Punikaia — unwavering advocate for dignity


POSTED: Thursday, March 05, 2009

Bernard Punikaia was not one to surrender, not to the disfiguring disease he contracted at age 6, an affliction that had him and thousands of others removed from their homes and families and banished to a remote Molokai peninsula.

He was not one to yield to an unfeeling state government that decided to shut down Hale Mohalu, a residential treatment hospital where he and other Hansen's disease patients had found community. For five years, he and two others stood their ground, resisting eviction before bulldozers razed the structures. And though the Pearl City site was to be leased for other purposes, such as a sports facility, a coalition of which he was a member pushed the state to put up affordable housing for the elderly.

In the years that followed, he became a worldwide champion for people with the disease, founding the International Advocacy for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement and traveling globally to speak out against unjust treatment of patients.

Punikaia also wasn't one to abandon living. He gathered an assortment of friends from many walks of life. He made music, composing songs and jamming with other performers and the Hale Mohalu band whenever the occasion allowed.

For most of his 78 years, he remained at Kalaupapa. It was his idea to organize a group to keep the story of his “;hometown”; alive in remembrance of his fellow residents.

In his quest for human dignity, Punikaia was realistic but hopeful, once saying, “;I can't change everything in the world, but I'll try my best to do the things I can do.”;