By EDWIN TANJI, For The Maui News
POSTED: September 11, 2009
Sonny Kaniho was a Native Hawaiian. He was also a loyal citizen of the United States, an Air Force veteran, a Pearl Harbor shipworker.
As a Native Hawaiian, he recognized injustices perpetrated on Native Hawaiians. As an American, he believed the government could be pushed into reversing the injustices. He knew it would take effort and it would take time. He committed himself to the effort. It’s taken more time than he had, but the injustices he strived to correct had been in place for most of the century.
His effort also was mostly personal but it ran parallel with and enhanced other efforts by many groups to revitalize Hawaiian culture and restore Hawaiian rights. In the 1970s, efforts at restoring Hawaii as a place reflecting its indigenous people included the Aboriginal Lands of Hawaii Association, Hawaiian musicians, kumu hula, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, and Dr. Terry Shintani, who established the nutritional value of the Hawaiian Diet.
Kaniho’s effort gave a synergistic boost to the 1978 debate that led to formulation of Article XII of the Hawaii Constitution – the Hawaiian Affairs section mandating state funding for Hawaiian Home Lands and establishing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Sonny Kaniho was an unlikely protester who conducted unlikely protests, a soft-spoken man engaging in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King. His peaceful protests were not angry confrontations. They were designed to draw public attention to what he viewed to be unjust decisions of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
The department didn’t agree, but it based its actions on 50 years of inertia. Kaniho knew the excuses. He didn’t accept them.
When Prince Kuhio persuaded the U.S. Congress to approve the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1920, setting aside 200,000 acres of former crown lands for the rehabilitation of the Native Hawaiian, he wasn’t able to persuade the Congress to put money into it.
Under the territorial government, it was a weakly implemented program with no funding for infrastructure for homesteaders to use the land. From the beginning, prime agricultural lands in sugar were withheld from the Hawaiian Homes Commission. Other lands were claimed by federal departments or withdrawn by the territorial government.
Over the decades, homestead leases were granted at Kalamaula and Hoolehua on Molokai, Papakolea and Waianae on Oahu, Paukukalo on Maui – a few hundred acres out of thousands.
With statehood, the commission became a state agency. But with only a trickle of funds to develop land as homestead lots for Native Hawaiians, the commission leased lands to private developers and ranches to generate revenues to operate the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Thousands of applicants for homesteads remained on waiting lists while vast tracts were leased to non-Hawaiian ranches and businesses, which generated income and paid a small percentage back to DHHL.
An applicant for a pasture lease, Kaniho was moved to protest the hundreds of acres of Hawaiian Homes pasturelands leased to non-Hawaiian ranches. A Big Island native, he focused on prime pastures with water sources leased to Parker Ranch.
Beginning in 1973, Kaniho took action to claim an 80-acre pasture, installing his own fences and moving his own steers onto the land. He was moved off by Big Island police. He returned and was moved off again.
Through the process, Kaniho said Big Island police officers understood the validity of his complaint even as they advised him based on the opinions of government attorneys that he had no legal standing.
It took decades for the state to acknowledge its mishandling of the DHHL mandate, agreeing to restore funds it had withheld although repayment will take 20 years. It took decades for the federal government to agree to restore HHC lands confiscated by the federal government through the years. It took decades for private leases to expire on thousands of acres in Waimea, Waiakoa and Kahikinui.
The promise of Hawaiian Home Lands remains unfulfilled. Sonny Kaniho, who died Aug. 21, just wanted his country to keep its promises.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoolelo @earthlink.net. "Haku Mo’olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.