top of page

Defining Terms for Indigenous Hawaiians

There are several terms used to define the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi. Some of these terms are used very specifically by the American government. “Native Hawaiian” is used by the state to refer to any one with any amount of “Hawaiian blood.” The state uses “native Hawaiian” with a lowercase “n” to refer to those with a blood quantum of 50% or more.

A government definition of “Hawaiian” first emerged with the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 which said that applicants for homestead lots must have at least 50% “Hawaiian blood.” These criteria was also incorporated into the 1959 Admission Act in which carrying out Hawaiian Homes became a condition of statehood.

The Admission Act uses the 50% blood quantum definition to determine which Hawaiians would benefit from revenues generated by ceded lands. Those are the 1.8 million acres of crown lands ceded to the American government following the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Under all other federal programs, a “Hawaiian” is defined as one whose ancestors were in Hawaiʻi prior to 1778, when James Cook made his first appearance.

OHA was created in a 1987 state constitutional amendment to improve the living conditions of Hawaiians. They use the ancestral criteria for its programs and elections. However, most of OHA's revenues come from ceded lands, thus conflicting with the Admissions Act requirement of at least 50% blood quantum for beneficiaries. These pointless definitions create unnecessary setbacks and are extremely divisive.

Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole was the Hawaiian delegate in 1920 who went to congress to push for the Hawaiian Homes Act. He argued for a low blood quantum requirement to ensure that the majority of his people would benefit from the act and be able to reclaim their kuleana to the ʻāina stolen from the Queen. Congress knew that giving up that much land to homesteads for Hawaiians meant losing control over the land they stole. They created the 50% criteria with the idea that eventually there would no longer be a Hawaiian race. Blood quantum is a colonial tool of erasure. It should have no part in defining who we are as native people.

Now that Hawaiʻi is treated as the 50th state in America, many non-native residents refer to themselves as “Hawaiian” in the same way someone from California might call themselves a “Californian.” The American practice of marking identity according to place of residence often validates the misconception that anyone who resides in Hawaiʻi can refer to themselves as “Hawaiian” regardless of whether they have indigenous Hawaiian ancestors. The Webster's dictionary also recognizes the social custom in Hawaiʻi with a note in their definition of “Hawaiian:”

**Note: In Hawaii, the word Hawaiian is understood as an ethnic designation for a native person of Polynesian descent, and its use in the more general sense "a resident of Hawaii" is considered an error.

Our ancestors relied on moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy) to determine race and kuleana. Our kūpuna recognized that moʻokūʻauhau should be memorized and preserved so that each generation knows where and who they come from. Moʻokūʻauhau is the only appropriate way to determine if someone is Hawaiian or not. The concept of blood quantum purports that we all have a declining amount of “Hawaiian blood” when in reality, whether you are 50% Hawaiian or 1%, you would not be standing here today were it not for your Hawaiian ancestors.

Blood does not measure race. Our ancestors don’t just disown us once our blood becomes “diluted” with other races. It is not up to the American government or the American people to define us. As Aunty Adelaide Frenchy DeSoto put it, "Congress had the audacity to try to identify us. The ultimate insult is having non-native people define who we are." As a lāhui, we must shift our focus from these limiting definitions and embrace our ancestral ways of being. No matter what we call ourselves, let it be grounded in the practice and recognition of moʻokūʻauhau and not blood quantum. We will never stop being Hawaiian.



Kauanui, J. Kēhaulani. “Hawaiian Blood.” Duke University Press, 2008.,Hawaii%22%20is%20considered%20an%20error.

727 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page