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Local Spotlight: Returning Ancestral Land To Native Hawaiians

A view of Honolulu's Waikiki beach.
A view of Honolulu's Waikiki beach.

After the U.S. supported the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, the population of Native Hawaiians living on the islands began to decline. Within a couple of decades, many were suffering from disease and poverty, and most, displaced from their ancestral land, lived in slum-like tenements in Honolulu.

In 1921, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole, a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress, successfully lobbied for the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. It established a homesteading program that aimed to return Native Hawaiians to their land.

One hundred years later, the homesteading program has been through various iterations, but in large part has failed to achieve its goals. Many of the Native Hawaiians most in need have been unable to access land.

Hawaiians with the financial means and knowledge to navigate the complicated system are able to get homesteads with relative ease while thousands of others continue a generations-long wait for the land that is their birthright, an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica has found.

Over the past 25 years, the department, known as DHHL, has largely invested in building sprawling subdivisions. Intended to satisfy a crushing demand for housing, the remedy has exacerbated the problem, as the homes have proved too expensive for many applicants.

The result has been an ever-lengthening waitlist, now 23,000 people long, as Native Hawaiians struggle in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets. At the average rate the department has developed residential lots since 1995, it would take 182 years to meet demand — before figuring in expected waitlist growth.

For this installment of our “Local Spotlight” series, we talk to two reporters who investigated the homesteading program, as well as the chairman running it and a Native Hawaiian who is waiting for a lease.

This is part of a series called “Local Spotlight,” where we cover local stories that deserve national attention. Have a suggestion about what we should feature? You know where to find us.

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