WAIANAE, Hawaii — Kamaki Kanahele's lush beachfront property here is just the slice of paradise many conjure up when dreaming of Hawaii. What few could envision is the land's price tag: Thanks to a state homesteading program offered to native Hawaiians, Kanahele pays only $1 a year to lease it.
But that may soon change.
The right of Kanahele and others to occupy steeply discounted prime real estate is one of the key issues in an increasingly contentious lawsuit that poses the question: Do native Hawaiians deserve special privileges not available to other residents?
It's a thorny question in Hawaii, where the implications of dismantling all of the state's programs for native residents could have a serious social and economic effect. If, for example, the Office of Hawaiian Home Lands is dismantled, Kanahele would be obliged to pay the state $400,000 for each half acre. That's the assessed value that non-native Hawaiians would have to pay.
That would be only fair, according to members of a growing movement among non-native Hawaiians. These opponents are irked by the numerous government agencies and programs that serve only Hawaiians who can trace their ancestry to the time before Capt. James Cook landed here in 1778.
On the other side are the "50 percenters": Hawaiians who claim at least half native blood. They contend that historic discrimination has left native Hawaiians at the bottom of the state's social and economic heap and that the special medical and economic programs are part of necessary societal redress.
The social harmony of this ethnically diverse state is being sorely tested by the home-grown affirmative action debate. Spurred by intense litigation, the debate has even revived the state's sovereignty movement. Legislators here and in Washington are considering whether native Hawaiians should be considered indigenous people and afforded the same rights as Native Americans.
The battle moves to federal court June 12, when U.S. District Judge David Ezra considers motions in the lawsuit challenging Article XII of the Hawaii Constitution. The lawsuit, filed by California transplant Patrick Barrett, charges that the article, enacted in 1978, created racially discriminatory programs to serve only native Hawaiians and that those programs violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Should the case prevail, as many legal experts here predict, it could spell the end for such venerable agencies as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawaiians Homes Commission and could wipe out hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding to programs exclusive to native Hawaiians.
"Hawaiians have never been discriminated against in Hawaii," said attorney John Goemans, who is representing Barrett. "It's a myth that has been promulgated so that Hawaiians can fit into the affirmative action mold. They can't prove historic bias."
Barrett was moved to sue, his lawyer said, after growing frustrated with his inability to obtain a low-interest business loan while such loans were made available to native Hawaiians. Goemans said the lawsuit's goal is to dismantle all set-asides offered to native Hawaiians.
"We are putting together an effective war chest to end official race discrimination in Hawaii," he said. "In Hawaii, if you are the right race, you can attend school for free, and if you are the right race, you can get free medical care. Is that fair?"
Kenneth Conklin, a plaintiff in one of a half-dozen similar suits that also claim discrimination, said the state is being torn apart by racial policies. "There is evil in the sovereignty movement," Conklin said. He calls those within the movement "Hawaiian supremacists."
The debate is played out in a society that owes much to the traditions of the Polynesians who first inhabited the islands. Hawaiians speak proudly of their "Aloha spirit," which borrows heavily from Pacific Islanders' tradition of welcoming strangers into their homes and living in harmony.
Cultural identity is not all that is at risk. So too are programs that many Hawaiians say they rely on to survive. Foremost among the threatened programs are health care services.
The Waianae Coast Comprehensive Medical Center on the west coast of Oahu serves the island's largest native Hawaiian community and operates in an underserved rural area. Part of the medical center's budget comes from grants, many provided by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Mary Frances Oneha runs the center's perinatal care program. The program, in an area with one of the state's highest teen pregnancy rates, is funded for only half of the 450 women they serve.
"The mission of our health center is to never turn anyone away, and we don't," Oneha said. "But if we don't get the funding, that means the medical center has to look elsewhere. There is no money elsewhere."