The annual celebration of Prince Jonah Kūhiō’s birthday is a good time to reflect upon and honor the legacy of Prince Kūhiō and the institutions that he established in his lifetime to empower Native Hawaiians to govern as Hawaiians, for Hawaiians.

Photo: Prince Jonah Kūhiō
Prince Jonah Kūhiō. – Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives

He was born on Kauaʻi to High Chief Kahalepouli and High Chiefess Kinoiki Kekaulike, the sister of Queen Kapiʻolani. At age 13, Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole was declared to be a successor to the Hawaiian throne by his aunt’s husband, King David Kalākaua. He assumed the kuleana to be a prince for his people as he pursued his education in Hawaiʻi, California, England and Japan. When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893, Prince Kūhiō joined the movement to restore the Queen in 1895, was arrested, and imprisoned. Upon his release, he married Chiefess Elizabeth Kahanu Kaʻauwai, toured the world and returned home ready to contend with the haole oligarchy over the governance of Hawaiʻi.

Returning in 1902, Prince Kūhiō joined the Homerule Party, but after a falling out with the old guard leadership, he ran as a Republican and was elected as Hawaiʻi’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Other young Hawaiian leaders rallied around his leadership, and with the encouragement of Queen Liliʻuokalani, they sought positions of leadership in the governance of Hawaiʻi, as mayors, legislators and county officials.

In 1903, Prince Kūhiō reorganized and led the Royal Order of Kamehameha I in a public torchlight ceremony at the statue of Kamehameha I fronting Ali‘iōlani Hale, defying the haole oligarchy that had forced it underground and demonstrating the resilience of Hawaiian national leaders. Today, the Royal Order continues to perpetuate Hawaiian aliʻi protocols and provide guardianship of Hawaiian national sites – homes of kings and queens, historic battlegrounds, heiau and an ahu on Mauna A Wākea.

In November 1914 Prince Kūhiō founded the Ahahui Puʻuhonua O Nā Hawaiʻi with 200 Hawaiian leaders, to uplift the Hawaiian people through projects and programs. They designed the legislation that became the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which passed in 1921. In 1920, the life expectancy for Native Hawaiians was 35, while it was 51 for Japanese, 54 for Chinese and 57 for haole. In 1925, the infant mortality rate for Native Hawaiians was still 136 per 1,000 while it was 39 per 1,000 for haole. The plan was to rehibilitate the Hawaiian people, by getting them out of the Iwilei and Chinatown tenaments and Kakaʻako squatter villages and place them on the land to raise animals, fish and farm. Over a hundred years ago, on December 18, 1918, Prince Kūhiō and the Ahahui founded the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu, to organize a larger political base of support for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. In 1920, Native Hawaiians still comprised 55.6% of the registered voters and wielded extensive political muscle in elections and governance. Today there are 58 clubs in Hawaiʻi and on the U.S. Continent.

Prince Kūhiō and Hawaiian national leaders persisted in pushing for the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, despite opposition from the haole oligarchy. Rather than having the prime Crown Lands reserved in a trust for the Native Hawaiian people, 200,000 acres of the third and fourth class Crown and Government lands were designated. Rather than having all Native Hawaiians or those of even 1/32nd Hawaiian ancestry be eligible for the benefits of the trust, only those of 1/2 Hawaiian ancestry were defined as eligible. Nevertheless, despite the compromises that he had to accept, Prince Kūhiō established a trust for the Native Hawaiian people which holds a portion of the Native Hawaiian national lands and has 9,800 rooftops. With an average of five persons, per home, an estimated 49,000 Native Hawaiians reside on these lands. As we celebrate the 148th birthday of Prince Kūhiō let us honor his legacy of persistence and resilience and continue to exercise our self-governance as Native Hawaiians on our Hawaiian Homelands and to reclaim all of our national and ancestral lands for our nation.