Sherry Broder


OHA Wants Control of Ceded Lands

The state contends ceded lands should be managed for the benefit of all residents

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Most native Hawaiian groups today would rather have control over their ancestral lands than receive reparations from the U.S. government for their loss, said Davianna P. McGregor, an associate professor of ethnic studies and expert on Hawaiian history.

"These groups know what's important is protecting the land from destruction and keeping these lands under the stewardship of native Hawaiians," testified McGregor, the first witness yesterday in a trial to determine whether the state can sell any of its 1.4 million acres of ceded or public trust lands.

The plaintiff, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, wants Circuit Judge Sabrina S. McKenna to place an injunction on the sale or transfer of any ceded lands until the claims of native Hawaiians over these lands are settled.

The 7-year-old case focuses on stalled state projects at the Villages of Leialii on Maui and at Laiopua on the Big Island. At issue is whether the state can develop affordable housing projects and then sell those lands.

OHA says if ceded lands are sold it would forever diminish the amount of revenue the agency is entitled to under the state Admissions Act of 1959, which requires one-fifth of revenue from these lands be used for the betterment of native Hawaiians.

OHA Chairman Clayton Hee, after yesterday's opening statements, explained what's at stake affects both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians.

"That is, the diminishment of public lands for the public to enjoy, of which non-Hawaiians constitute 80 percent of the population and Hawaiians constitute 20 percent of the population," Hee said.

"Until guidelines are established, what is to prevent the state from developing other public lands to the diminishment of the public's enjoyment and trust in its government," he said.

But John Komeiji, a private attorney hired by the Attorney General's Office to defend the state in the case, argued the Admissions Act obligates the state to manage ceded lands to benefit all of its citizens, not just native Hawaiians.

That management includes using proceeds from the sale of public trust lands for other public purposes such as farms and home ownership, he said.

Komeiji added an injunction on the sale of these lands until native claims are resolved could last indefinitely, affecting the state's ability to provide public services to everyone.

"This is an important case for the Hawaiian people," he said. "But it is also an important case for the general public."

While the state is mindful of the historical injustices done to the Hawaiian people, Komeiji said those arguments are best addressed at the executive and legislative branches of government, and not at the judiciary branch.

Meanwhile, OHA board attorney Sherry Broder, in her opening remarks, gave examples of other states and countries where a moratorium on lands led to a settlement between those governments and their indigenous peoples.

Broder said international law requires governments to take steps to protect lands for indigenous people and to resolve land claims.

Attorney Bill Meheula, who represents four Hawaiian plaintiffs in the case, added native Hawaiians have a strong legal standing for their claims because the Hawaiian kingdom had established treaties with other countries in the 1800s before the 1893 overthrow.

Such recognition places the dispute in the international arena, rather than it being a domestic issue for the United States, he said.

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