Land and Sovereignty

By: Trustee Rowena Akana
February 3, 1999

No two words have so captured the attention of this archipelago’s residents as “land” and “sovereignty”. Despite developments since the 100-year anniversary of the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy, as well as the United States’ apology and admission of the illegality of the overthrow, many people do not grasp what either word means or will mean for their future.

The general goal of sovereignty advocates is the transfer of control of Hawaiian Home Lands and ceded lands directly to a native Hawaiian government. Currently, the state and federal government hold in trust about 1.2 million acres of land for the benefit of Hawaiians. Yet, the first people to these lands have seen very few benefits.

Hawaiian Home Lands are scattered tracts comprising about 197,075 acres, which Congress set aside in 1920 for native Hawaiian homesteaders. Ceded lands are the remains of an estimated 1.8 million acres of public, private and crown land illegally annexed by resolution from a provisional government to the United States in 1898.

Hawaiian land, once farmed communally, is now some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. Housing prices, driven up by mainland retirees and foreign speculators, are out of reach for Hawaiians living, working and raising families in the islands.

Hawaiian waters, once kept in ecological balance with humans through a complex kapu system, are now oversold to the highest bidder, or treated as a toilet for raw sewage.

Hawaiian culture, once a living history of genealogy, geography, and spirituality, was nearly obliterated by Calvinist missionaries and is usually obscured with tourist-pleasing luaus.

Today, 70-80,000 people (depending on the source) – of Hawaii’s more than one million residents are full-blooded Hawaiians. One fifth, or about 225,000 people claim some Hawaiian blood. Yet Hawaiians remain the poorest, sickest, least educated, worst housed, and most frequently imprisoned segment of Hawaii’s population.

Since Kamehameha the Great, foreigners have enjoyed some measure of control over Hawaiian land. The concept of land ownership was foreign to Hawaiians. How can you own what belongs to God? The king and his chief provided land grants to the people–some of them outsiders, who chose to grow large tracts of crops to be sold overseas, rather than to be eaten at home.

In 1825, when 12-year-old Kamehameha III ascended to the throne, the Council of Chiefs adopted the western practice of inheritance after the death of a king. However, foreigners, protective of their agricultural interest, sought more secure forms of land tenure. They and their governments applied considerable pressure on the young king.

In 1840, the year he drew up Hawaii’s first constitution, Kamehameha III granted the right to property by declaring that all land belonged to the chiefs and the people, with the king as trustee. In 1848, true ownership of land came to Hawaii, when the king accepted a land apportionment plan, called the Great Mahele, or division.

The Mahele completed the transition from a feudal redistribution land system to a fee simple land ownership system, by dividing the land among the king, government, chiefs and the people. The land was split into three parts: about 1 million acres of crown lands to which the king held title; 1.5 million acres of government lands for public use; and, the remaining 1.5 million of Konohiki lands set aside for individual ownership by the chiefs and the people.

The Mahele was an unmitigated disaster for the maka’ainana, the people of the land, or commoners. While the king intended to make available one-third of Hawaii’s lands to maka’ainana, they received much less than one percent of the total land. The maka’ainana’s land holdings and rights were further diluted in 1850, with the passage of additional legislation which authorized ownership and conveyance of the land, regardless of citizenship.

The stage was set for a massive land grab by Westerners. In the next half century, with a population no larger than 2,000, Westerners took control of most of Hawaii’s land, and manipulated the economy for their own profit.

Many Native Hawaiians pleaded with their last elected monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, to protect the sovereignty of Hawaii. At the urging of her people, the queen attempted to regain some of the monarchy’s power, which had been lost during the reign of her predecessor and brother, King Kalakaua through the Bayonet Constitution.

Her efforts to change Hawaii’s Constitution and cabinet unnerved a group of the wealthiest American merchants and sugar planters. These men wanted to be part of the United States to avoid high import tariffs. So, backed by a contingent of 162 U.S. Marines, the businessmen imprisoned the queen, and took over the islands, including the acreage that was supposed to be available to the maka’ainana.

Despite Lili’uokalani’s steadfast belief that the United States government would honor its treaties with the Kingdom and reject the provisional government, Hawaii went from a sovereign nation to an American colony in five years. In 1898, under President William McKinley, Hawaii was annexed to the United States constellation, along with Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

President Grover Cleveland, who had opposed the coup, but failed to reverse it, wrote after leaving office: Hawaii is ours. But as look back upon the first steps in this miserable business, and as I contemplate the means to complete this outrage, I am ashamed of the whole affair.”

Meanwhile, the provisional government sold chunks of crown and Konohiki lands to fellow merchants and planters. When the islands were annexed illegally to the United States, Hawaii’s government acknowledged that this acreage (now 1.8 million acres) belonged to Native Hawaiians, and ceded it with the stipulation that it be held in trust for Native Hawaiians. The federal government summarily lopped off about 20 percent of the land for its own use, mostly for military bases and parks.

By 1920, the plight of the true inhabitants, Native Hawaiians, had become desperate. The population had dropped as much as 96 percent. Some scholars estimate that a one-time population of 1 million Hawaiians in pre-contact Hawaii had plummeted to 40,000.

However, a bill was being prepared that would allow Native Hawaiians to lease a small sliver of their former land. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act began as a well meaning effort by Prince Jonah Kuhio, the Hawaiian territorial delegate to Congress, who saw urban slums and disease rapidly killing off Hawaiians, and hoped that returning Hawaiians to their aina, their agricultural land, could save them. In 1920, he said: “The Hawaiian race is passing, and if conditions continue to exist as they do today, this splendid race of people, my race, will pass from the face of this earth.”

No sooner did Prince Kuhio float his plan in Congress than it was co-opted by pineapple and sugar planters, who saw it as a way to secure their own uncertain futures. Their leases on 26,000 fertile acres were about to expire, and a general homestead law threatened to transfer their lucrative holdings to other hands.

So the planters struck a deal with territorial politicians: Get rid of general homesteading, allow us to keep our lands, and in exchange, you may allot 200,000 acres of “fourth class” lands to native Hawaiians for homestead. This land was arid, inaccessible, soilpoor, without infrastructure, and otherwise unfit for cultivation. Before long, Hawaiians abandoned agrarianism, and the bulk of homestead awards became simple house lots.
The sugar planters ensured that the Hawaiian Home Lands’ first executive was an ally. Its executive secretary was George Cooke, of Castle & Cooke, one of the Big Five plantation powers. The planters even pushed the 50 percent Hawaiian blood requirement, believing that interracial marriages would dilute the native population to extinction.

After statehood in 1959, responsibility for managing the homestead program was transferred from the federal government to the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL). Because the state failed to appropriate sufficient funding, until recently, the DHHL’s main source of revenue to manage and improve the land was income from general use leases granted non-Hawaiians on land “not immediately needed” for homestead. As a result, DHHL leased more land to non-Hawaiians than to Hawaiians.

For decades, the administration of the Hawaiian Home Lands trust went unquestioned. Subsequent investigations revealed mismanagement of the trust by both the federal and state governments. DHHL estimates that territorial and state governors issued between forty and sixty executive orders, which set aside Hawaiian Home Lands for military use. In 1978, a federal district court ruled that all governors’ executive orders were illegal.

In 1984, Governor Ariyoshi rescinded nearly thirty of these illegal acts, covering 30,000 acres. The Hawaii Attorney General also decreed that the U.S. Navy’s occupation of 1,400 acres of prime homelands near Honolulu was a “fundamental breach of trust”.

Rather than evicting the offending land users, which included state and federal agencies, the DHHL opted for monetary settlements totaling less than $10 million.

As of June 30,1997, only 6,428 homestead leases were awarded statewide, representing a mere 20.5 percent of the total Hawaiian Home Lands property. Meanwhile there are an estimated 29,162 qualified applicants on the Hawaiian Homes waiting list, many of whom have been waiting for forty years or more. Many have died waiting.

In 1959, when the Admissions Act turned responsibility for the remaining 1.5 million acres of ceded lands over to the new State of Hawaii, the federal government “retained” several hundred thousand acres for its national parks and military installations. Today, more than 100 facilities crowd the eight Hawaiian Islands, a land area approximately the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. All the military bases occupy some ceded lands, and at least six occupy Hawaiian Home Lands, without consent or compensation.

Responsibility for these ceded lands rests with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). For the state’s first twenty years, DLNR managed ceded lands without scrutiny. Among other abuses, it allowed use of ceded lands by other state departments without compensation. It also executed a slew of summary land swaps.

State and federal laws already mandate that Hawaiians receive priority for water, to support development, traditional agriculture, and gathering rights over subdivisions, hotels and golf courses — promises seemingly forgotten. The state’s Commission on Water Resources has ignored the “Hawaiian Rights” clause of the water code, the clause that guarantees adequate reserves of water for current and foreseeable development of Hawaiian Home Lands.

At the 1978 Constitutional Convention, the state admitted that it was derelict in its duty to provide for the Hawaiian community. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) was created to receive 20 percent of all revenue generated by ceded lands for use for the benefit of Hawaiians.

Between 1980 and 1990, instead of 20 percent, OHA only received about $12.5 million in such proceeds. In 1993, OHA received $129 million from the state in settlement of those claims, including interest for back payment of monies owed by the state from 1980 – 1990, during the Waihee Administration.

In 1994, OHA initiated litigation to require the state to pay OHA past due amounts owed to Hawaiians that were not included in the $129 million settlement. In October 1996, Judge Heely granted OHA’s motion for partial summary judgment. The State filed an appeal. In December 1998, the Hawaii Supreme Court directed the parties to try to resolve the matter expeditiously. Negotiations continue.

As indigenous and first people to these islands, Hawaiians have essentially been under siege since foreign contact. In November 1993, President Clinton signed a Joint Resolution, which recognized the illegal procedure by which Hawaii was annexed to the United States, and apologized to Native Hawaiians on Behalf of the United States for the Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. This legal recognition has offered Hawaiians a unique opportunity to lead a renewed battle for the resurrection of the powerful principle of sovereignty. Sovereignty is not a foreign concept to Hawaiians, to Native Americans, or to states in general.

To the great nineteenth century orator, Stephen Douglas, states incorporated legally into the Union were co-equal and sovereign unto themselves. In his celebrated debates with Lincoln (echoing the Declaration of Independence, which states that “these United States are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States”), Douglas said:


Native governments have formed under the federal government through the Department of the Interior. There are hundreds of recognized nations within the territorial United States, in which the United States is but one. The others consist of American Indians. If it is OK for American Indians to form sovereign nations, why not Hawaiians? Failure to do so would, in fact, be discrimination against Hawaiians.

As indigenous people, Hawaiians are seeking recognition from the federal government of their right to sovereignty and self determination. Hawaiians have no desire to be dependent on the state or federal government. If Hawaiians had control of their lands, they could take care of their own people. They would not be a drain on the economy. There would be no homeless Hawaiians.

Fundamental to any sovereignty concept is control over land. Hawaiians have never prospered on land held on their behalf, but outside their reach. Lands at issue consist of the 1.2 million acres currently under the control of the state and federal government, as well as lands set aside as Hawaiian Home Lands. Hawaiians are not talking about privately owned land.