By Ka Wai Ola Staff

Nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Congress enacted the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) to provide a homesteading program for native Hawaiians and placed approximately 200,000 acres into the Hawaiian Homes Lands Trust. Since then, there have been more than 125 amendments to the original act that changed the lands of the trust, qualifications of beneficiaries, use of trust funds, as well as other aspects of how the trust is managed.

Tracing this history and the substance of these amendments is complicated because the HHCA was enacted when Hawai‘i was a territory. It evolved through statehood, and was adopted as state law in the Hawai‘i constitution. As a compound of interdependent federal and state law, the HHCA establishes a federal framework but also provides for implementation by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) through state law.

In the 1959 Hawai‘i Admission Act and the 1995 Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act, Congress provided the conditions and process for making amendments to the HHCA. The State of Hawai‘i, via legislation and gubernatorial approval, is allowed to propose amendments to the HHCA; however, these amendments must be reviewed by the Secretary of the Interior and depending on its substance, the consent of the United States through the approval of Congress may be required. In 2016, the Department of the Interior (DOI) promulgated a rule for HHCA amendments that assists the secretary in meeting this responsibility and published it in the Code of Federal Regulations (43 CFR Part 48).

“This reference guide to the HHCA is a DOI initiative to make the full history of the federal and state amendments to the act more readily available in a single, cross-referenced document.”
— Susan Combs, DOI Senior Advisor

Photo: ONHR staff
DOI’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations (ONHR) staff. (L to R) Stanton Enomoto, Lisa Oshiro Suganuma and Kimo Kaloi. – Photo: Courtesy

DOI’s Office of Native Hawaiian Relations (ONHR) was established, in part, to assist the secretary in meeting the responsibility of reviewing state-proposed amendments to the HHCA. “In past years, counselors to the secretary, and more recently, ONHR, have examined thousands of pages of state legislative documents, congressional reports and correspondence with the state, including DHHL and the Department of the Attorney General, to assess proposed amendments and recommend to the secretary if congressional approval is necessary,” commented Lisa Oshiro Suganuma, ONHR Policy Analyst.

Recognizing this and after years of effort by ONHR staff, legal externs and others, they recently published a first-of-a-kind Reference Guide to the HHCA in September. According to Susan Combs, DOI Senior Advisor acting in the authority of assistant secretary, “This reference guide to the HHCA is a DOI initiative to make the full history of the federal and state amendments to the act more readily available in a single, cross-referenced document.”

The reference guide is not only intended for federal purposes, but can also assist DHHL, other State agencies, legislators, policy advocates and HHCA beneficiaries trace the history of amendments enacted by Congress, amendments that the secretary determined congressional action was unnecessary, as well as the status of those that are under review or have not been approved by Congress. Patrick L. Kahawaiolaa, president of the Keaukaha Community Association noted, “Many HHCA beneficiaries have not even read the act. Years ago, every new lessee was given a copy of the act, but nowadays no one is given a copy or guided to go online to review it. This DOI reference guide is a must-read to better understand what the act provides to beneficiaries and how we should conduct ourselves when awarded a lease.”

ONHR intends to update the HHCA reference guide annually to allow readers to track state-proposed amendments as they are reviewed by the secretary and as necessary considered by Congress. Copies of the guide may be obtained from the ONHR website at: www.doi.gov/hawaiian/homes-commission-act-reference-guide or by contacting ONHR at: www.doi.gov/hawaiian/contact-us.