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Blood quantum debate renewed: Legislature passes bill that would lower requirement for Hawaiian homestead successors

A proposal to change inheritance rules for Native Hawaiian homeland leases unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature.

If signed into law by the governor, House Bill 451 changes inheritance rules from requiring 1/4 Hawaiian blood quantum to 1/32 in order to inherit a parent’s homeland lease.

The goal of HB 451 is to prevent generationally held homeland leases from being lost when elderly lessees die without qualified successors.

Previously, a lessee’s child or grandchild with a blood quantum less than 1/4 Hawaiian would be unable to inherit the lease. The lease would then return to the pool of properties available for people with 50 percent or more blood quantum seeking a new lease.

The bill also changes the description of potential inheritors from “husband, wife” to “spouse” to make the law fit the Supreme Court’s decision that same-gender couples can marry.

The law identifies 1/32 Hawaiian as the new blood quantum in order to inherit land from a lessee who dies. But it does not change the 50 percent blood quantum required to apply for an original homeland lease. And the U.S. Congress must still “consent.”

Quantums begin

Prince Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole tried to get the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to say anyone with 1/32 Hawaiian ancestry or blood quantum would qualify for homeland. He began negotiating in Congress during the early 1900s — before statehood.

But as a delegate, he had no congressional vote.

He settled for a 50 percent blood quantum requirement to get a homeland lease, said Shane Nelsen of the Benefits and Trust Committee of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs.

“A 1/32 blood quantum, when the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was created, really meant that anyone who had any Hawaiian ancestry at all was Hawaiian,” said Jonathan Osorio, interim dean of the Hawai‘inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge.

“There were many Hawaiians displaced who lived in an urban setting and weren’t doing very well,” said William Aila, deputy director of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Prince Kuhio recognized this, Aila said, and wanted to reconnect Native Hawaiians with the aina.

But blood quantums have been controversial.

“There are a lot of Hawaiians who believe this should not have ever been attached to the Homes Act,” Osorio said. “It was racist.”

Blood quantums, he said, make it increasingly difficult to inherit land access — land originally part of the Hawaiian Kingdom, taken by the U.S. government and then offered as leases, so Hawaiians had to prove blood quantums and essentially pay $1 per year to lease what was once theirs.

For generations, Hawaiian families have built sustainable lives on homeland properties, adding fruit trees, livestock, gardens and homes.

“Now, they’re being uprooted or even becoming homeless because of the blood quantum issue,” Nelsen said.

“In this modern day and age, if we were to take away the blood quantum issue, then it would be open for everyone,” Nelsen said. He has studied blood quantums and, to his knowledge, only one U.S. Native American tribe has the ability to “prove legacy rather than blood quantum.”

“I don’t look at it as a racial issue but as an indigenous-rights issue,” Nelsen said.

There is enough land for new leases, he said. But required government infrastructure such as water and sewer make progress slow for those on the waiting list.

“There’s so many different variables as to why people are still on the wait list,” Nelsen said. Some await pastoral land, for example. Others wait for a particular island. Or, maybe the land remains too far away from water, highway, sewer or power connections.

“In the meantime, we’re dealing with an economic, homelessness issue.”

A lessee’s words

Pat Kahawaiolaa, president of the Keaukaha Community Association, said he was born and raised on homeland.

The lease traveled from his father’s to his mother’s hands, when his dad died, and then to Kahawaiolaa’s when his mom died. His children are 50 percent Hawaiian and still qualify to lease — or inherit.

One of his sons has been on the wait list 30 years for his own homeland, Kahawaiolaa said.

Even if the governor approves the Legislature’s changes to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, and Congress consents, the 1/32 requirement won’t help successors when there’s a family with five kids.

“If you have five children, if you die, only one of them is going to get it,” Kahawaiolaa said.

“The islands were overthrown. The kingdom was overthrown,” Kahawaiolaa said, “and today, that’s not disputed.”

What people need to understand, he said, is that the Homes Commission Act states you must be 50 percent Hawaiian to get a lease.

“Eventually, there has to be clear-headed discussions about what blood quantums mean,” Osorio said. “Biologically, politically and even culturally,” he said, “what do these things even mean?”

“I would love to have a real, public conversation about that,” he said. “It’s just one of those really, really strange things that I have a hard time talking with people about. I think if you have Hawaiian ancestry, and want to claim that you are Hawaiian, then you are.”

There are people with less quantum than Osorio, he said, but who practice traditional ways.

Others, with more quantum, live on the mainland, do not speak Hawaiian and wouldn’t recognize a taro plant.

Which of the three is most Hawaiian, Osorio asks: himself, the person on the mainland with a higher blood quantum or the person living traditionally with a lower quantum?

“What does that mean that we could award Hawaiian homes to somebody that has never been here?” Osorio said.

Intermarriage started affecting blood quantums before the act first passed Congress in 1920, nearly four decades before Hawaii became a state in 1959.

“It was just assumed that, eventually, very, very few people would qualify,” Osorio said. “There was a definite deviousness of this act.”

Some Hawaiians, he said, will be frustrated that “everybody will qualify” to inherit land.

But Nelsen said applying for a land lease, which will still require 50 percent quantum, is a different issue from inheritance.

State constitution

The Homes Commission Act was inherited from the then-territory of Hawaii when the Hawaii Admission Act took effect.

The Admission Act, which made Hawaii the 50th state, declares that the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act would be part of the new state’s constitution and the act can be amended or repealed “only with the consent of the United States.”

Approval by Hawaii’s Legislature of the new 1/32 rule, if signed by the governor, means Congress will be able to consider consenting any time.

Nelsen said there’s U.S. government support for the change. But it could take years for Congress to approve.

“This is about lessees because they can never own the land,” said Hawaii state Rep. Cindy Evans, a co-sponsor of the state bill. People build houses and “put their heart and soul into the land, and they can never pass it on to their children or grandchildren,” she said.

“I can understand why someone who worked so hard would want the ability to pass it on to their children or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren,” Evans said.

She thinks the act’s purpose was to make sure Native Hawaiians had places to live.

“People must have had some real concern and wanted to make sure that people had the ability to live on the land,” she said.

Herring Kalua, 70, of Hilo said the act needs to be followed. Then you know exactly what to do, he said. He thinks 1/32 should be the rule “so that our grandkids and great-grandkids can at least inherit.”

Many people remain who are still at least 50 percent Hawaiian, Kalua said, which means plenty can still apply for Hawaiian homeland leases.

“I’m fourth-generation homestead,” he said, although he doesn’t live there himself.

He reminds loved ones of the importance of the original homestead, where one of his ohana holds the lease, “so they won’t forget if I’m not here … it’s an honor.”

Email Jeff Hansel at jhansel@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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