Keeping Hawaiian Lands in Native Hawaiian Hands
Debra Utacia Krol
Hawaii is one step closer to realizing a Native Hawaiian prince’s vision for providing a place to call home for all people indigenous to the island state. In July, Gov. David Ige signed HB 451, which will change the requirement to inherit Hawaiian homesteads from its current one-fourth to one-thirty-second.
The signing ceremony took place at Kulana ‘Oiwi, the local office for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, on Molokai. Holding the ceremony on Molokai, the smallest of the “neighbor islands,” was particularly significant. First, Rep. Lynn DeCoite, who has a homestead on the island, was the principal sponsor of the bill. And, the first homestead was established on Molokai in 1921.
DeCoite worked on the legislation for about two years. “We introduced the bill in 2016,” she says. “It was referred to the Judiciary Committee that first time because it was believed to be a financial issue. But it’s not a money issue.”
What the bill does address is the issue of quantum. In 1921, after many years of negotiations, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana‘ole, the Hawaiian delegate to the U.S. Congress, spearheaded the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. This legislation established some 200,000 acres of land to established permanent homelands for Native Hawaiians, who were landless after the U.S. takeover of the islands in 1893, and who were at the time considered a “dying” people. Lands can be homesteaded by qualifying Native Hawaiians for $1 a year for a 99-year lease period.
However, Prince Kūhiō, as he came to be known by his people, realized that Hawaiians tended to marry outside of their community, says DeCoite, and so proposed that anybody with at least one-thirty second Hawaiian ancestry or blood quantum would qualify for a homestead. But his argument fell on deaf ears, and the final legislation specified that the long-term land leases would go only to Native Hawaiians with at least one-half Hawaiian blood, and only those with one-quarter blood quantum could inherit the land.
Over the years, parents were forced to sell their land to their nonqualifying children or other relatives or risk losing their homesteads. It’s also caused a backlog in homestead requests; a 2014 report by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands found that more than 27,000 people are waiting for homesteads.
“We had broad support from people for the bill,” DeCoite says. “We’re working to honor Prince Kūhiō’s vision to keep lands in Native Hawaiian hands.” The bill’s second time turned out to be successful, and passed overwhelmingly.
DeCoite also acknowledges that some objected to the bill, as they believed that it would create more backlog. However, she disagrees with that assessment. “People are selling their land to their children, but then getting back on the list [for land],” she says. If they could simply will that land to their descendents, the wait list would decrease, she says.
Repeated calls to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands for comment on the bill or objections to the intent were not returned. However, they did release a fact sheet about the possible consequences of the bill, including the fact that Congressional approval is required before the state legislation can take effect.
DeCoite says that she is carefully planning that next step. First, the state needs to gain approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior, and then have one or more of the Hawaiian delegation offer up legislation in Congress. “It will require some strategy to run this bill” in Washington, she says. However, DeCoite is not deterred. She says, “We’re looking at a long-term process to realize Prince Kuhio’s vision and keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands.”