The Blood Quantum Controversy Through Hapa Hawaiʻi Eyes

Photo: Kumella and Kalikopuanoheaokalani Aiu are now living on Oʻahu
Kumella and Kalikopuanoheaokalani Aiu are now living on Oʻahu. – Courtesy Photo

Kalikopuanoheaokalani Aiu lived two contrasting realities growing up hapa (part-Hawaiian) on the continent.

With a Greek and English mother, and a father with Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino and Portuguese kūpuna, Aiu said, “No one could place my ethnicity.” Born and raised in Colorado, Aiu’s high school peers often spoke to them in Spanish, and stared with raised eyebrows at their lunches of spam, kimchi and musubi.

“Times have changed a lot. We haven’t moved very far, but we’ve also come a long way, all at the same time,” the 25-year-old Aiu said.

Aiu now resides on Oʻahu and has faced imposter syndrome while diving deeper into learning the different threads of their ethnic and cultural identity.

Aiu isn’t alone. Only 10.5% of Hawaiʻi’s population identifies as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone, while 25% report two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, many of those with koko Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian blood) can’t claim pieces of the ʻāina today.

For example, to apply for a homestead lease through the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) the applicant must be at least 50% Hawaiian to qualify. This specific definition of Native Hawaiian was established in 1921 by the U.S. Congress when the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was created.

As a congressional delegate, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole pushed for the creation of the Hawaiian Homes Commission to mitigate the suffering of Native Hawaiians after the U.S. illegally invaded and annexed the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi at the end of the 19th century.

Anticipating interracial marriages, Kalanianaʻole proposed a blood quantum requirement of 1⁄32 (3.13%) Hawaiian to qualify for a Hawaiian Home Land lease. However, political pressure by powerful sugar and ranching interests forced Kalanianaʻole to settle, instead, for a qualifying blood quantum of 50% Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Subsequent amendments to the blood quantum requirement in 1986, 1997 and 2005 led to a reduction of the blood quantum requirement for land successors. Today, spouses, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters of the original lessee with at least 25% Hawaiian ancestry can succeed a homestead lease.

Prior to leaving office, former U.S. Rep. Kaialiʻi Kahele brought the blood quantum controversy to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives when he advocated amending the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

Kahele proposed a bill to further reduce the qualifying blood quantum for Hawaiian Home Land successors from 25% to 3.13% (the quantum Kalanianaʻole originally proposed). However, the bill did not move forward.

Kahele has referred to the blood quantum requirement as “a poison pill” that divides Hawaiians today.

“Blood quantum matters because the state sees it as valid, but those laws are restrictive,” Aiu said. “They’re a ripple effect of colonization and annexation.”

Aiu’s mother, 49-year-old Kumella Aiu, called blood quantum “a colonial thought process.”

She continually educates herself on the differences between her lived experience as a first-generation white American, and those of her hapa children, pointing to the racism and microaggressions they’ve weathered on the continent. “I’m coming to terms with the fact that my ancestors and my children’s ancestors would not have seen eye-to-eye on many things.”

Sara Kehaulani Goo, 46, nurtures her own special connection with the ʻāina. Her kūpuna’s ancestral gravesites are located near the Piʻilanihale Heiau at Kahanu Garden in Hāna, Maui. “Our family donated that land and that site to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and it was always important to our family that that place be taken care of,” Goo said.

Now living in Washington, D.C., Goo grew up on the continent with a white mother and a father with Chinese, Okinawan and Native Hawaiian roots. “The part that speaks loudest to me is my Native Hawaiian heritage,” she said.

A number of Goo’s relatives live on Hawaiian homestead lands. The program enabled her grandparents to affordably move to Oʻahu and spend their retirement years on the island. However, since the pair passed away, her family “is in danger of losing” the land, because Goo’s generation does not meet the blood quantum requirement to inherit it.

“It’s important that the Hawaiian homestead program continue to be honored and really help Native Hawaiians in the most expansive way possible,” Goo said, noting that Hawaiʻi “has some real, serious issues to fix” in providing affordable housing generally.

Abbie Kozik, a 64-year-old Denver resident, describes herself as “chop suey.” With Filipino, Korean, Hawaiian and Chinese bloodlines, she embodies “a little bit of everything.”

Raised in Honolulu, she considered multiracial people to be the norm, as many friends also identified as mixed-race. “Growing up in such a diverse environment, I never really thought about it,” Kozik said.

Ultimately, the blood quantum requirement raises questions for her. “What’s the process of making that fair for everybody?” she said. “I don’t think it’s a very Hawaiian concept.”

Blood Quantum was Imposed on Indigenous People to Limit Rights and Benefits

Requiring a blood quantum to determine whether a person is “native” is a device that has been used for more than 200 years to limit the rights of Indigenous people by reducing the number of people who can qualify for specific benefits or services. Establishing a blood quantum for Indigenous people is a long game played to ensure that each successive generation will have fewer individuals who can qualify for said services. It is a way to eventually erase Indigenous people.

Blood quantum as a tool for defining membership within a group is not an Indigenous concept.

According to the Native Governance Center, an Indigenous-led nonprofit dedicated to helping Native nations strengthen their governance systems and capacity to exercise sovereignty, blood quantum is a controversial subject with major implications for citizenship and belonging.

The Center’s website states that, “Blood quantum is a concept created by white settlers that refers to the amount of so-called ‘Indian blood’ that an individual possesses. Blood quantum appears as a fraction and is ‘calculated’ based on an individual’s family tree…a stand-in device for lineage imposed by the U.S. federal government to disempower Indigenous people and separate them from their lands, resources, culture, identities, languages, and futures.”

Ascribing a blood quantum requirement to define a people group is “rooted in eugenics” and is without scientific basis, according to the Center.

In America, the concept dates back to the 18th century when blood quantum was imposed by white settlers to limit the rights of the Indigenous people. However, blood quantum did not play a role in determining Tribal citizenship until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 was passed – just 13 years after the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act established a 50% blood quantum to be considered a Native Hawaiian.

For more information visit: