When Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, the native Hawaiian race was quickly vanishing. The legislation was a reaction to the large numbers of Hawaiians who had been forced off their lands when white businessmen moved to the islands during the early 1800s. The foreigners built sprawling pineapple and sugarcane plantations and imported a new working class to tend to them. The Hawaiians, meanwhile, receded to crowded urban zones where extrinsic diseases, for which they had no immunity, hacked away at their numbers. In 1778, when white men first set foot on the Hawaiian Islands, there were an estimated 683,000 full-blooded Hawaiians living there, according to the Pew Research Center. By 1919, that population was just 22,600. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act attempted to combat the decline by creating a 200,000-acre land trust to serve as neighborhoods, farms, and ranches for those who could prove at least 50 percent Hawaiian ancestry.
“The Hawaiian race is passing,” testified Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1920. “And if conditions continue to exist as they do today, this splendid race of people, my people, will pass from the face of the Earth.” A born royal and a delegate to Congress, Kuhio was the visionary sponsor of the law that established Hawaiian homesteading. Despite his fight for a lower blood quantum, the law specifies that Hawaiians are eligible to apply for 99-year land leases at $1 per year on the condition that they prove they are at least half-blooded Hawaiians. The law further stipulates that a homestead lease can be passed on to a leaseholder’s child or grandchild—so long as that heir can prove at least 25 percent Hawaiian ancestry.
But that was nearly 100 years ago. Today, incentivizing a race of people to preserve bloodlines by offering them free property seems, well, anachronistic. It is also likely in part why, on Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a pathway for the Native Hawaiian community to create its own unified government, one that could initiate a discrete relationship with the U.S. federal government. “The United States has a long-standing policy of supporting self-governance for native peoples,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “Yet, the benefits of the government-to-government relationship have long been denied to native Hawaiians, one of our nation’s largest indigenous communities.” The native Hawaiian population is in fact on the upswing, nearing 300,000. But that figure includes mixed-race residents, which makes it all the more unclear as to how—or when—any sovereign Hawaiian leadership that does arise would affect the land-trusts issue.
In the meantime, as the homestead communities age, the land leases are passing into the hands of the third and fourth generations, and some families are finding that a slow dilution of the Hawaiian blood pool means they must face the impending forfeiture of the land they have called home for decades. Fewer and fewer homesteading descendants have the minimum 25 percent Hawaiian-blood requirement to keep the land within their family lineages. Those folks have just two options: They can sell any improvements made to the property, such as a house, to the state agency that manages the trust lands, or they can sell them to any half-blooded Hawaiian. In either case, thousands of would-be homesteaders in the post-millennial generation will have to move.