Beneficiaries say it’s time for major changes to Hawaiian Homes Commission, DHHL

  • KAHELE

  • KAHAWAIOLA‘A

Major changes need to be made to the Hawaiian Homes Commission and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands before Native Hawaiians can be reconnected to their homelands, a series of speakers told a state Senate panel Monday in Honolulu.

Slow to no action on a waiting list for homesteads for those with at least 50% Hawaiian blood continued to be the primary sticking point with beneficiaries.

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Almost a century ago, Congress, through the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, created a 200,000-acre land trust for the specific purpose of developing homesteads for Native Hawaiians. Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, who spearheaded the effort, envisioned the land trust as a way to offer a permanent homeland for his fellow Hawaiians, who he saw as a landless and dying people.

Robin Danner, chairwoman of the Sovereign Councils of the Hawaiian Homelands Assembly, urged the Legislature to pass the Hawaiian Lands in Hawaiian Hands Act of 2020, “on the 100th anniversary of this brilliant law that is so poorly managed.”

Danner presented a list of changes she said are needed, from having beneficiaries present a short list of candidates to be the chair of the commission to requiring quarterly reports and creating an inter-agency council that includes representatives from the state Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Tourism Authority and others.

In the almost 100 years since the trust was created, fewer than 10,000 homesteads have been leased, and hundreds have died on a waiting list for homesteads that now numbers 28,000 families.

Many of the beneficiaries said it’s time to restructure the commission and the department to make them more responsive to beneficiaries. The first thing to do, they said, is decouple the commission from the department so the commission chairman isn’t also the leader of the department.

“The commission should decide who the department head should be. Not the governor,” said Elmer Kaai, a former DHHL employee who’s been on the waiting list 33 years. “The department is a state agency, and my concern is they’re not handling the trust well.”

Gubernatorial appointees are confirmed by the Senate.

Patrick Kahawaiola‘a, president of the Keaukaha Community Association since the 1990s, said he found DHHL to be more of a hindrance than a help for their homestead community near Hilo.

“There’s really nothing I can jump up and say the department has helped us with,” Kahawaiola‘a said. “You cannot serve two masters — you can only serve one master — and that master is the beneficiaries as defined under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.”

The Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs conducted the briefing to receive a statewide comprehensive update from Hawaiian Home Lands beneficiary representatives and individual stakeholders.

DHHL representatives were not scheduled to speak during the hearing. Sen. Kurt Fevella, a Republican from Ewa Beach, Oahu, said he hand-carried an invitation for the meeting to Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William J. Aila Jr. Instead, he said, Aila sent staffers.

That angered Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo.

“As a state senator, if you send a letter requesting their presence, they should be here,” said Kahele, striking the table on the last four words. “If you care about your people, you would be here. … I feel the department has lost their way.”

Aila responded through a spokesman to an emailed request for comment.

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“We appreciate the commentary from the beneficiaries that were invited to today’s hearing and we look forward to continuing to work with all parties who are interested in fulfilling the vision of Prince Kuhio,” Aila said.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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