Officials mark 100th anniversary of signing of Hawaiian Homes Commission Act

  • MCGREGOR

  • AILA

  • IGE

  • SCHATZ

On Friday’s 100th anniversary of the signing into law of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act by President Warren G. Harding, the “groundbreaking legacy” of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana‘ole — champion of the law intended to provide homes for Native Hawaiians — was celebrated.

“Whether it’s improving Native Hawaiian housing, health care or education, Prince Kuhio’s work, his legacy of justice for Native Hawaiians, lives on. It’s alive in the work we’re doing in Congress. It’s alive in all of you,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told the assembled dignitaries, Hawaiian Homes commissioners, and Department of Hawaiian Home Lands officials and beneficiaries, outside the DHHL office building named for the prince in Kapolei, Oahu.

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Schatz, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, noted the act “has provided over 10,000 homestead lots for Native Hawaiian families, returning land to its rightful owners, and righting a wrong perpetuated many years ago.” He then acknowledged there is “more work to do to fulfill Kuhio’s vision.”

The cash-strapped DHHL, which administers some 203,000 acres of land, has about 28,000 Native Hawaiians on its wait list for a homestead lease, and some have been there for decades. The department estimated earlier this year it would need $6 billion to put all those on the list in homes. At the current level of funding, the department estimated it would take 182 years to clear its wait list.

Schatz said the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year “included historic funding for Native Hawaiian programs, about $200 million for Native Hawaiian health, education and housing — the biggest one-time funding into native communities, including Native Hawaiian communities, in American history.”

“I think it’s really important to understand that that is the kind of sustained commitment we’re going to have to make, not over a couple of years, not five years, not ten years, but generations, to right these historic wrongs,” he said.

Schatz said bipartisan legislation has been introduced to reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act.

“Our bill will extend (the law) for another decade and ensure that the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands will receive the federal resources that it needs and deserves to help house more Native Hawaiians,” he added.

Gov. David Ige called Friday’s anniversary a “momentous occasion in our state’s history.”

“We have increased general support for the department to the highest levels ever in the state’s history,” Ige said. “We continue to appropriate construction funds at the highest level.

“Hawaiian Home Lands is breaking ground this summer on the first subsistence agricultural lots with rural infrastructure. … In addition, the department’s first affordable high-rise project is underway in Moiliili … providing opportunities for beneficiaries to live in the urban core.

DHHL leaseholders are required to be 50% Hawaiian, and Ige said new rules “allow beneficiaries to use DNA testing to confirm a biological parent-child relationship.”

“These measures improve the department’s ability to serve beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, and further the department’s mission to get Native Hawaiians off the wait list and into stable homes,” he said.

Ige said there are “remaining obligations to DHHL under Act 14, a 1995 law he co-authored as a state senator. Although he didn’t specifically mention it, the law requires the state to compensate DHHL for the Maunakea Access Road through a land swap, which hasn’t occurred.

“It bothers me that until today, more than 20 years later … we still have not finished the settlement that was set in motion in 1995,” he said. “We were making tremendous progress, then the pandemic happened. I just want all of you to know that I am committed to completing that before the end of my administration. It is important for us to follow through on those commitments we made a while ago.”

William Aila, chairman of both DHHL and Hawaiian Homes Commission, noted that earlier this year, the department introduced legislation to raise funds — which, in its original form, included a casino in Kapolei. Ige opposed the bill, which died during the legislative session.

“I do appreciate your patience with me, in particular, and with the commission as a whole,” Aila said. “You know, we’re always going to look at new things and see how far we can get.”

As Aila spoke, a masked woman protester positioned herself so a video camera aimed at Aila also caught her holding a homemade sign that read, “100 years!!! Hawaiian hands still not on Hawaiian lands. Why celebrate?”

Davianna McGregor, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, noted that Prince Kuhio, an elected nonvoting delegate to Congress, championed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act because he thought Hawaiians were facing possible extinction, living in tenements and shantytowns and dying of diseases such as tuberculosis. It was signed into law during the last year of Kuhio’s life.

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“Importantly, after 100 years, while we only number 2,000 full Hawaiians, we part-Hawaiians are more than 527,000 strong in Hawaii and the U.S., with 290,000 Native Hawaiians in Hawaii,” McGregor said. “… Insist that the state Legislature fulfill the constitutional mandate to provide sufficient funds for the national trust lands to be awarded, and affirm Native Hawaiian self-governance to secure his legacy for the next hundred years.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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