Ikena Paraan, 10 months old, who has more than 50 percent Hawaiian blood, is held by his mother, Shannon Kahalepauole, who is about a quarter Hawaiian, at a community center near their home in Waimanalo. In the foreground is Kahalepauole's daughter Aulii Paraan, 6, who is also more than 50 percent Hawaiian.
Hawaiian blood at issue in lawsuits
In Hawaii, where race and blood ancestry matter as in no other state, two legal challenges are trying to decide who is really Hawaiian enough to get some public benefits.
Native Hawaiians with strong bloodlines can get island land for $1 a year. Those with more mixed ancestry still get many other benefits, including low-interest loans and acceptance for their children into the richly endowed, race-preferential Kamehameha Schools.
This public help is designed to make amends for the 1893 U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom and hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign diseases. Kamehameha Schools, with 6,700 native Hawaiian students on three islands, is supported by one of the richest private trusts in the nation, now worth about $7.7 billion.
In one lawsuit, native Hawaiians with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood want control over programs currently open to all Hawaiians. In another case, state residents without Hawaiian ancestry question why they are left out.
With more people of mixed race than any other state, some racial tension is evident in the islands, although being local often is more important than being brown, black or white.
Still, proving native Hawaiian ancestry is a big deal. Without it, you can be born in the islands but can never call yourself Hawaiian.
Shannon Kahalepauole, 25, lives on property designated for people with at least half Hawaiian blood through a 1921 act of Congress.
Among friends, she says, it does not matter how Hawaiian you are. But she and other native Hawaiians know how important it can be in enjoying benefits from the state and some private institutions.
"It should be all the same. If you're Hawaiian, you're Hawaiian," Kahalepauole said as she and nine other women, all of whom consider themselves Hawaiian, prepared for a Tahitian dance exhibition Saturday in seaside Waimanalo.
But she did point out that her 10-month-old son, Ikena Paraan, who darted among the dancers in a toddler walker, has a Hawaiian father, which gives him a stronger Hawaiian ancestry than she has.
"Hawaiian is not just blood," she said. "It's culture and attitude."
Another dancer, Oriana Coleman, with an orange flower in her ear, claimed she is 47 percent Hawaiian and said it is rare these days to find people who are more than 50 percent.
About 400,000 people claim native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, two-thirds of whom live in the islands, making them a relatively small minority in a state of 1.2 million. Roughly 60,000 of those who consider themselves Hawaiian claim at least half Hawaiian blood.
While racial issues across the country usually start with an assumption of racial equality under the law, the legal actions in the islands test the boundaries of racial preferences.
"You have to draw a line someplace," said Walter Schoettle, the attorney who filed the lawsuit seeking to stop funding of programs for people without at least half Hawaiian blood. "If you're less than 50 percent Hawaiian, you're more something else."
Island residents wanting to prove how Hawaiian they are have to trace their ancestry back to someone who was full-blooded.
Schoettle's suit maintains that the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs should not be using money raised by leasing out their forefathers' land for programs for all Hawaiians, regardless of their blood quantum. Revenue comes from leasing land originally held by Hawaiian royalty, which became federal land when the U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898 and state land at statehood in 1959.
The Hawaiians-only programs include OHA funding of legal resources for pushing Hawaiian causes, a Hawaiian language program that has increased use of the native language, and support for federal recognition of Hawaiians.
"We believe in trying to raise the quality of life for all Hawaiians," said Clyde Namuo, administrator for the state office. "It is impossible to improve the conditions of 50 percent native Hawaiians in isolation."
But the more pureblooded Hawaiians argue their lawsuit has little to do with race and everything to do with inheritance of money from lands that belonged to their ancestors.
"These are the closest relatives to the people whose lands were taken from them unjustly," Schoettle said. "It's about kinship, kinship, kinship."
The lawsuit was reinstated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August and ordered back to District Court for consideration. A motion before the 9th Circuit from state Attorney General Mark Bennett, who has taken the position that native Hawaiian programs should benefit all Hawaiians, is pending.
The second case involves non-native Hawaiians who are threatening to sue if they are not allowed to sign up on the voting rolls for a potential government for Hawaiians, similar to entities governing American Indians and Alaska natives. The quasi government is expected to result from the so-called Akaka Bill in Congress, which would recognize native Hawaiians similar to the status given American Indians.
The Kau Inoa registry currently permits people with any Hawaiian blood to enroll.
H. William Burgess, attorney for the non-native Hawaiians, sent two letters to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which runs the native Hawaiian voting registry, asking that his clients be allowed to join, Namuo said.
OHA has not added Burgess' clients to the Kau Inoa list or responded to Burgess' letters, Namuo said. OHA's lawyers believe non-native Hawaiians would have a difficult time proving they have been harmed, because the registration list has not been used for anything yet.
OHA attorney Robert Klein called Burgess' action "a shot across the bow."
In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Hawaii law that permitted only native Hawaiians to vote in trustee elections for the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs, citing the constitutional ban against voting discrimination based on race. Now, all voters can participate, and candidates themselves need not be native Hawaiian, although most who run claim Hawaiian ancestry.