WAIMANALO, Hawaii — In Hawaii, where blood and ancestry matter as in no other state, a legal challenge is posing this question: Who is sufficiently Hawaiian?
In Hawaii, ancestry is more than just a matter of ethnic pride. Under a program created by Congress in 1921, Native Hawaiians with strong bloodlines can get land for a home for $1 a year. Those with more mixed ancestry still receive many other benefits, including low-interest loans and admission for their children to the richly endowed and highly regarded Kamehameha Schools.
The help is designed to make amends for the 1893 U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the annexation of the islands, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign disease.
In a federal lawsuit filed in 2005, Native Hawaiians with at least 50 percent islander blood want exclusive control over state programs currently open to everyone with at least some Native Hawaiian blood.
In a separate dispute that could also be headed for court, state residents with no Native Hawaiian ancestry are questioning why they can’t join a Hawaiians-only voter registry.
The two cases are just the latest in a string of challenges over the special treatment accorded to Native Hawaiians.
Difficult to qualify for benefits
About 400,000 people claim Native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, two-thirds of them in the Hawaiian islands, making them a minority in a state of 1.2 million. Roughly 60,000 of those who consider themselves Hawaiian claim at least half Hawaiian blood.
Proving Native Hawaiian ancestry is a big deal. Without it, you can be born in the islands but can never call yourself Hawaiian.
No blood or DNA test exists to determine who is or isn’t Hawaiian. Instead, people have to prove their ethnicity through birth certificates, marriage licenses, census records, family trees or newspaper obituaries.
The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs spends millions a year on programs to benefit Native Hawaiians, promoting the Hawaiian language and pushing for federal recognition of Hawaiians. Most of the money comes from revenue generated by leasing out to farmers, developers and harbor users land that once belonged to the Hawaiian kingdom.
Hawaii argues against discrimination
In the federal lawsuit, people with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood contend that the money derived from their ancestors’ land should be spent only on them.
Slideshow: Polynesian paradise “These are the closest relatives to the people whose lands were taken from them unjustly,” said their attorney, Walter Schoettle. He added: “If you’re less than 50 percent Hawaiian, you’re more something else.”
But the state of Hawaii argues that it is committed to trying to raise the quality of life for all Native Hawaiians.
“It is impossible to improve the conditions of 50 percent Native Hawaiians in isolation,” said Clyde Namuo, administrator for the state office.
Critic: 'Hawaiian is not just blood'
Shannon Kahalepauole, 25, lives on property designated under the 1921 federal law for people with at least half Hawaiian blood. But she said all people of Hawaiian ancestry should be treated the same.
“If you’re Hawaiian, you’re Hawaiian,” Kahalepauole said as she and nine other Hawaiian women prepared for a dance exhibition Saturday in seaside Waimanalo. “Hawaiian is not just blood. It’s culture and attitude.”
Another dancer, Oriana Coleman, with an orange flower in her ear, said that she is 47 percent Hawaiian and that it is rare to find people who are more than 50 percent. Hawaiian programs “should be opened up for all Hawaiians,” she said.
The other recent dispute involves non-Native Hawaiians who are threatening to sue if they aren’t allowed to sign up on the voting rolls for a potential government for Hawaiians. (Congress is considering legislation to grant Hawaiians a degree of political autonomy similar to what American Indians have.) The voting registry is open only to Native Hawaiians.
“Their scheme to have racially restrictive elections doesn’t work. Just stay tuned,” said the non-Hawaiians’ attorney, H. William Burgess.
Supreme Court ruling
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Hawaii law that permitted only Native Hawaiians to vote in trustee elections for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, citing the constitutional ban on racial discrimination in voting. Now, all Hawaii voters participate and candidates themselves need not be Native Hawaiian.
The two current disputes do not directly challenge the 1921 federal homestead program that offers Native Hawaiians 99-year leases for $1 a year. Federal law also provides loans and loan guarantees to Hawaiians for home construction and repair and special assistance to Hawaiian farmers and ranchers.
As for the 6.700-student Kamehameha Schools, established under the 1883 will of a Hawaiian princess, they have so far survived lawsuits from students who were denied admission because they were not at least part Native Hawaiian.
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