By: Rob Barnett J.D. ’14
This January, I returned to Honolulu for an Independent Clinical Project with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. I’d worked at NHLC last January on a variety of issues — religious rights of incarcerated Native Hawaiians, and Native Hawaiian’s rights to remain living on ancestral family land within Hawaii State Parks, for example — but this year I focused on one: land.
Hawaii’s system of property law is unique in the United States, and therefore quite different from what I’d learned about in my 1L Property class. Prior to Captain Cooke’s “discovery” of Hawaii in 1778 and the subsequent Western development and conquest of the islands, the Hawaiian people used their land in a communal way. Today, over 100 years after the privatization of that system and the forceful overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, several principles of that system remain. Hawaiian farmers are entitled to pass through other “private” property to reach their land (or “kuleana,” meaning responsibility), while the State holds much of the islands in trust for the benefit of Native Hawaiians.
My work this January focused on understanding, and defending, this unique system. In one case, I helped argue for the right of a Native Hawaiian family to access its kuleana land, which has been blocked from the public roads by surrounding private landowners. In another, I drafted a complaint to enforce a settlement between the State of Hawaii and a Native Hawaiian client living on the state’s trust land. I also attended a court hearing, an informational presentation about traditional Hawaiian farming practices, opening day ceremonies at the State Legislature, and a legislative briefing on the State’s trust responsibility towards Native Hawaiians. I’m currently writing my J-term paper about those responsibilities.
Of course, my experience of the land in Hawaii was not limited to my work or studies. In my free time, I biked to Manoa Falls, in the rainforest on Honolulu’s northern border, and to Makapu’u Point, where I sat above an old lighthouse and watched humpback whales play in the channel between Oahu and Moloka’i. One weekend I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii, where I climbed Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in Hawaii, and hiked through a volcanic crater that was still emitting steam from below the earth’s crust. On my penultimate morning in Hawaii, I even woke up at 3am to hike the so-called “stairway to heaven;” the infamous Ha’iku Stairs. These experiences helped me to appreciate the unique natural beauty that Hawaii’s system of property law is designed to protect.
On my last day in Honolulu — I’m working this week remotely from DC — my office gave me a lei: a necklace of fresh flowers meant to thank me for my work. Yet it is I, not NHLC, who should be thankful, for all that I learned and experienced this January. Mahalo nui loa to the great people at NHLC, and those who supported me at HLS, for this amazing opportunity. A hui hou!