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Tough OHA activist had 'heart of gold'

By Michael Tsai

LAST UPDATED: 8:56 p.m. HST, Jan 23, 2011

Adelaide Keanuenueokalaninuiamamao "Frenchy" DeSoto, lifelong champion of Hawaiian rights and widely recognized "mother" of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, died Friday night at the age of 81.

DeSoto had been suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure.

DeSoto was married to John "Cobra" DeSoto, the local motorcycle racing legend and co-founder of the Hawaii Motorsports Association. She is survived by four sons and a daughter.

"She was a very determined woman and extremely passionate about her beliefs," said longtime friend and occasional political adversary Clayton Hee. "She was tough-minded and she could be very expressive, but my own view of her was that her style grew out of the fact that deep inside her heart she had a lot of compassion for Hawaii and in particular, Hawaiian people."

DeSoto, who overcame a rough childhood to become an outspoken advocate for disenfranchised native Hawaiians on the Waianae Coast, rose to prominence as a delegate to the 1978 state Constitutional Convention, where she shepherded a traditionally overlooked native Hawaiian agenda that ultimately led to the creation of OHA.

In an interview with the OHA publication Ka Wai Ola, former Hawaii Gov. John Waihee recalled a meeting of the Hawaiian Affairs Committee that DeSoto had convened to bring differing factions together.

"Nobody left the room," Waihee said. "There was prayer, there was yelling, and whatever else you needed to have. At the end, a consensus emerged. It was Aunty Frenchy. Maybe they were terrified by her, maybe they were persuaded by her — I don't know."

DeSoto served as chairwoman of the first OHA Board of Trustees in 1980, resigned in an unsuccessful bid for the state Senate, and was re-elected to the board in 1986.

Roy Benham, who served with DeSoto on OHA's first board, said DeSoto's vision for how to improve the lives of native Hawaiians was evident in OHA initiatives to promote education and assist Hawaiians in starting their own businesses.

"She was fantastic," he said. "When she was chairwoman, she stated very clearly what she wanted and we either fell in line or there was controversy. Even when she wasn't chair, she was able in her own solid way to influence most of our decisions."

DeSoto resigned for good in 2000, along with the eight other trustees, following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision against OHA's Hawaiians-only elections in the Rice v. Cayetano case. DeSoto and the other trustees said their decision to resign en masse was meant as a show of solidarity in defense of the right of native Hawaiians to elect their own representatives to the trust.

DeSoto, who once worked as a janitor at the state Capitol, maintained that the rise of OHA was key to giving Hawaiians a voice in a political arena that would otherwise ignore them.

OHA Administrator Clyde Namuo said DeSoto brought the right combination of savvy and determination to the Hawaiian movement at a time when its concerns would have been easy to dismiss.

"I think the stars were aligned when she was elected to the Con-Con and when John Waihee became governor, because it gave us the opportunity to implement the provisions of the constitutional amendment," Namuo said. "(DeSoto) was tough as nails, but she had a heart of gold."

In his book "The Island Edge of America," author Tom Coffman addressed the strength and the compassion that made DeSoto a popular and respected figure in the Hawaiian community.

"She had a husky, cigarette voice, which she used to great advantage, gliding seamlessly from perfect English to pidgin to a partial but expressive grasp of Hawaiian," Coffman wrote. "As a child she had been orphaned and abused, and within her powerful frame there was a reservoir of dismay and rage that was counterbalanced with hopefulness and a warm sense of aloha."

Throughout her life, DeSoto proved unafraid to speak out on a host of controversial issues. She was active in the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, led the movement against the U.S. Army's use of Makua Valley for live-fire training, and was outspoken on topics such as use of blood quantum for determining benefits to native Hawaiians and the disposition of funds generated by ceded lands.

In 1997, she ousted Hee as chairperson of OHA. Yet Hee said that despite their occasional differences, he always respected her strength of conviction and, during long genial conversations away from the camera lights, came to appreciate how she used the difficult circumstances of her youth to maintain focus on what she wanted for future generations.

"Her upbringing — we talked about how she was dirt poor and basically living on the streets — served as a model of how she didn't want the next generation to grow up," he said. "She had a lot of strength and that's what I liked about her. If you were in her way, you'd better have what it takes to stay in the way because she was coming at you full force."

Hee said that while DeSoto was widely known for her willingness to engage her political foes, her public image belied a mischievous sense of humor and a deep affection for her family, particularly her grandchildren.

"She was a practical joker — that's what people didn't see," Hee said. "People saw her on TV looking mean, but she had a smile that could light up the day."

Hawaiian activist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell of Maui remembered DeSoto as an ardent supporter of Hawaiian rights and a leader who had no qualms with marching shoulder to shoulder with her supporters.

Maxwell recalled how DeSoto helped raise funds so he and other activists could travel to Washington, D.C., to pick up bones and artifacts stored in the Smithsonian Institution for repatriation to Hawaii.

"In 40 years in the Hawaiian movement, we fought together for many Hawaiian causes," Maxwell said. "She was a true warrior and we will miss her expertise."

Former City Councilman John DeSoto is her son.

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