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State bill to help Kuleana landowners dies in the House

By Staff | Mar 19, 2020

The Nakaikuaana Kuleana is a 3.5-acre parcel located in the foothills of West Maui below Kauaula Valley.

HONOLULU – Senate Bill 749 was successful when passing through the Senate chambers without opposition; but, when the measure crossed over to the House for consideration, it came to a grinding halt.

State Public Access Room Coordinator Virginia Beck updated the Lahaina News.

“It looks like it got referred to WLH (Water, Land & Hawaiian Affairs Committee); JUD (Judiciary Committee); and FIN (Finance Committee).

“That means that it has to have been heard by WLH, passed, and the committee report filed by the Triple Referral Filing deadline, which is tomorrow (Thursday, March 12). It hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing. So, barring any miracles, it looks like it will die.”

And it died, like the claims made by many of the Kuleana landowners throughout the years.

According to the nonprofit Ka Lahui Hawaii, “Kuleana lands were granted to Kanaka Maoli tenant farmers between 1850 and 1855 and include gathering, access, and agricultural rights as well as the right to build a dwelling.

“Only 8,205 Kanaka Maoli received Kuleana lands that account for less than one percent of Hawaiian Kingdom lands. Many of these awards were adversely possessed by corporations like sugar and pineapple plantations, but a precious few are still in the same families today keeping their ancestral tie to their lands.”

The Nakaikuaana Kuleana is a 3.5-acre parcel located in the foothills of West Maui below Kauaula Valley, a voyagers landmark for Polynesians of old.

Yolanda Dizon is the designated Kuleana Speaker. She partially told the Lahaina News the story about the multiple challenges, costs confronted and years of research required to protect the Kuleana claim from adverse possession by Pioneer Mill.

It was an almost insurmountable task.

A primary requirement to substantiate the claim, Dizon said, was “to prove the lineal descendancy to the original owner, which is Nakaikuaana.”

Dizon was born in the mid-1950s Yolanda Biga. Her mom, Charlotte Kaloke Mahelona, and her dad, Samson Biga, worked for Pioneer Mill and lived up Lahainaluna Road.

Charlotte’s mom was Esther Kanawaliwali; her father was David Mahelona. His ancestry “goes up to the beginning,” Dizon noted.

“They originated from the valley eight generations to the census back in 1900.”

Charlotte could make the legal connection to that generation; but, Dizon claimed, she could go back further.

The land was lost when the sugar plantations built dams and diverted the water.

Without a livelihood – the families couldn’t plant taro or feed their livestock – they moved to town and leased their land to Pioneer Mill.

“As time went by, the old folks passed away. The leased land was never returned. Then came the quiet title and adverse possession actions. Gates were put up along with ‘No Trespassing’ ” signs,” Dizon recounted.

Without an opportunity to support themselves, they reverted to working for the enemy, Dizon said.

In those days, she added, “if you opposed the Pioneer Mill, you were either tarred and feathered, killed or sent to Kalaupapa; and that’s in the history books.”

Charlotte was the last remaining family member on Maui. Her siblings moved to Oahu, Molokai or the continental U.S., but she kept in touch with her sisters on Oahu.

She attended a family reunion in Nanakuli, Oahu, where they strategized moving back to Kauaula.

With a strong and steadfast spirit, Charlotte returned to the land with the help of her ‘ohana in the mid-1960s.

“There was no water,” Dizon recalled. “They had to haul up 50 drums of water a day to support the livestock. She was planting papaya trees, eggplant; couldn’t plant taro without a fresh supply of water.”

It was a joint activity with ‘ohana helping her every step of the way.

On another battlefront at the same time, the research to substantiate their genealogy was underway.

“It cost a lot of money,” Dizon remembered, “flying back and forth to Oahu to research the archives of Department of Health and other locations. It was a family financial endeavor.”

The next step was to hire a lawyer; that wasn’t pro bono either. All costs were a shared family financial undertaking.

A claim was filed in Wailuku, and they won their case in the mid-1980s. It took ten long years.

Charlotte subsequently returned to the land in stages, first building a shed, then a platform and then a home.

With the door opened by Charlotte, other families returned to their ancestral lands in Kauaula Valley.

Unfortunately, the conflict wasn’t over.

“In 1999, the Pioneer Mill closed its doors and sold between 4,000 and 5,000 acres to West Maui Land (WML). WML claimed the land was theirs, because the Pioneer Mill was using it,” Dizon said.

It was Dizon’s turn this time to lead the charge against the landowner from quiet title and adverse possession.

Gathering evidence, Dizon was successful in 2013 for obtaining the Office of Hawaiian Affairs: Real Property Tax Exemption for Kuleana Land, Revised Ordinances of Maui Section 3.48.554, Land Commission Award 6857, Royal Patent 1733 Apana 2.

Dizon is not relaxing her stand; she is steadfast and vigilant.

“I am adamant about my duty to protect the Nakaikuaana Kuleana until the rightful heirs come home to malama their kupuna i hala (the ones who have passed away).

SB 749 was just one of many endeavors being waged across the state to help Kanaka Maoli return to their ancestral lands.

“I am saddened,” Dizon said, “SB 749 fell on its face in the House. I hope we will see it return for consideration in the 2021 legislative session.”