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ANAHOLA, Hawaii — Edward Taniguchi, 80, lives in the shadow of Kalalea Mountain, a jagged volcanic rock on the island of Kauai known for looking like King Kong’s head in profile. On the other side of the mountain are thousands of acres of land held in trust for native Hawaiians. Taniguchi has been waiting for a plot of ranch pasture there since he was 26.
The land there has stood fallow since the sugar cane companies decamped in the 1960s. It was then that he signed up for a land lease with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), the state body given stewardship of the trust as a condition of Hawaii’s statehood.
Taniguchi’s dream was to have a ranch of his own to herd cattle, raise goats and pigs and harvest fruit trees as he did when he was a boy, when everything on the dinner table came from the land and sea around him, except for the store-bought rice.
“Now we have to go to Costco,” he said, sitting in the shade of a monkeypod tree with his Pomeranian watchdog, Seiko, named after the watch company, hiding at his feet. “I don’t like it. If I can go back there, I can do things the way they’re supposed to be.”
A half-century later, his dream still lies in wait.
Native Hawaiians were a landless and dying people when Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1920, creating a 200,000-acre land trust to serve as farms, ranches and neighborhoods for those who could prove at least 50 percent Hawaiian ancestry. But the federal rule-making process that typically follows the passage of a law never happened, leaving the law’s administration open to wide interpretation. This absence of rules has led to severe mismanagement.
In the 95 years since the land trust was established, about half the awarded acreage has gone to non-Hawaiians. Meanwhile, there are 29,000 Hawaiians on a waitlist for homesteads. Thousands of acres lie vacant.
In May the U.S. Department of Interior proposed two new federal rules that aim to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the DHHL, which administers the trust, and the Department of Interior, which has oversight responsibility, when considering land exchanges and amendments to the law. The goal, said Kris Sarri, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the interior, is to better support the health and strength of the Hawaiian community, especially the beneficiaries who live on trust lands or are on the waitlist for a homestead lease.
Most Hawaiians agree that the trust lands have been mismanaged. But not everyone agrees promulgating federal rules is the right solution. A deep distrust of the federal government, rooted in Hawaii’s contentious road to statehood, has many Hawaiians wary of the proposed rules. Then there are those fighting for recognition of the Kingdom of Hawaii as a sovereign nation, who want nothing to do with federal or state control.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission has indicated that the functions the proposed rules seek to clarify are already sufficiently detailed in the Hawaii Statehood Admission Act and the Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act. The commission has expressed concern that the rules might increase the federal government’s purview over the trust lands.
Native Hawaiian advocate Robin Danner, who urged President Barack Obama at the White House in May 2013 to begin the federal rule-making process, said the proposed rules are key to moving Hawaiians off the waitlist and onto homesteads at a faster pace.
“The law says this — if there is still land leftover that is not required by Hawaiians for homesteading, then and only then can you give it out to the general public,” she said. “So how, with 29,000 Hawaiians on the homestead waitlist, do we have a single acre out to the general public? Because of the ability of wide interpretation and, No. 2, the lack of oversight and enforcement.”
“These are very common-sense rules,” she added. “But not having them is chaos.”
Taniguchi is a Hawaiian cowboy. His salt and pepper hair, coffee-colored skin and mud-splattered jeans suggest a life spent in the saddle under the punishing shine of a Hawaiian sun. When he speaks about the merits of herding and slaughtering cattle, it’s in a slow, deliberate drawl. The octogenarian has about 70 cows, a bull and enough spunk and strength left in him to rope and wrangle. What he lacks is the land on which to do it.
There have been no land leases granted to Hawaiians on the old cattle pastures and canefields over the mountain from Taniguchi’s home, aside from five revocable permits that must be renewed monthly. Revocable permits are typically given for land that has no infrastructure. The plot Taniguchi wants for his ranch has no water lines or suitable access road.
It’s not a lack of pipes or pavement that keeps him from seeking a short-term permit. Rather, he doesn’t want to drive his cattle off his friend’s pasture on the other side of the island and unleash them on new terrain if his right to ranch there could be easily terminated. Instead, he waits.
“When you ask Hawaiian Homes, they don’t give you a straight answer,” Taniguchi said. “They say there’s no water. But there’s water running all over the land back there. Twenty years ago, I took some commissioners from Hawaiian Homes back there to see all the water that’s there. They keep finding excuses not to give the people the land.”
A few times a year he visits the land, cutting down the invasive albizia trees, keeping the grass low and posting stakes around the acreage he hopes will one day be his. At home he readies his fruit tree plantings in pots and talks about reuniting with his herd of cows. He teaches his great-grandchildren about the honor and importance of raising and growing your own food.
“There are people dying right and left on this waitlist,” said Erica Taniguchi, Edward Taniguchi’s 34-year-old granddaughter. “I don’t want him to be one of them. And he’s determined not to be one of them. So for me, it’s just a matter of ‘How can I help them help him?’ Every day he comes to my house, and he talks about his land. He talks about his dream. I want to see him realize that dream before it’s too late.”
Beginning in the early 1800s, large numbers of Hawaiians were forced off their lands as foreigners moved in and sold leases for pineapple and sugar cane farms. Hawaiians retreated to urban areas, often living in overpacked tenements where they rapidly contracted diseases for which they had no immunity. Their numbers dramatically fell off.
In 1826 there were an estimated 142,650 full-blooded Hawaiians in the Hawaiian Islands. By 1919, the population was reduced to 22,600.
“The Hawaiian race is passing,” said Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole in testimony that stirred the hearts of members of the 1920 U.S. House of Representatives. “And if conditions continue to exist as they do today, this splendid race of people, my people, will pass from the face of the earth.”
Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act that summer.
The law was sponsored by Kuhio, the only born royal elected a delegate to Congress, who wanted his people to have a place to thrive. It set aside 200,000 undeveloped acres across the islands for homesteading by Hawaiians. Despite his fight for a lower blood quantum, the law specifies that Hawaiians are eligible to apply for 99-year land leases at $1 per year on the condition that they prove Hawaiian ancestry of 50 percent or more.
The first leases granted were mostly 40-acre farms; later, residential lots as small as a quarter-acre were awarded. Today there are 10,000 homestead leases statewide.
About half the distributed lands are leased by big businesses. Corporate leases provide income for the historically land-rich but cash-poor DHHL administration, but many beneficiaries argue they are counterproductive to the law’s primary purpose: to provide the Hawaiian people with residential, pastoral and ranching homesteads.
Projects on trust lands that have drawn fire from beneficiaries include a Target store on the Big Island, a 1.4 million-square-foot megamall under construction on Oahu and 5,000 acres of ranchland that have been leased to a non-Hawaiian couple on Maui for more than two decades.
Prime tracts of land have also been leased to the federal and state governments, often with little compensation.
“Essentially, the state of Hawaii, governor after governor, has been land banking, land hoarding trust lands for business opportunities while Hawaiians, whom the land is clearly supposed to go to, die on the waitlist,” said Danner, who co-founded the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “What they will tell you is, ‘Oh, we can’t give it to you because there’s no infrastructure. There’s no roads. There’s no water. There’s no money. The land is not usable for Hawaiians.’ And I just say, Bullshit. You don’t get to take trust land and use it for business opportunities for the state. You don’t get to take the Hawaiian Homes waitlist and turn it into the death list. They either have the wrong priorities or there’s incompetence.”
The slow pace at which Hawaiians are being returned to the land and the comparatively rapid rate at which corporations are securing long-term leases has long endured, despite lawsuits from beneficiaries, highly critical state audits and accusations of corruption.
Officials attribute the stalled process of awarding homesteads to the absence of roads, water and utility lines at many of the sites as well as a shortage of funding. The DHHL funnels some of the money it receives from big-dollar business leases toward future homestead development, which is why officials say these corporate leases are important. Critics say if that were true, many more homesteads would be up and running.
“It doesn’t have to be handed to us on a platter,” said Aggie Keaolani Marti-Kini, a homesteader who at age 27 was awarded the land lease her father died waiting for. “We have engineers and equipment and community resources to build roads and bring in water. Just give us the land.”
Some beneficiaries have lost faith that homesteads will ever be made available to them.
“I think some of the Hawaiians think it’s a ploy,” said Daniel Paleka, 61, a Hawaii Island councilman. “It’s like a carrot dangled in front of a horse.”
When Manulele Clarke received her land award on Kauai three decades ago, she couldn’t afford to build a house. She had no family alive to ask for help. So she bought a $500 camper trailer and parked it on her 3 acres under a makeshift wood slab roof. She and her daughter lived that way until she qualified for a home loan a year later.
Today the two live in separate homes on the property among the mango and avocado trees that feed them.
“If I didn’t have the property, I’d probably be on the beaches with the other Hawaiians,” said Clarke, who has kept her head above water working a long string of jobs, ranging from boat company manager to hotel lounge singer. “It was so hard for me to be a single parent here. But now I can live a really good life because of this gift that I got from Prince Kuhio.”
Clarke is a proud Hawaiian. She’s proud to be American too. But she often wonders why it sometimes seems so hard to be both.
She is distrustful of the proposed rules for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act because she doesn’t think the federal or state governments have Hawaiians’ best interests at heart.
“I feel really sad for the people who are still waiting for this land that already belongs to them,” she said. “Most of our Hawaiian people are so busy trying to put food on the table and gas in the car that they don’t have time to fight.”