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Centennial Commemorations Reflect on Origins, Urgency in Fulfilling the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act

Courtesy of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

Ceremonies in Hawaiʻi and Washington, D.C., commemorated the centennial of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, signed into law by President Warren Harding on July 9, 1921.

The act created a homesteading program for Hawaiians, whose population at the time was rapidly declining due to disease and displacement following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

To understand the origins of the act, we must imagine Hawaiʻi in the early 1900s, says Native Hawaiian Scholar Davianna McGregor. Native Hawaiians made up 20% of the population. Life expectancy was low and infant mortality was high. The Hawaiʻi they knew was changing.

“Poi mills are largely owned by the Chinese, and the Japanese dominate the fishing industry. With Windward streams diverted for Leeward plantations. The loss of stream water for kalo cultivation impacts rural livelihoods,” says McGregor. “Driving Native Hawaiians to Honolulu where they live in crowded tenements in Iwilei and Chinatown and squatter settlements in Kakaʻako.”

Kalamaʻula homesteaders
Courtesy Department of Hawaiian Home Lands
Kalamaʻula homesteaders

Tuberculosis and other diseases spread rapidly in these areas claiming the lives of hundreds of Hawaiians. The widespread belief she says is that Hawaiians are doomed to extinction. Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole leads an effort to save his people. He writes...

“By placing Hawaiians on the soil and away from cities and towns, it is certain they will again regain their former vitality,” says McGregor. “And in the course of years the race will increase and become a majority element in the land of their birth.”

McGregor opened up centennial celebrations at the Kapolei headquarters of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. DHHL Director William Ailā, Jr. welcomed homestead leaders from across the islands as well as nearly all living former department directors.

“The creativity that you put forward in fulfilling the vision of Prince Kūhiō in doing the best you could with what you had, that is an accomplishment,” says Ailā, “I would like to thank all of you for your years of service just taking on your shoulders the weight of 100 years of...of trying to accomplish as much as you can.”

Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele on July 13, 2021.
Office of U.S. Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele
Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele on July 13, 2021.

Meanwhile, U.S. Congressman Kaialiʻi Kahele hosted his own celebration in Washington, D.C.

Surrounded by Native Hawaiian leaders, he underscored the urgency of fulfilling the promise of the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

“Within the next year, for the first time in history, it is estimated that the number of Native Hawaiians living in Hawaii will fall below the number of Native Hawaiians living elsewhere. This is unacceptable,” says Rep. Kahele. “The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act can help narrow the divide for homeownership for Native Hawaiians. We need to do more.”

DHHL plans to develop 1,500 homestead lots in the next five years. At that pace, it will take another 95 years to address the Hawaiian Home Lands waitlist—which currently includes nearly 29,000 Native Hawaiians.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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