Series: Promised Land
A Failed Housing Pledge to Native Hawaiians
Long after the interview was over, I had trouble shaking the quote. “It’s like we’re an invisible people,” Mike Kahikina had told me. I kept thinking about what he said, even weeks later.
Kahikina, a Native Hawaiian, had been a member of the Hawaiian Homes Commission for eight years, from 2011 to 2019. The nine-person panel was charged with overseeing a federally created land trust that was designed to return Hawaiians to their ancestral lands. If you are at least half Hawaiian, it is your birthright to be able to get a 99-year homesteading lease for $1 annually.
Kahikina’s job wasn’t easy. The homesteading program has been plagued by problems — inadequate lands, inadequate funding, inadequate management — almost from its inception a century ago. Hawaiians have waited years and even decades to get a homestead and a chance to claim a piece of their native lands. There are 23,000 people on a statewide residential waitlist; thousands have died without getting a lease.
I have been reporting on the Hawaiian Homes program for more than a year now. The problems I have uncovered, along with my ProPublica partner Agnel Philip, have been disturbing. My latest story was no exception.
In 1995, the federal government promised to give the Hawaiian Homes trust priority when surplus federal lands in Hawaii became available. The government long ago had taken control of more than 1,400 acres of trust land without compensating Hawaiians. This practice mirrored what happened to a much larger extent in 1898, when the island chain was annexed by the United States and roughly 1.8 million acres of former Hawaiian kingdom land was taken with no compensation to its indigenous people.
By 1995, it was payback time: Congress passed what was called the Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act to make amends for the more recent taking. Three years after its passage, the federal government and the trust reached a landmark settlement, and nearly 1,000 acres were to be returned to Hawaiians.
But within a few years, one transfer fell through, and today, more than a quarter-century later, the U.S. government still owes millions of dollars of land to the trust.
And unbeknownst to Kahikina and many others, Congress was undermining its pledge of redress by passing at least half a dozen pieces of special legislation allowing land deals to go around the recovery act. Over the past decade, the federal government has authorized roughly 40 such sales to private parties without offering the land to the trust, a practice one Hawaiian who has been on the homesteading waitlist for nearly a decade called “a slap in the face.”
As I shared details of my investigation with Kahikina, he became more upset. “You opened my eyes when you told me about that,” Kahikina said. We were sitting outside the West Oahu homesteading residence that has been in his family for three generations. He kept repeating the same thing, underscoring what he considers government indifference to the plight of Hawaiians: “It’s like we’re an invisible people.”
I know something about that. I know something about land takings.
I am CHamoru, a member of the indigenous people of Guam, a tiny Pacific island nearly 4,000 miles west of Hawaii. My family has had its own brush with land takings.
Japanese military forces seized control of Guam from the U.S. during World War II and occupied the island for more than two years. It was a brutal occupation. Growing up on Guam, I remember elder relatives sharing stories of the harsh times during the war — and the elation they felt when U.S. forces retook the island in a fierce battle in 1944.
But the elation for some was short-lived. After the war, the U.S. military acted to transform our 212-square-mile island into a strategic Western Pacific outpost, and thousands of acres were seized without adequate compensation to CHamoru families. My father’s village was destroyed during the war, and the residents were not allowed to return later to rebuild. Today, the place where his family and others lived for generations is a Navy base. The federal government now owns roughly a third of the island.
My parents’ families lost property after the war and for years sought just compensation. At times, the odds were steep. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the U.S government took firm control of the island, restricting access from the outside, appointing judges and creating other conditions that undermined a free-market economy. That depressed property values, and getting adequate compensation for government land condemnations was challenging at best.
But families persisted. Years ago, my mother’s family received a replacement parcel for one lot and is still seeking compensation for another. Who knows how long that will take.
Hawaiians, like Kahikina, are thinking the same thing. As the homesteading waitlist continues to grow, as more Hawaiians die without getting a lease and as more become homeless, they keep asking the same question: How long will it take to get what is rightfully ours?