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Advocating for My Fellow Hawaiian Homesteaders

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Photo of Henderson Huihui
Photo of Henderson Huihui

By Henderson Huihui, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow hosted by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

Native Hawaiians, similar to other indigenous peoples in the United States, have endured a history of colonization and the dispossession of ancestral lands. In the 1920s, it was clear that the loss of land had a significant negative impact on all indicators of health and wellbeing for native Hawaiians. This loss of land pushed Native Hawaiians into crowded tenements, disrupted their ability to practice subsistence living traditionally necessary for survival, and triggered a diaspora of Hawaiian out of Hawai’i. These conditions contributed to a staggering decline in the Hawaiian population, as well as the number of Hawaiians living in Hawai’i. Western population estimates of Native Hawaiians prior to Western contact in 1778 range from hundreds of thousands up to 1 million. By 1920, the number of Native Hawaiians dropped to 23,700—literally, more than a nine-fold decimation.

In 1921, the federal government enacted the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA) in response to the alarming decline in the native Hawaiian population. The HHCA set aside certain areas of land, held in trust by the federal government, to rehabilitate the native Hawaiian people by returning them to the land. The HHCA provides for long-term residential, agricultural, and pastoral homestead leases to eligible native Hawaiians. As a condition of statehood, the administration of the homestead program was transferred to the State of Hawaii. The loss of ancestral lands still impacts native Hawaiians today. Recent census estimates show that the Native Hawaiian population is on a steady rebound, with more than 600,000 Americans identifying as Hawaiian or part Hawaiian, however, only about half of those people live in Hawai’i. The flow of Hawaiians out of Hawaiian ancestral lands continues to be a concern, threatening the strength of Hawaiian cultural practice and identity for many who cannot afford housing here.

The loss of ancestral lands still impacts native Hawaiians today.

The inspiration for my Equal Justice Works Fellowship comes from my experience growing up in the Waimānalo Hawaiian homestead. As a Native Hawaiian, my family faced many of the same challenges that others in the broader Native Hawaiian community face, some of which are rooted in Hawai’i’s troubled past of colonization. A Hawaiian homestead can provide an ‘ohana (family) with stability for generations. Having benefitted from the homestead program, I feel that it is now my kuleana (responsibility) to help families retain their homestead leases.

Having benefitted from the homestead program, I feel that it is now my kuleana (responsibility) to help families retain their homestead leases.

The focus of my Fellowship is to provide comprehensive outreach and advocacy for beneficiaries of the HHCA. Issues facing homestead families range from successorship of a homestead lease, a lack of internet access, environmental impacts and access to water, and lease cancelation. These issues may affect the generational stability provided by a homestead and put families at risk of houselessness or being forced to live outside of Hawaii to avoid the high cost of living. Through the Fellowship, I work to empower Native Hawaiian beneficiaries to retain and proactively manage their family homesteads by providing educational materials, direct legal services, and advocacy.

Through this Fellowship, I’ve been given the opportunity to take a deep dive into a rather niche and nuanced area of law. While it’s been challenging to navigate complex legal theories and approaches, as some homestead issues go beyond traditional landlord-tenant questions and into the fiduciary duties of the State of Hawaii and administrative rule making processes, working for my community has been very rewarding.

Every opportunity to serve a member of my community, in cases big and small, whether through brief services or through full representation, has been the highest honor.

Every opportunity to serve a member of my community, in cases big and small, whether through brief services or through full representation, has been the highest honor. Those served through this Fellowship face a frustrating and confusing system. When they have someone advocating for them, their voice is finally being heard. Being that voice has been the proudest moments of the Fellowship. My hope is to continue working in this area of law to help advance the rights and protections of Hawaiian homestead families as the Fellowship has highlighted systematic and administrative shortfalls of the Hawaiian Home Lands trust program and the common need for homesteader education.

We’re proud of the work Henderson is doing to advocate on behalf of Hawaiian homestead families. To learn more information about his Fellowship, visit here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow