Adelaide Keanuenueokalaninuiamamao "Frenchy" DeSoto, lifelong champion of Hawaiian rights and widely recognized "mother" of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, died last night at the age of 81.
DeSoto had been suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
"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.
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 in 1986.
She resigned for good in 2000, along with the eight other trustees, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against OHA’s Hawaiian-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 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.
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 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.
DeSoto was married to John "Cobra" DeSoto, the local motorcycle racing legend and co-founder of the Hawaii Motorsports Association, who died in 2006.