From a Five-Year Pilot to a Century of Homesteading


On July 9, 1921, President Warren G. Harding signed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) into law.

This feat marked the cumulative efforts of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole and a group of advocates who dedicated years to an effort intended to rehabilitate the Native Hawaiian population at a time where the loss of land, disease and intermarriage threatened their future. As we commemorate the centennial of the HHCA, it’s important to reflect on the Act’s grassroots beginnings and what the past 100 years have encompassed.

In the early part of the 20th century, the number of full-blooded Hawaiians declined from 29,799 to 23,723 with an average life expectancy reported at just 30.2 years in 1910. During this same period, Native Hawaiians on Oʻahu were fast being displaced from their farming lands and began relocating to urban Honolulu. These Hawaiian families lived in crowded squatter camps and tenement rooms with shared common areas – conditions that aided in the rapid spread of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.

Concerned about the future of his people, Prince Kūhiō, along with other prominent Hawaiian leaders, formed several community groups with the intent of assisting those in need while instilling a sense of Hawaiian pride and consciousness.

Among the organizations formed was ʻAha Hui Puʻuhonua O Na Hawaiʻi or the Hawaiian Protective Association (HPA). Established on Nov. 13, 1914, at a meeting held by Prince Kūhiō at his home in Waikīkī, the group dedicated themselves to social and educational work to improve the destitute conditions of Native Hawaiians.

ʻAha Hui Puʻuhonua O Na Hawaiʻi ultimately birthed a formal resolution to rehabilitate Native Hawaiians by returning them to their lands.

“After extensive investigation and survey on the part of various organizations organized to rehabilitate the Hawaiian race, it was found that the only method in which to rehabilitate the race was to place them back upon the soil,” wrote Prince Kūhiō.

After the establishment of the HPA, Prince Kūhiō organized the first Hawaiian Civic Club to create an open forum for Hawaiians to discuss and take action on matters of importance affecting the welfare of the Hawaiian people, as well as to perpetuate the language, history, music, dances, and other cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi.

The Hawaiian Civic Club immediately lent its support to the resolution for Native Hawaiian rehabilitation which became the foundation for the HHCA. In 1919, the resolution was introduced to the Territorial Legislature where it passed both the House and Senate before being forwarded to Washington, D.C., for congressional action.

However, in Washington, D.C., the proposal met with significant opposition from ranchers and sugar planters. Prince Kūhiō and advocates of the measure delivered passionate testimony and accepted several compromises – including a 50% blood quantum – to carry the Act through both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

The HHCA effectively amended the Organic Act of 1900 and set aside approximately 203,000 acres of former crown and government lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom for homesteading by Hawaiians of at least half Native Hawaiian ancestry.

Prince Kūhiō was named to the first Hawaiian Homes Commission (HHC) by Governor Wallace Rider Farrington, but before he could help implement the homesteading program he championed, the Prince fell ill and died on Jan. 7, 1922.

The years immediately following Prince Kūhiō’s death were critical to the HHCA, as the Act was passed with a five-year probationary period for lands on Molokaʻi and Hawaiʻi Island. Challenged by harsh land conditions and limited water resources, the future of the program relied on the progress of those first homesteaders. However, in 1928 the trial period was considered a success, and the homesteading program was fully instituted.

As the program expanded it uncovered challenges, some of which continue to plague its forward movement today, including poor quality lands, difficulty developing water sources, and issues with securing funding to provide loans to beneficiaries.

In 1959, as a condition of statehood, the HHCA was adopted as a provision of the new state constitution, and responsibility for fulfilling the Act fell to the new State of Hawaiʻi. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) was established as the department within the governor’s cabinet to lead the state’s obligation to its Indigenous people.

At the time, there were roughly 1,700 homestead families on Hawaiian Home Lands and approximately 2,500 applicants.

The State of Hawaiʻi underwent a growth boom in the 60s and 70s, but the advancement of the HHCA continued to struggle despite the state’s constitutional responsibility to carry out the Act.

At the 1978 Constitutional Convention, delegates proposed an amendment guaranteeing sufficient state funding for DHHL – an amendment that would go largely unfulfilled until a lawsuit was filed by HHCA beneficiaries.

A federal and state task force was established in 1982 to accelerate the distribution of benefits of the Act to Native Hawaiians. In 1995, following recommendations of the task force, both the federal and state governments passed legislative initiatives to resolve issues facing the homesteading program.

The federal government’s Hawaiian Home Lands Recovery Act sought to compensate the HHC for land used by the federal government without authorization. The Hawaiʻi State Legislature passed Act 14 which not only returned thousands of acres of land to the trust but also established a $600 million settlement for unauthorized use of Hawaiian Home Lands by the state.

Just over 6,000 homestead lots had been developed in the initial 75-years of the program. But by utilizing the $600 million settlement, growing revenues from available lands, and recent legislative appropriations, over the past 25 years DHHL has developed more than 4,000 lots.

DHHL has recently focused on a variety of product offerings for future homestead lots. Turn-key developments, along with vacant lot offers, have provided options for the varied needs of modern Hawaiian families. Soon, under newly adopted administrative rules, DHHL will provide expanded options that include subsistence farming, multi-family units, and affordable rentals.

“Prince Kūhiō’s vision of a rehabilitated native Hawaiian community was a meritorious and courageous notion, one that has proved to face its challenges but has strived on with resiliency,” said HHC Chair William J. Ailā, Jr. “As we embark on the next 100 years of the HHCA, we look to the past for important lessons learned and we press on with the wisdom gained to continue his great legacy.”

At the close of the 2021 legislative session, DHHL received a record allocation of $78 million in capital improvement funding, an acknowledgment of the serious financial resources needed to serve the beneficiaries of the HHCA, and an encouraging start to the next 100 years.