At the state Capitol, Bernard Punikaia laughs as he holds up a photo of a friend, Clarence Naia, who was being arrested during their eviction from Hale Mohalu in 1983.

Today is named
for Bernard Punikaia

He is honored for his work
with patients of Hansen's disease

By Crystal Kua

As a congressman, Neil Abercrombie has met his share of civil rights dignitaries, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.

But none, he says, can compare to a son of Hawaii -- Bernard Punikaia -- the activist who was evicted, arrested, but now honored for his decades-long fight to focus attention on people like him who have Hansen's disease.

"I consider (him) one of the great humanitarians -- not just in Hawaii, of anybody in the world," Abercrombie said.

Gov. Ben Cayetano is proclaiming today -- Punikaia's 72nd birthday -- "Bernard K. Punikaia Day."

"I think it acknowledges his lifetime work of being a human rights advocate," said longtime friend Wally Inglis, the governor's director of information services, who organized the event, which was Abercrombie's idea.

His friends say it is a fitting tribute to Punikaia, who has been in failing health following a stroke, because he has been recognized internationally for his work of helping others.

Punikaia, wearing a purple crown flower lei and looking elated this morning, said he was truly surprised by the honor.

"I had no idea," he said, adding, "People like to joke a lot."

After he was told of this morning's ceremony in his honor, Punikaia, who is now in a wheelchair, paid tribute to other Hansen's disease activities, such as Clarence Naia and Mary Duarte.

"They made a big addition to the struggle that we had," he said.

"They were the ones who made our foundation strong."

Punikaia's life changed forever when a school nurse spotted patches on the 6-year-old Punikaia's skin in 1937.

After he was diagnosed with the disease, Punikaia was taken from his family and forced into quarantine.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, children with Hansen's disease were sent to Kalaupapa, the settlement on Molokai.

In 1978, less than 10 years after the state repealed its mandatory-separation law, the state Health Department announced that it would close Hale Mohalu, a Hansen's disease residential treatment facility in Pearl City, but Punikaia and the late Mary Duarte would not budge.

The state cut electricity, shut off the water, removed medication and stopped serving food to force patients to leave.

One of Punikaia's more fiery supporters was a state lawmaker from Manoa. Abercrombie got into verbal battles with the then health director over the state's decision to shutdown Hale Mohalu.

Abercrombie, then a state senator, donned a "Save Hale Mohalu" T-shirt and sat with Punikaia in the days leading up to an eviction deadline in 1983.

On Sept. 21, 1983, Punikaia, along with others, was dragged from the site and arrested before bulldozers flattened the site.

But 10 years after his eviction, Punikaia would witness the rebirth of the Hale Mohalu name in the form of a 200-unit senior housing complex on the site of the old facility at a ceremony.

Punikaia has also been a traveling statesman, supporting Hansen's disease patients in Louisiana, China and India on behalf of the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement, a coalition of Hansen's disease survivors and their supporters.

E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --