Why we need to save Kuleana lands


Source: April 2006 Ka Wai Ola o OHA Column

`Ano`ai kakou…  One issue that I have really pushed hard for at the state capitol is a bill to exempt Kuleana lands from property taxes.  Many Hawaiian families, who have been caring for their Kuleana lands for generations, are now facing sky-rocketing property taxes because of luxury resorts and shopping malls being built next-door.  The issue first came to my attention several years ago when a family came to OHA and asked that we take custody of their Kuleana land until they were able to save up enough money to pay off their back taxes.  If something isn’t done soon, more Kuleana Lands could fall out of Hawaiian hands.

A brief history of Kuleana Lands:  According to Kumu Pono Associates LLC’s website (www.kumupono.com), in 1848, as a result of the Mahele, all land in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was placed in one of three categories:  Crown Lands (for the occupant of the throne); Government Lands; and Konohiki Lands (Kuleana Act, 1850). 

Ownership rights to all lands in the kingdom were “subject to the rights of the native tenants;” those individuals who lived on the land and worked it for their subsistence and the welfare of the chiefs (Kanawai Hoopai Karaima… {Penal Code} 1850:22).  The 1850 resolutions in “Kanawai Hoopai Karaima no ko Hawaii Pae Aina,” authorized the newly formed Land Commission to award fee-simple title to all native tenants who occupied and improved any portion of Crown, Government, or Konohiki lands.

After native Hawaiian commoners were granted the opportunity to acquire their own parcels of land through the Mahele, foreigners were also granted the right to own land in 1850, provided they had sworn an oath of loyalty to the Hawaiian Monarch.  In order to receive their awards from the Land Commission, the hoa‘aina (native tenants) were required to prove that they cultivated the land for a living.  They were not permitted to acquire “wastelands” (e.g. fishponds) or lands which they cultivated “with the seeming intention of enlarging their lots.”  Once a claim was confirmed, a survey was required before the Land Commission was authorized to issue any award.

The lands awarded to the hoa‘aina became known as “Kuleana Lands.” All of the claims and awards (the Land Commission Awards or L.C.A.) were numbered, and the L.C.A. numbers remain in use today to identify the original owners of lands in Hawai‘i.  By the time of its closure on March 31, 1855, the Land Commission issued only 8,421 kuleana claims, equaling only 28,658 acres of land to the native tenants (cf. Indices of Awards 1929).

According to the Overview of Hawaiian History by Diane Lee Rhodes, many of the kuleana lands were later lost.  The list of reasons include:  (1) Native tenants mostly received lands that lacked firewood or were too rocky and unsuitable for farming.  (2) A number of kuleana were sold by dishonest land agents before the farmers could get a survey.  (3) The land commissioners delayed getting notices to landholders.  (4) Prices were out of reach for commoners.  (5) Finally, foreigners evicted legitimate kuleana owners without due process.

Since most of the Kuleana lands were carved up and taken away or abandoned, the impact on tax revenues would be extremely minimal so there should be no reason why this legislation shouldn’t pass.  Unfortunately, both the House and Senate Kuleana land bills went nowhere this session.  The House refused to even hear the bill despite my pleas to the Committee on Hawaiian Affairs chairman, Representative Scott Saiki.

The bill got a hearing on the Senate side, thanks to the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committee chairman, Senator Colleen Hanabusa, but the bill came up one vote short of passing.  I met with Senator Donna Mercado Kim, who voted no on the bill, to try to convince her to support the bill, but she insisted that we should go to each county and ask for the exemption individually, which makes no sense.  Why should we go to each county when one bill passed by the legislature can make the exemption law for the entire state? 

I am currently working to get a city ordinance passed at the Honolulu City Council.  Bill #25 was introduced on March 15, 2006.  If you or someone you know is living on Kuleana lands and are descendent of the original owners, I implore you to consider testifying.

We must put an end to the injustices done to the caretakers of Kuleana lands for the past 150-years once and for all.  If something is not done soon, the very last Kuleana lands that have survived will finally fall out of Hawaiian hands.  Protecting what’s left of Kuleana Lands will help preserve Hawai’i’s rich history and culture.