Sunday, August 24, 2003

Native blood
and custom clash

Some critics say the definition
of Hawaiian should include
the practice of "hanai"

Who is Hawaiian?

That question is at the heart of the debate over the admission of a non-Hawaiian student to the Kamehameha Schools, and it remains an issue surrounding most programs benefiting Hawaii's native people.

It is an issue many people in Hawaii feel passionately about, and an issue that can turn divisive, as seen in the protests last week after a federal judge ordered the private school to admit a seventh-grader who was not considered Hawaiian.

Many believe that being Hawaiian has more to do with genealogy than race, that the issue is more about ancestry than civil rights.

The mother of the boy who was admitted was the hanai, or adopted, child of a Hawaiian man she listed as her father on her son's Kamehameha application. The school originally admitted the boy, but rescinded the acceptance when the mother could not prove she was of Hawaiian ancestry.

Kamehameha Schools accepts students who can verify some Hawaiian ancestry, said spokesman Kekoa Paulsen. No specific blood quantum is required, he said.

However, in the case of adoptions, the school looks at the biological ancestry of the applicant's parents, he said.

Even if both parents are Hawaiian, their adopted non-Hawaiian child "would be considered along with all other non-Hawaiian applicants so that we would give preference to those applicants who were able to verify they do have Hawaiian ancestry," said Constance Lau, chairwoman of the Kamehameha Schools board of trustees.

"It's based on their biological parents and not on their adoptive parents," she said.

Gov. Linda Lingle said the civil rights argument being used by the boy's attorneys doesn't apply to Kamehameha because of the diversity of the student population.

"If you look at the ethnic makeup of the kids at Kamehameha School, they are every ethnic background in the book," she said. "I think the issue of civil rights is a red herring. It's not an issue in any case because every ethnic group is going through Kamehameha."

Native Hawaiians must be of at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood to qualify for leases from the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, a requirement set in the 1920 federal law creating the Hawaiian Homes program, according to department spokesman Francis Apoliona.

However, successors to a lease can be only 25 percent Hawaiian, he said.

"We feel the people we serve will have to make the initiative to change the requirement," he said. The department then would ask the Legislature to urge Congress to make the change.

"But we are trying to serve the 17,000 on the waiting list before recommending any change to the blood quantum," he said.

"The definition of who is Hawaiian should come from the Hawaiian people themselves," Apoliona said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, however, offers its programs to those with any Hawaiian ancestry.

Both the state and federal definitions of Hawaiian are based on descent, so it doesn't make sense for someone to claim to be Hawaiian based on culture, the hanai claim, said Jon Okamura, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii.

"Anyone can make claims, but these claims must be validated," he said.

Kamehameha Schools left itself open to legal challenges when it admitted a non-Hawaiian student to its Maui campus last year, and then, in response to alumni protests, said it would give preference to native Hawaiians, he said.

"The definition of Hawaiian that is used at Kamehameha has to do with descent of the indigenous people in Hawaii," said Rick Baldoz, professor of sociology at the university.

"I don't think the discussion of race is appropriate," he said. "Race tends to assign people on the basis of physical characteristics.

"This is an issue of entitlements for a historically disenfranchised population."

Although the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2000 Rice v. Cayetano decision, has ruled that Hawaiians are a racial group, Baldoz said the U.S. government "uses race to categorize people."

"But that is not the way to describe the particularities of the Hawaiian people," he said. "This is not an issue of race, but an institution designed for a group that is disenfranchised. It is a very successful academic and cultural institution. It bases its education programs to cater to this population."

The definition of who is Hawaiian based on culture "becomes too elastic," Baldoz said. "Anyone could claim cultural affiliation. It seems blood quantum is the best way to determine descent."

Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies, agrees.

"The bottom line is we are defined by genealogy," she said. "We are born from the land, we have genealogical ties to the land.

"It is clear that Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop left her land and money for the education of Hawaiian children, and that's who it should be for," she said.

But others say the Hawaiian practice of hanai, or informal adoption, should be given more consideration.

Nona Beamer, a Hawaiian cultural authority and mother of two hanai children, said the hanai system has long been honored in Hawaiian culture.

"If we are going to honor the hanai system, shouldn't we disregard the Hawaiian blood issue?" asked Beamer, who has a hanai son and daughter, both adults.

"The hanai system has been recognized in court, so it seems it would follow in this case," she said.

Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell, who was adopted as a child, said he champions the cause of Hawaiian blood, but said the definition of Hawaiian should include not only Hawaiian blood but Hawaiian custom.

"This is not a matter of race," he said.

Vicky Holt Takamine, a Hawaiian activist, said while Kamehameha's admission is restricted to students of Hawaiian ancestry, "every race is represented in our community and at the school."

She noted that her own children are half Japanese and half Hawaiian.


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