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Hawai'i Public Radio: Blood Quantum Policy an 'Act of Compromise' for Hawaiian Homes

July 14, 2021

About 200,000 acres of land across the Hawaiian Islands are reserved solely for Native Hawaiians. But not all Native Hawaiians, just those with 50% or more Hawaiian blood.

The 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act created a land trust for those who can prove they’re at least half Native Hawaiian. But how do you prove it? And what happens if your kids don’t qualify?

Nicole Bell gave Hawai‘i Public Radio a tour of the Applications Branch that she oversees at the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

“These file cabinets include our genealogy library,” says Bell, “And then these drawers here are vital records, so birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, and so on.”

Bell has a handful of staff who pore over hundreds of applications a year to ensure folks can prove they’re at least 50% Native Hawaiian. This requires a combination of vital records indicating Hawaiian as the race and genealogy charts tracing the family’s lineage.

“We try to go back to find the birth certificate that states a pure blood quantum,” says DHHL spokesman Cedric Duarte. “It could be two grandparents on each side who are pure. Or it could be two parents who are pure. And that way our genealogists on staff can then ascertain your 50% status.”

Duarte says the agency’s blood quantum policy is a divisive issue in the Native Hawaiian community. But research into the history of the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and its architect Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole was revealing.

“It was never Kūhiō’s intent to apply any sort of limit or blood quantum,” says Duarte. “But the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in and of itself is an act of compromise.”

Prince Kūhiō was met with significant opposition from ranchers and sugar interests who lobbied to limit the program to full-blooded Hawaiians. Kūhiō insisted on a blood quantum of 1/32nd, but securing passage of the act would require he compromise at 50%.

“If you look at it, you can get really upset as to how it came to be,” says Patrick Kahawaiolaʻa, President of the Keaukaha Community Association, representing the oldest Hawaiian homestead community on the Big Island.

“We had no choice,” says Kahawaiolaʻa. “We had no choice in who our parents were going to be. But fortunately for me, I qualify.”

His kids also qualify. But if they don’t marry Native Hawaiians, his grandkids may not qualify. And that’s a scenario Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele aims to prevent.

He introduced legislation to lower the blood quantum to 1/32nd for successors of Hawaiian Home Lands.

“It allows the original lessee to transfer that lease to their successors, their son, their daughter, their spouse, so that they can continue to keep that homestead within their family,” says Kahele. “And so it advances the original intent, the original vision of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole.”

Kahele’s measure, while significant, only addresses the 10,000 families already on the homestead land. Another more than 28,000 qualified Native Hawaiians are still on the waitlist.