HONOLULU — When the state deemed Leighton Pang Kee ineligible for one of the most valuable benefits available to Native Hawaiians — land at almost no cost — because he couldn’t show that he was at least 50 percent Hawaiian, he sued.
Pang Kee knew he was, and needed to figure out a way to prove it. According to his lawsuit, his mother was at least 81.25 percent Native Hawaiian, but his birth certificate didn’t list his biological father.
But he knew who his father was. Pang Kee, who was adopted, found his late father’s brother, got a DNA sample that showed there was a 96.35 percent probability that Pang Kee and the man were related, the lawsuit said.
While that initially wasn’t enough for the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, the agency eventually settled, and has proposed rules that would allow the use of DNA evidence to prove ancestry.
Hawaiians don’t typically fixate on how much Hawaiian blood they have when it comes to asserting ancestral identity.
“A Hawaiian is a Hawaiian is a Hawaiian,” said Michelle Kauhane, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. “Whether they have a drop or more than 50 percent.”
One of the only times blood quantum is relevant is for applying for a homestead lease. Those with at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood quantum can apply for a 99-year lease for $1 a year.
After the settlement last year of Pang Kee’s 2012 lawsuit, the department agreed to enact the rules. The department is now taking comments from beneficiaries about the proposed rule to allow DNA testing for proof of eligibility.
The rulemaking process could take up to two years, the department said. There’s some confusion among beneficiaries about the proposed rule, said Paul Richards, past president of the Waimanalo Hawaiian Homes Association.
The idea of using DNA to prove ancestry conjures up commercials advertising DNA-testing kits. But those tests can’t prove someone has Hawaiian ancestry, just that someone has general Polynesian ancestry.
The testing to prove Hawaiian ancestry is more like a paternity test, said Camille Kalama, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which sued on Pang Kee’s behalf.
The ideal testing situation would be if someone can use DNA to test directly with their father, who is able to document Hawaiian ancestry. The next best situation would be to test against the full sibling of the father, she said.
“It’s a very small segment of applicants who are in this situation,” Kalama said. “It’s even smaller for the amount of people who have a relative to test.”
As part of the settlement, Pang Kee and another woman with a similar situation are now on the homestead waiting list.
Wailana Dasalia said having a rightful place on the waitlist comes with achieving “closure on who I am.”
Growing up on Kauai, she always knew who her father was but because her parents weren’t married, his name wasn’t on her birth certificate.
Without his bloodline, Dasalia was only one-quarter Native Hawaiian in the eyes of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. With DNA proof that he’s her father, she’s 65 percent, she said. Her father is also on the waitlist.
Passed by the U.S. Congress in 1921, the program is meant to provide economic self-sufficiency to Hawaiians by allowing them to use land to live on.
One theory about the origin of the 50 percent requirement is that it was required with the idea that eventually there would be no one left who could qualify, said Williamson Chang, a Native Hawaiian law professor at the University of Hawaii.
That hasn’t happened, as evidenced by the number of people on the homestead waitlist: more than 27,000 applicants. As of Nov. 30, there were 9,814 people leasing residential, agricultural and pastoral homestead lots statewide.
Identifying Hawaiians based on their blood quantum is a very un-Hawaiian idea, Chang said.
“They are not people who divide,” he said. “The idea of Hawaiian is much broader than race … If it weren’t for the federal government, Hawaiians wouldn’t have a reason to be concerned about blood quantum.”
Patrick Kahawaiolaa grew up on a Big Island homestead, where kupuna, or elders, urged him to not let the Hawaiian race die off. “It was ingrained in me by my father,” he said. “You get married; you make sure you marry a Hawaiian.”
When he met his wife, he recalled, he confirmed her ancestry with her answer to where she was from: Papakolea, a homestead community in Honolulu.
“Hawaiian children will never be able to buy a piece of property,” he said, referring to Hawaii’s expensive real estate. “But by their birthright, are entitled to a piece of property.”