Cultural attrition
stirs concern

A conference will look
at factors separating
Hawaiians from their
sense of self and place

By Treena Shapiro

Prison. Abuse. Adoption.

These are just three things that separate generations of native Hawaiians from their culture, say the organizers of an upcoming conference dealing with health and social issues affecting Hawaiians.

Later this month, medical professionals, social workers and other caregivers who work with Hawaiians will gather to discuss what can and should be done to help these "lost generations."

The idea for the conference came about when Benjamin Young, director of the Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence, found out that Hawaiian entertainer and educator Nalani Olds was going into the prisons to teach native Hawaiians about their culture.

Then he learned that children of many of the incarcerated Hawaiians were being adopted by families on the mainland -- another lost generation.

"As I thought more about this, I realized that there's a lot more involved that we can term lost generations," Young said, rattling off a list that included substance abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, mental illness, sexual identity and sexually transmitted diseases.

One of the goals of the conference is to put together a database or clearinghouse that gathers together everything that relates to Hawaiian health, Young said.

Olds said that she believes that teaching Hawaiians about their culture can help raise their self-esteem.

"I have a theory that if we know who we are and where we come from, then we can start formulating where we are going in the right way, in the right direction."

She has seen this demonstrated over the 12 years she volunteered to teach classes in the prisons. Most of the people who took the classes were Hawaiian or Polynesian, but others came and benefited as well. Olds said she encouraged them to write home and ask about their genealogies and determine who were the "warriors" in their families, the ones who rose above and were able to move forward and do things.

Those who took her classes were well behaved and respectful, Olds said -- so much so that they were sent to prisons on the mainland, while the more troublesome prisoners were kept in Hawaii.

Olds said that she does not have much experience with Hawaiian children being adopted by mainland families, but "I know it totally has to be devastating, especially when there are family members that also petitioned to keep the children and were given no consideration at all."

Being uprooted can be difficult for anyone, but "especially for Hawaiians. Our connection is to our land, our aina," she said. "Our connection is to our ohana as well."

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