Culture Focus: Hawaiian Land Ownership

While we love to flood your brains with lighthearted topics to keep you engaged in the beauty care world and the beauty of the Hawaiian islands; we also feel a great need to share the true, melancholy story of Hawaii’s past. We do so to commemorate those that experienced injustice, as well as to ensure that history can’t be repeated. Knowledge is power, and with knowledge, we can make a change. We learn the harsh history to make room for the possibility of justice and peace.

One piece of this turbulent history is the case of Hawaiian land ownership, an issue that Hawaii faced in the past and continues to face in the present. Read on to learn more about Hawaii’s interesting and complicated history made easy, to share with others, and simply to know!

The History of Hawaiian Land Ownership

The first Polynesian voyagers were believed to have arrived in Hawaii around 400 A.D. These newfound Hawaiians developed a sustainable culture centered around the care and preservation of the land, developing systems such as the ahupua’a, or land divisions, that worked to maintain the balance of nature by replenishing and repurposing every resource used. 

The concept of private land ownership didn’t exist until America stepped into the picture, but we’ll get to that soon. The Kings were considered the sovereign owners of all of the land which was in turn controlled by the ali`i nui or high chiefs and tended or farmed by the kanaka or commoners. This system of land use and control is known as a feudal system. Kapu, or laws and rules, were created to prohibit desecration and abuse of resources, both ocean and land. These Kapu were highly respected and regarded by the Hawaiian people, anyone who desecrated this system were immediately punished and reprimanded. These kapu maintained the order and preservation of the land, a concept that Hawaiians highly cherished, and still do today. The land was divided into geographical areas with the divisions intended so that the controlling ali`i and related kanaka had access to a broad spectrum of resources. Overall, it was a profitable experience for both people in power and people without power.

rice fields

Different island’s kings sometimes fought battles for control over territory. In the 1790’s Kamehameha the Great emerged victorious and by 1796 he had conquered all islands except Kauai and brought them under his rule. For the first time, Hawai`i was united and ruled by a single king. He distributed land to the ali`i and konohiki to control and oversee. They in turn distributed land to the kanaka. However, no one owned the land and after death a parcel or unit was returned to the overseer for redistribution. Essentially, the king could distribute land to anyone he wanted if he chose to, but no one truly laid claim to the land they were given.

In 1778 Captain Cook reached the Hawaiian Islands and not long after missionaries and businessmen followed. With them came the ways of the western world and ideas of trade consistent with a market economy. Hawaiian traditions became almost obsolete, and Hawaiian children were forced into Christianity, abandoning their traditional language and practices. Under the influence of western civilization, the concept of private property began to emerge. 

However, in 1839 the Bill of Rights of the Hawaiian Islands was enacted which guaranteed that people’s lands would not be taken from them. In 1840, the first Constitution of Hawai`i was enacted, making it clear that people had an interest in land greater than that of the bounty and produce of the land, or what could be ultimately profited off the land. In 1845, the Land Commission was created in Hawai`i by Kamehameha III to award land claims. However, it was not able to do so because the feudal system still existed and individuals did not legally hold title to land. 

The Great Mahele then occurred in 1848 when King Kamehameha and the ali’i came together to properly divide the land. This designated crown lands and ali’i lands. In 1850, it was decided that the Land Commission could award the title of the land to kanaka who physically owned and cultivated or improved any portion of their land.

hawaiian nene

 In 1893 the Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown and Queen Lilioukalani was imprisoned. The remaining Crown Lands were confiscated by the government and made a part of the public domain. However, any Hawaiian wishing to claim the land was either not educated enough to understand the process, couldn’t afford to own land, or put on a waitlist with which many waited until death to get approved for.

What About Now?

Nearly 40 years ago, at statehood, Hawaii residents outnumbered tourists by more than 2 to 1. Currently, tourists outnumber residents by 6 to 1; and even further outnumbering Native Hawaiians by 30 to 1. Today, anyone in the world can buy Hawaiian land if they’re a resident of Hawaii and file state income taxes. 

A department established by Congress was founded for the rights and preservation of Hawaiian lands. It was created to ensure that Hawaiians would have the opportunity to maintain their claims on the land. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is governed by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, enacted by the U.S. Congress to protect and improve the lives of native Hawaiians. The act created a Hawaiian Homes Commission to administer certain public lands, called Hawaiian home lands, for homesteads. Native Hawaiians, in this instance, are defined as individuals having at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood.

hawaiian girls

However, over 60% of the more than 200,000 acres of land granted long ago to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands may never have any homes for Native Hawaiians built on it.

About 59,660 acres are in conservation areas that contain endangered species and cultural resources, or may simply be geologically unsuitable for development. Another 65,218 acres cannot be developed in the next two decades because they lack infrastructure such as roads and water lines necessary to support homes. DHHL has long been criticized for its slow progress in getting Native Hawaiians onto homestead lands that can be developed, and its failure to build new rental housing. 

While some efforts have been made to counteract these issues, they’re still an ongoing problem that leaves Hawaiians in poor housing conditions, turning to substance abuse and homelessness.

What Can We Do?

There are several petitions available online to help the living conditions and proper ownership of land for the Hawaiian people, such as the most recent sacred preservation of Mauna Kea. However, one of the biggest ways we can help in ensuring Hawaiians are given rights to their land is through being cautious of our physical footprint in Hawaii. 

Reducing the real estate market is an incredible way to reverse the negative impact the U.S. has made on Hawaiian lands. With more and more people purchasing land, Hawaiians can barely afford to live in even the most unconditioned of places. The higher the purchase, the more difficult it is for low-income Hawaiian families to maintain their presence on their own land.

vacation home hawaii

In addition, while visiting Hawaii is a dream for many, reducing tourism, which brings and expands the economic injustice that perpetuates the poverty of Native Hawaiian people, that has sadly led to sexual and domestic violence and substance abuse among the Native Hawaiian people.

Do your part in spreading awareness of this sensitive topic! Sharing this story and being educated on this topic is already a great way to bring these issues to light. Mahalo for taking the time to sympathize with the Hawaiian people. Read our community mission to see how Surf Soap works to prevent a negative imapct on this pressing topic.


Written by Mia Hamp


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