J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar


Native Hawaiian Racial Formation: Blood Quantum and the Legal Construction of Indigeneity

Who counts as Hawaiian? Today’s fifty-percent blood quantum rule legally defining who qualifies as “native Hawaiian” was established in 1920 as part of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a land allotment policy. Hawaiian people contest this exclusionary state definition because it undermines indigenous cultural practices that determine identity on the basis of one’s genealogical ties.

In her book The Politics of Hawaiian Blood and the Question of Sovereignty, J. Kehaulani Kauanui examines governmental understandings of Hawaiian depopulation and land dispossession. “I map the shift from an originally less restrictive definition of ‘native Hawaiian’ to the fifty-percent rule by exploring how the categories of ‘full-blood’ and ‘part’-Hawaiians emerged from the congressional debates leading up to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act.

“This shift from an inclusive definition of ‘native Hawaiian’ entailed a move away from the recognition of Hawaiians’ land entitlement to an emergent welfare-approach to rehabilitation where Hawaiian racialization was tied to notions of indigenous competence as citizen-subjects. I have also been able to trace how these different classifications worked to affirm white property interests.”

Using a comparative framework based on other US racial formations, Kauanui is examining the role of the state in the legal constructions of indigeneity and race, not only for Hawaiians but for Indians and African Americans as well. “We don’t generally think of Hawaiians when we think of blood quantum,” Kauanui observes. “We think of Indians and tribal membership, or the ‘one-drop rule’ for African Americans; but all of these things were going on simultaneously in the 1920s.” She is exploring how, over the years, the overarching system of institutionalized white supremacy in the US has interpreted questions of blood quantum, sovereignty, land rights, and citizenship in many different ways, creating arbitrary racial classifications.

Kauanui sees her research as contributing more than just a Hawaiian focus to the fields of anthropology, American Studies, Native American Studies and Pacific Studies, but opening up new lines of inquiry and territory in all these areas. “As this work addresses US colonialism in the Pacific and the making of new citizens, the project prompts the engagement with histories and contemporary policy on the legal construction of indigeneity,” Kauanui says.

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of American Studies and Anthropology, Wesleyan University

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