Man sues to use DNA as proof he’s Native Hawaiian

By Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) October 2012

A Molokai man has filed a lawsuit seeking to use DNA to prove his ancestry so he can qualify for the Hawaiian homelands program, which leases land at almost no cost to Native Hawaiians.

Applicants must have 50 percent Native Hawaiian ancestry to qualify for the program, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands allows for birth certificates and other records such as marriage and death certificates to be used as proof.

But Leighton Pang Kee argues in a lawsuit filed this week in Circuit Court that the agency’s rules on what can be considered “documented proof” are unclear.

Kee was adopted and his birth certificate doesn’t list his biological father, the lawsuit says. He contends DNA establishes his Native Hawaiian ancestry and should be accepted as proof.

The lawsuit “is focused on the need for DHHL to create a policy that allows for a beneficiary to submit DNA evidence to show their genealogy,” said Camille Kalama, one of Kee’s attorneys with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. “It’s one more way of proving who your mother or father is.”

The Hawaiian homelands program was established as a way to make it possible for Native Hawaiians to live on Hawaiian land. It provides them with 99-year leases at $1 per year.  

Kalama said other applicants have reached out for help when they’ve been denied benefits because they lack proper documentation, usually because they were born out of wedlock and their birth certificates don’t list a father’s name. But as far she knows, this is the first lawsuit that seeks to use DNA to prove ancestry to get Hawaiian homelands benefits.

The department issued a statement saying it hasn’t had an opportunity to review the suit with its attorneys and can’t comment on active litigation. The agency said it will confer with the attorney general’s office.

According to the lawsuit, Kee was born in 1960 in Honolulu to a mother who is at least 81.25 percent Native Hawaiian and a father whose birth certificate shows his parents were Native Hawaiian. The father died in 1983.

Kee grew up knowing about his bloodline, Kalama said.

After he was deemed ineligible for homelands benefits, Kee found his father’s brother living on homestead land in Nanakuli and obtained DNA from him. The DNA showed a 96.35 percent probability that Kee and the man were related, the lawsuit said.

Kalama noted that Kamehameha Schools allows for DNA to show ancestry. The private schools on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island give admissions preference to Native Hawaiians.

Being able to prove one’s Native Hawaiian lineage is important not only for homelands rights, but for other benefits such as scholarships, Kalama said.

“You’re affecting multiple generations by that one break,” she said.