Several Supreme Court Cases have reviewed and clarified Native Hawaiian rights to Traditional & Customary practices. The Court noted:
“Our proud legal tradition in this State of protecting Native Hawaiian rights is not of recent vintage, for even as far back as the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, protections have been in place to ensure the continued exercise of traditional Hawaiian rights amidst the pressures exerted by countervailing interests of a changing society.
“[A number of legal cases have been appealed to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court. Decisions by the Court in those cases have defined, explained and clarified. The Supreme Court’s] “evolving jurisprudence concerning Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights has conceived of a system in which the State and its agencies …”
“… bear an affirmative constitutional obligation to engage in a meaningful and heightened inquiry into the interrelationship between the area involved, the Native Hawaiian practices exercised in that area, the effect of a proposed action on those practices, and feasible measures that can be implemented to safeguard the vitality of those practices.”
“When an individual of Native Hawaiian descent asserts that a traditionally exercised cultural, religious, or gathering practice in an undeveloped or not fully developed area would be curtailed by the proposed project, the State or the applicable agency is “obligated to address” this adverse impact …”
“Consequently, if customary and traditional Native Hawaiian practices are to be meaningfully safeguarded, “findings on the extent of their exercise, their impairment, and the feasibility of their protection” are paramount. … To effectively render such findings, it is imperative for the agency to receive evidence and then make “[a] determination … supported by the evidence in the record.” (Pollack, SCAP-14-0000873 2015:3-10)
Following are some of the cases that address Native Hawaiian rights to traditional and customary practices.
Oni v Meek (1858)
In 1858, Oni, a tenant of the ahupua‘a of Hono‘uli‘uli, O‘ahu, filed suit against John Meek, who had a lease over the entire ahupuaʻa. Oni brought suit when some of his horses, which had been pastured on Meek’s land, were impounded and sold.
Oni claimed that he had a right to pasture his horses on the land division as one of his traditional tenant rights (by custom and by language in the Kuleana Act).
On September 22, 1858, the Police Court of Honolulu rendered a judgment for Oni. Meek was ordered to pay $80.00 for two horses and $4.00 in court costs. At the request of the defendant (Meek), the case was appealed to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court was concerned with the right of a private property owner to use the land as he individually wished without having to share its use. The court said “the custom contended for is so unreasonable, so uncertain, and so repugnant to the spirit of the present laws, that it ought not to be sustained by judicial authority.”
The court also said “…it is perfectly clear that, if the plaintiff (Oni) is a hoaʻāina, holding his land by virtue of a fee simple award from the Land Commission, he has no pretense for claiming a right of pasturage by custom.” (Judicial History Center) The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Meek.
Common Law – Hawaiian Usage (1892)
In 1892, the legislature of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Queen Liliʻuokalani passed a law that recognized Hawaiian usage as part of the common law of the Kingdom, together with the common law of England. (McGregor & MacKenzie)
Act to Reorganize the Judiciary Department, ch. LVII, § 5, 1892 Laws of Her Majesty Lili‘uokalani, Queen of the Hawaiian Islands, provided for exceptions to the English common law that were “established by Hawaiian national usage.” (McGregor & MacKenzie)
This law, which is today known as Section 1-1 of the Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes (HRS), provided the basis for the rights of the makaʻāinana (common people) beyond the rights reserved under the Kuleana Act, so as to include whatever was broadly customary as Hawaiian usage prior to 1892. (McGregor & MacKenzie)
State Constitutional Amendments (1978)
In 1978, the State convened a historic constitutional convention that included recommendations that reaffirmed its commitment to Native Hawaiian interests and values.
The 1978 Constitutional Convention recognized the need to “preserve the small remaining vestiges of a quickly disappearing culture [by providing] a legal means … to recognize and reaffirm native Hawaiian rights.”
“The State reaffirms and shall protect all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupua’a tenants who are descendants of native Hawaiians who inhabited the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, subject to the right of the State to regulate such rights.” (Hawaiʻi Constitution, Section 7)
Kalipi v Hawaiian Trust Co (1982)
In 1982, plaintiff William Kalipi, a Moloka‘i taro farmer, sought access to private land in order to gather “ti leaf, bamboo, kukui nuts, kiawe, medicinal herbs and ferns.”
The Hawai‘i Supreme Court held that “lawful occupants of an ahupua‘a may, for the purposes of practicing native Hawaiian customs and traditions, enter undeveloped lands within the ahupua‘a to gather those items enumerated in HRS § 7-1.” (Belatti & Garcia)
The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court noted: “The statutory exception to the common law is thus akin to the English doctrine of custom whereby practices and privileges unique to particular districts continued to apply to residents of those districts in contravention of the common law.”
“This, however, is not to say that we find that all the requisite elements of the doctrine of custom were necessarily incorporated in § 1-1. Rather, we believe that the retention of a Hawaiian tradition should in each case be determined by balancing the respective interests and harm once it is established that the application of the custom has continued in a particular area.” (Hawaiʻi Supreme Court, Kapili, 656 P.2d 745 (1982))
Public Access Shoreline Hawai‘I (PASH) v Hawai‘i Planning Commission (1995)
In PASH, developer Nansay Hawai‘i, Inc. applied to the Hawai‘i County Planning Commission for a Special Management Area permit to develop a resort community covering over 450 acres of shoreline area on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court explained in PASH case that “the State’s power to regulate the exercise of customarily and traditionally exercised Hawaiian rights … necessarily allows the State to permit development that interferes with such rights in circumstances. Nevertheless, the State is obligated to protect the reasonable exercise of customarily and traditionally exercised rights of Hawaiians.”
In PASH, the court reaffirmed the State’s affirmative duty to protect customary rights as it regulates the development of land “previously undeveloped or not yet fully developed” in Hawai‘i. The court admonished State agencies, stating that they “[do] not have the unfettered discretion to regulate the rights of ahupua‘a tenants out of existence”.
The PASH Court also clarified that “those persons who are ‘descendants of native Hawaiians who inhabited the islands prior to 1778,’ and who assert otherwise valid customary and traditional Hawaiian rights under HRS 1-1, are entitled to protection regardless of their blood quantum.”
Pele Defense Fund v Paty (1992)
Plaintiff Pele Defense Fund challenged the exchange of more than 27,000 acres of public lands, including areas designated as Natural Area Reserve lands, between the State and a private landowner.
Related to this, it was determined that, “The nature and scope of the rights reserved to hoaʻāina (tenants) by custom and usage are to be defined according to the values, traditions and customs associated with a particular area as transmitted from one generation to the next in the conduct of subsistence, cultural, and religious activities.”
That case also found that residency of a particular ahupuaʻa was not required for gathering, noting, “Unlike other areas in Hawai‘i, Hawaiians historically crossed ahupua‘a boundaries in the Puna district. …”
“…The hunting and gathering patterns in the Puna district are unique because they are influenced, to a large extent, by an active volcano, Kīlauea. It can be reasonably inferred that volcanic eruptions in the Puna area force hunters and gatherers to change areas to find plants and animals for subsistence purposes.” (Circuit Court of the Third Circuit, Civil No. 89-089 2002)
The Pele Defense Fund decision extended rights to non-Hawaiians, noting, “Accordingly, non-Hawaiians could have the same right as Hawaiians, irrespective of Article XII, § 7, if they could prove that their rights were based on custom and usage.”
Water Use Permit Applications (2000)
“The Waiāhole Ditch System collects fresh surface water and dike-impounded ground water from the Koʻolau mountain range on the windward side of the island of Oʻahu and delivers it to the island’s central plain.”
“Beginning in Kahana Valley, the collection portion of the system proceeds along the windward side of the Koʻolaus, then passes under the Koʻolau crest to the leeward side at the North Portal. … The ditch system was built in significant part from 1913 to 1916 to irrigate a sugar plantation owned and operated by Oʻahu Sugar Company, Ltd. (OSCo).”
“Diversions by the ditch system reduced the flows in several windward streams, specifically, Waiāhole, Waianu, Waikāne, and Kahana streams, affecting the natural environment and human communities dependent upon them.”
“Diminished flows impaired native stream life and may have contributed to the decline in the greater Kāneʻohe Bay ecosystem, including the offshore fisheries. The impacts of stream diversion, however, went largely unacknowledged until, in the early 1990s, the sugar industry on Oʻahu came to a close.”
In 2000, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court noted “we continue to uphold the exercise of Native Hawaiian and traditional and customary rights as a public trust purpose. … [T]he mandate of ‘conservation’-minded use subsumed in our state’s water resources trust contemplates ‘protection’ of waters in their natural state as a beneficial use. … [T]his state bears an additional duty under Article XII, section 7 of its constitution to protect traditional and customary Native Hawaiian rights.”
Ka Pa‘akai o ka ‘Āina v Land Use Commission (2000)
In the dispute before the LUC, Native Hawaiian community organizations opposed the re-classification of over 1,000-acres from conservation to urban lands for the Ka‘ūpūlehu Resort Expansion, a luxury development project on the island of Hawai‘i.
Within the reclassified lands, the Court noted that the coastal point known as Kalaemanō and the historic 1800-1801 Ka‘ūpūlehu Lava Flow were two well-known physical features associated with native Hawaiian culture and history. The Court also noted the association of two historical figures to the petition area, Kame‘eiamoku and Kamanawa, two chiefs who served as advisers to Kamehameha I.
The Court reaffirmed special protections for Native Hawaiian cultural practices when it ruled that the State Land Use Commission (LUC) failed to satisfy its statutory and constitutional obligations to preserve and protect customary and traditional rights of Native Hawaiians.
Ultimately, the Court held that the LUC’s determinations were “insufficient to determine whether [the LUC] fulfilled its obligation to preserve and protect customary and traditional rights of native Hawaiians.”