Jon Osorio "On Race, Blood Quantum and Ancestry"
November 20th, 2009 by Trisha Kehaulani Watson
On Race, Blood Quantum and Ancestry
From a panel held at Kamakakūokalani
Saturday September 19, 2009
By Jon Osorio
In 1989 I became a citizen of Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi and registered the names of my two sons as well. It was about the same time that I had begun researching the Hawaiian Kingdom’s constitutions and legislatures that would eventually produce Dismembering Lāhui. Associating with such incredible scholars, patriots and leaders as Haunani Kay and Mililani Trask, Kekuni Blaisdell, Coochie Cayan, Sam Kealoha, Clara Kakalia, Lilikalā, Soli Niheu, Kanalu Young and so many others that I see here tonight, I knew that my life from that point on would always be connected and committed to this nation. Well before the American president and his Congress signed the apology bill I knew that America had taken the Kingdom’s and our Queen’s lands along with our nation’s government in 1893. Like Kawaipuna Prejean, I knew that there was only one word for a country that would do this. Thief. When the US apologized, my reaction, like many others’ was, “Good. Now, when are you going to give the lands back to us?”
In 1994, I joined three other plaintiffs to sue the State and prevent it from selling any more of these lands to which neither it nor the US government was entitled. I knew by then, that our nation’s claim to the land was not just moral, it was legal and I believed then, that we had law and pono on our side, and I believed that I was acting for the whole lāhui, not Ka Lāhui, but all of us who were descended from the Kingdom subjects, all of us, whether Native born or naturalized, all of us, who felt that we were not Americans, that we would live and die as Hawaiians.
My name is Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio. My names are the surnames of three grandparents. Kay is from my German American grandfather from Ohio, Kamakawiwoʻole from my ʻŌiwi grandmother, and Osorio from the Portuguese laborer who came to Hilo as a child more than a century ago. My mother’s mother, Nani Akiona is the only grandparent whose name I do not carry. She is also the only grandparent I never knew.
I was born in Hilo Hawaiʻi. I knew none of my 16 great grandparents half of whom were ʻōiwi wale, and of the others, only my Chinese great grandfather, Akiona, even came to Hawaiʻi. I am, like the vast majority of Kanaka Maoli living in the world today, the grateful descendent of many ethnicities. I am also related to every single Kanaka Maoli because of my ancestry. It is that relationship to Kanaka Maoli that I want to speak of this evening.
Most of you already know that our people, our lāhui, have always been quite conscious about the importance of genealogy. Among our Aliʻi, the choice of mates, particularly the one who would raise their status and advance their rank through their children, was a significant part of their role as Aliʻi. It was said that makaʻāinana did not really know their moʻokūʻauhau and that was all that separated them from aliʻi, since everyone knew that all kanaka came from the same original ancestors. But makaʻāinana also knew the significance of moʻokūʻauha because the aliʻi personified that knowledge in the power they wielded and the status that the whole society granted them.
Even after the aliʻi were no longer our chiefs, no longer ruled over the ʻāina, no longer held the House of Nobles and no longer reigned over the Kingdom of Kamehameha, we Kanaka continued to cherish ancestry. We continued to uphold the relationships we had with one another, although by the twentieth century we were increasingly related to other people of other nationalities as well. What did those other relationships with different ancestries—German, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Ilocano, mean? I’m certain that each relationship meant different things to different families and even to individuals within each different family. For instance, what did it mean to be part Chinese? In some ʻohana it was a source of pride, in some, like ours, it meant little. As a teacher I have read so many essays of students who have said that their families were ashamed of their Hawaiian ancestry and they clung to their Chinese side or Japanese or haole side. Some students wrote that a large part of their own maturity was that they were claiming the Kanaka ancestry despite their own families’ prejudices.
This reminds me of a novel that I read once set in modern China and the agony experienced by a so-called half-breed who experienced nothing but isolation from his Chinese relatives and racist contempt from the white community in Hong Kong. I remember thinking how fortunate we were to be Hawaiians, accepting of everyone, in fact, even to the point where some of our ʻohana thought that we had been fortunate to marry up—into a Japanese family, or a haole family. Then it occurred to me that such “fortune” often accompanied a contempt for our own Hawaiianness.
And that is when I realized what a horrible legacy racism has left for us here in these blessed islands. For even as we have willingly embraced and married into virtually every ethnicity that exists; even as we have never adopted the policies of racial discrimination so favored by our haole ancestors in America; we have been infected by the belief that race—not ancestry—matters.
There is such a difference between the two. Ancestry acknowledges your ancestors. It knows them. It understands that some ancestors were more capable, skilled, and perhaps more worth knowing than others. It recognizes that some ancestors are more relevant to you as an individual than others. It even recognizes that such relevance is relative, so that when you travel to Portugal and meet the cousins and brothers and nephews of your grandfather for the first time, they are for that week or month, the most important people on earth. Ancestry connects you to the myriad human beings who have walked this planet before you and allows you to connect with the unseen billions who may follow you.
Racism is the belief that human beings are really the product of different races and that there are powerful differences in intelligence, alertness, creativity, even honesty and trustworthiness that only a kind of blood-rinsing can erase. Racism at its height, in the last century, supposed a hierarchy of ethnicities with Haole at the top, Blacks at the Bottom and Browns and Yellows in between. In the peculiar science of racism, capacity and destiny were color coded and the white society that dreamed up this little science imagined that over generations of intermarriage, that ones undesirable traits, like ones color could be washed away.
That is the genesis of the Blood quantum rule in the Hawaiian Homes Act. Most of us understand that the rule was engineered by members of the US Congress and some of the Territorial leaders in order to minimize the numbers of Kanaka who would qualify for homesteads. Thanks to the scholarship of Kēhaulani Kauanui in her book, Hawaiian Blood, We know that the blood quantum idea was surprising and upsetting to Kanaka members of the Ahahui Puʻuhonua who were lobbying for Hawaiian Homesteads in Congress in 1920, and that when asked by a US Congressman about what blood quantum should qualify, Kanaka John Wise replied that perhaps one had to be at least 1/32 Hawaiian to be considered Hawaiian. It was really another way of saying that blood quantum didn’t matter—that we were all Hawaiians and all should qualify.
We know what Congress did and we know the absolute cynicism that underlay that imposition of the 50% blood quantum rule—that within as little as a single generation, the families of some awardees would no longer qualify and the land would come back to the colonial government. Yet I doubt that the return of the land was the foremost thing on Congress’ mind. American leaders also believed that the Homestead Act was about assisting a struggling minority, struggling not because our national government and lands had been stolen from us, but struggling because we were lazy and not very bright, generous yes, but also somewhat brutal and prone to alcoholism. As our minority intermarried into more reliable races, the need for free land would gradually disappear. It was bad enough that people could conceive such a thing about us. It was worse that so many of our people believed it.
And now in the 21st century when racial stereotyping is so much more unacceptable than in the last century it seems incredible that the Attorney General of the State of Hawaiʻi could say to the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court that a plaintiff suing over the so called Ceded lands has no legal standing because he does not meet the blood quantum requirement set by a racist Congress in 1921. His strategy, in fact, created an immediate problem for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which had agreed to support the Attorney General’s attempt to get this case dismissed. But his attack on my standing was also an attack on hundreds of thousands of Hawaiians who are OHA’s beneficiaries and OHA found itself in an impossible position. One trustee, in fact, blamed me for this situation, and the agency seems to be at a loss to understand why I didn’t simply withdraw from the fight with the rest of them.
There are things that are worth fighting for, even if the fight may be lost. I believe that the Crown and Government Lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom do not belong to the United States and that the state should not have power over them. I believe that the descendents of makaʻāinana have undivided tenant rights in every square inch of the lands of Hawaiʻi, not just Crown and Government lands, and that these rights were provided by law since 1839 and were clarified by the Kuleana Act in 1850. And I believe that the Hawaiian Homes Act of 1921 not only disguised the theft of our national lands by pretending that the 200,000 acres granted by the Congress was a generous act to help our people, but saddled us with a blood quantum requirement that encouraged us to believe that the more Hawaiian we were, the less capable, the less responsible, the less legitimate we are.
In the end, I could not, in conscience, make a deal that accepted this fraud and not just because it’s wrong but because it continues to weaken and divide us as a people. We need to acknowledge that our political leaders, the Aliʻi and the Mōʻī in the 1840s agreed to a constitution and to private land ownership even though these changes greatly changed their own status, forcing them to accommodate maka’āinana as lawmakers, and welcoming foreigners into this government into our society as a way of protecting the nation, the lāhui forever. They took a great risk at a time when our people were imperiled by disease and foreign warships, and because they did, I believe we are alive today and still Hawaiian.
However, because of this deal, our suit, the one that we began so hopefully more than 15 years ago may not proceed much longer. Too bad, so sad.
But the Attorney General has made a mistake. The issue of blood quantum is not only about the law. Blood quantum, race, and ancestry are also about politics. And neither the attorney general and governor, nor the Hawaiʻi and US Supreme Court control the politics of blood quantum. We Kanaka Maoli do. In fact, I believe that the Hawaii Supreme Court’s language in its recent decision to dismiss this case reveals its great reluctance to say anything about blood quantum. Instead of stating that blood quantum is not an issue with regard to standing, the court has acknowledged my nativeness, has even pointed out that I am a member of the general public, something I never claimed in our memorandum to the court—in fact the court spent 15 pages of a 30 page decision describing why I have standing without really addressing the issue of blood quantum and whether the US has a trust obligation only to those of 50%
This case he AG’s strategy and the Court’s response forces us to do what has always been in our power to do and that is denounce quantum as the racist policy that it is and call for its repeal. This evening, I am calling on all the Hawaiian organizations, even the Homestead Associations to denounce blood quantum as a racist law and validate what John Wise in 1920 knew, that we are all Hawaiians, we are related. We are the lāhui. This is our country and the United States still has our lands.
I understand how difficult this is for some of our poʻe Hawaiʻi. There are, I am sure, some who think there is some legitimacy to the notion that the more blood you get the more Hawaiian you are. And I am sure that anyone who has spent 35 years on that bloody wait-list is not going to leap at the chance of adding another two or three hundred thousand beneficiaries to it. But that does not even have to occur, if an amended Hawaiian Homes Act simply required the wait list to to be served before the department took another applicant. On the other hand, If the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court disqualifies me, it disqualifies close to a half million Kanaka Maoli here and abroad from ever bringing suit on behalf of Hawaiians. And while that decision is now out of our hands, the choice to unify is not, and we need everyone to say that we are the nation, undivided.
You know, we have sought to protect this ʻāina, not just this past 15 years, but going back 40, 50 years now. And look, the ʻāina is still there, even if slightly covered up with stuff we don’t like. If we allow blood quantum to define us, however, we are significantly smaller than the 200,000 that live in Hawaiʻi and within a generation or two we will be, practically gone. I say to you that the theft of our lands is temporary and that so long as we never stop our claims to them our nation will secure them again. To do this we have to be a nation, one lāhui, and we need every one, every voice to fight for each other.
I began this talk by speaking of the Aliʻi and how they consciously mated with other aliʻi in order to preserve or enhance their rank. Some of our own people today think that we could do the same thing—Hawaiians just marry Hawaiians 50 percenters just marry 50 percenters, keep the blood quantum high in your family or even keep the race pure. But the consequences of this are so often tragic. It isn’t easy to control your children’s marriage and sexual choices and I think that doing so would be as oppressive as racism, not just to non-Hawaiians but to our own children.
I think we need to be as courageous as those Aliʻi and makaʻāinana were, who came to grips with the host of bewildering changes that came with the exposure of Hawaiʻi to the wide world. They accepted foreigners into the aupuni, into their families, into their hearts—haole, pake, kepani, pāʻele, everyone, and still kept their ʻŌiwi ancestral heritages alive so that we today can reclaim what they never surrendered; our kinship, and more importantly, pride in who we are—a people of different colors and origins but bound together by a common moʻokuʻauhau.
It does not matter what the law does now. It matters what we do. The Governor and the state have handed the initiative to us, and they don’t even know it. We have said we are a Lāhui. Let us act like one.