5 Questions with . . . J. Kēhaulani Kauanui

My book critically examines how “blood racialization” defines Hawaiian identity as measurable and dilutable

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American studies, associate professor of anthropology, examines how "blood racialization" defines Hawaiian identity as measurable and dilutable. (Photo by Stefan Weinberger '10)

This issue we feature 5 Questions with… J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, associate professor of American studies, associate professor of anthropology.

Q. How did you become interested in your area of study?
JKK: My area of study is related to researching the history of U.S. imperialism in the Pacific Islands. Researching indigenous issues in Hawai`i, I found it necessary to study how the U.S. government has treated Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) in light of its U.S. federal policy on American Indians and Alaska Natives. The policy is convoluted. The U.S. government has alternately classified Kanaka Maoli, as well as other Native Pacific Islanders under the Asian or “Asian Pacific” category, but since 1906, Kanaka Maoli have also specifically been included in over 160 legislative acts that apply to American Indians. This contradiction has pushed me to better understand U.S. racial formations and indigenous sovereignty politics. This has led me to other research areas, including settler colonialism, self-determination, decolonization, and international law.

Q. What was the most interesting aspect of researching and writing your recent book Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity?
JKK: My book critically examines how “blood racialization” defines Hawaiian identity as measurable and dilutable. Blood racialization is the process by which racial meaning is ascribed—in this case to Kanaka Maoli – through ideologies of blood quantum. The contemporary legal definition of “native Hawaiian” is a “descendant with at least one-half blood quantum of individuals inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778.” The definition originated in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921 (HHCA) in which the US Congress allotted approximately 200,000 acres of land in small areas across the main islands to be leased for residential, pastoral, and agricultural purposes by eligible “native Hawaiians.” However, I could find no comprehensive examination of what led to this “50 percent blood” determination. The definition is important beyond racial identity because it also has implications for ultimate ownership and use of Hawaiian land. In fact, there is a long-standing belief among many Kanaka Maoli that the 50 percent blood quantum standard was established in hopes by some in the U.S. government that eventually no one would count as Hawaiian using that criterion. In Hawaiian Blood, I analyze this history within the context of the Congressional debates between February 1920 and December 1921 that led up to the HHCA. The book also includes an examination of the role in this process by Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian elites in the territory.

Q. What new insights did you glean about modern and historical culture in Hawai`i?
JKK: Initially, Kanaka Maoli leaders’ called for Hawaiian rehabilitation focused on indigenous mortality and reproduction, linking Kanaka Maoli survival to the reoccupation of native lands. Their proposal was premised on recognition of Hawaiian citizenship under the Kingdom as they dealt with unresolved land rights. But a problem arose in recognizing these historical claims within the confines of American law, citizenship, and racial categories. Although billed as a proposal to allot lease lands for Kanaka Maoli rehabilitation, in the end, because of its blood quantum definition, the HHCA actually served as a policy of broad land dispossession. The implications of this are quite broad as blood quantum logic applied to Kanaka Maoli contains significant parallels to both the racist myths of the “vanishing Indian” that demands American Indians prove their “blood,” and the hypo-descent “one drop rule” white supremacists imposed on African Americans in the Jim Crow period of segregation.

Q. Where does the state government in Hawai`i stand today in addressing issues related to the 1921 Hawaiian Homes Commission Act?
JKK: The state of Hawai`i continues to use the 50 percent blood quantum rule to manage and evaluate claims to indigeneity. Once run by the Hawaiian Homes Commission created by the US Congress, the responsibility for implementing the HHCA was transferred to the state in 1959 as a condition of Hawai‘i’s admission to the union. This is part of the issues currently contested by Hawaiian sovereignty activists, who also challenge the very legitimacy of statehood. To date, less than 6,000 “native Hawaiians” hold leases to these lands, and over 30,000 people have died while on the waiting list. My own father has been on the waiting list since 1972, despite the fact that he was raised on this same land base—specifically in Anahola on the island of Kaua`i, which is part of the Hawaiian Home Lands territory. But very recently, there was some good news. On November 5, 2009, Kanaka Maoli won a class-action lawsuit against the State of Hawai`i for failing to award home lots under the provisions of the HHCA in a timely manner. The lawsuit was filed in 1999 on behalf of almost three thousand “native Hawaiians” who claimed they were not promptly awarded homesteads between 1959 and 1988. The court has yet to determine how damages will be resolved, but this is certainly a win.

Q. What have you been working on recently?
JKK: I continue to be very active in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, which I helped to co-found in 2008. I was recently elected to a three-year term on the governing council. I also produce and host a public affairs radio show on WESU, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” http://www.indigenouspolitics.com, which I launched in February 2007. The show is also now syndicated on five other Pacifica-affiliate stations across seven states. It’s an exciting way for me to stay in contact with communities in struggle, keep my research current and relevant, and unpack complicated legal issues to a general audience in the service of broader civic education and engagement since very few Americans have a handle on the legal status of Native Nations.

I am also working on a new book, tentatively titled Thy Kingdom Come? Gender & Sexuality in Hawaiian Nationalist Politics. It’s a critical study on gender and sexual politics vis-à-vis state-centered Hawaiian nationalism and the disavowal of Hawaiian indigeneity. The book will document and analyze contemporary independence activism as a response to U.S. settler colonialism with a focus on the movement to restore the Hawaiian Kingdom and the politics of indigenous Hawaiian genders and sexualities.