected official, two full months to find a berth on a ship that would transport him to the West Coast, to travel to Washington, D.C. for an extra session of Congress. Finally a ship captain allowed him to sleep in a bunk attached to the chart room for the transit to the West Coast, “a concession,” Kuhio said, “for which I was truly grateful,” according to documents at the Hawaii State Archives.

The economic downturn became a particular crisis for Hawaiians, who were sick and malnourished, forced into a cash economy and living in unsanitary tenements. With white people monopolizing the richest farm lands, Chinese controlling the poi mills and Japanese dominating fishing, all the key sources of Hawaiian foods were becoming too expensive to afford. Fish and poi prices doubled, according to McGregor.

People who controlled these food sources raised their prices but local officials, constrained by U.S. law, could not stop their profiteering. In November 1918, a panel of judges slapped down local efforts to set price controls, ruling that the territory had no legal right to do so.

All these issues coming together underscored to Kuhio that although annexation by the United States had given Hawaii some distinct advantages, it had also fused the islands’ destiny to events well outside their control. Kuhio wanted to find a way to protect Hawaiians and put them into economically sustainable situations to weather whatever adversities were imposed on them from the outside world.

The idea for the homestead lands became an obsession to Kuhio and one particular ally, John Wise, a Native Hawaiian clergyman and territorial lawmaker who had gone to jail with Kuhio when both had participated in the counter-coup to restore the monarchy. Fellows in adversity in the past, the two men teamed up again to draft and initiate parallel homestead legislation first in the territory and then in the U.S. Congress.

Kuhio was deeply committed to getting it passed. He wanted all Native Hawaiians to be covered by the legislation, and he wanted the lease terms to last 999 years. He wanted them to be able to live in places where they could grow their own food. But he found considerable opposition.

Some thought it unfair that whites would not be eligible. Some sugar planters didn’t want competition for valuable agricultural lands that they might otherwise be able to keep to themselves.

But Kuhio was remarkably persuasive to his fellow lawmakers in Washington. U.S. Rep. Charles Curry, chair of the House Territories Committee, later recalled how powerfully Kuhio had made his case.

“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, of their almost childlike faith in their fellow men, of their kindliness and generosity, of their intense Americanism,” he said. “He pleaded that the act 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 Kuhio finished, the committee voted unanimously to create the Homestead program, Curry said. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act passed in 1921.

But Kuhio had to make a number of compromises to win passage of the legislation, which became an amendment to the Organic Act, the federal law that established Hawaii as a U.S. territory. His opponents had pushed for tighter rules to limit the number of people who would be eligible for the program.

Kuhio had wanted all Native Hawaiians to be eligible, or at least those who had at least one Hawaiian great-grandparent, but he had been compelled to accept a requirement of being one-half Hawaiian. Also, instead of 999-year leases, it was 99 years.

This one-half standard created strife among Hawaiians, who found themselves on either the right side or the wrong side of the “blood quantum” divide, which was a novel and disturbing concept to them.

“It created an atmosphere pitting people against each other,” Nordlum said.

Department of Hawaiian Home Lands building located in Kapolei.
The state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in Kapolei administers the program today. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The property selected for the program was not prime agricultural ground but generally more marginal lands. About one-quarter of the 203,500 acres were barren lava fields or on steep slopes, according to legal scholar Troy J. H. Andrade. One lawmaker called it “land that a goat couldn’t live on,” Andrade wrote.

They were also lands that were poor for growing sugar, which was then considered the best crop, but by this point Kuhio no longer considered sugar a reliable source of profit because it was subject to governmental vagaries.

Most troubling of all was that much of the land had limited access to water.

Nordlum’s family, for example, lived with that reality when her parents first moved the family to stately, spare and arid Nanakuli. The house they had been given had no indoor toilets and no running water. They had to get water from a shared neighborhood spigot. They washed their dishes by hauling them down to the sea at Kalanianaole Beach Park and rubbing them with sand and then rinsing them in the ocean.

The first agricultural settlement was established on Molokai. By 1924 it had 278 residents, according to University of Hawaii economic historian Sumner La Croix, but the farmers had mixed success.

A set of 158 improved residential lots were made available to homesteaders in South Hilo in 1927. Then came other homelands areas, including, among others, Nanakuli and Waimanalo on Oahu, Anahola on Kauai, Kuhio Village on the Big Island and Kula on Maui.

Kuhio had secured for his people a foundation on which they could build a future.

NEXT: Funding Hawaii’s core infrastructure.

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