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Native Hawaiian health, sovereignty advocate Dr. Richard Kekuni Blaisdell dies

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  • STAR-ADVERTISER / NOV. 11, 2008

    Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell talks with people at a vigil at the Iolani Palace grounds marking the anniversary of Queen Liliuokalani’s death.

Dr. Richard Kekuni Akana Blaisdell, a pioneering advocate for Native Hawaiian sovereignty and access to healthcare, died of respiratory failure today at the Queen’s Medical Center.

He was 90 years old.

Blaisdell was instrumental in starting the University of Hawaii School of Medicine and was the inaugural chairman of the then-Department of Medicine at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1966.

Blaisdell, the first Native Hawaiian in the nation elevated to chairman of a medical school, was a staunch advocate “for accessible and culturally appropriate healthcare for native Hawaiians. He provided dramatic documentation of worsening Kanaka Maoli health conditions,” the University of Hawaii Medical School said in a news release announcing his death.

Blaisdell focused his research on the well-being of Native Hawaiians and authored a critical health report for the congressional Native Hawaiians Study Commission in 1983, as well as a report identifying the health needs of Native Hawaiians entitled “E Ola Mau” in 1985.

In this report, he documented the high incidence of heart disease, cancer, infant mortality, stroke and diabetes in Native Hawaiians.

Blaisdell was honored with an honorary degree from the UH-Manoa.

In awarding the degree, the university noted that his report also examined issues such as education and dropout rates, incarceration, income and home-ownership. Blaisdell emphasized that the health of Native Hawaiians is connected to the land, the preservation of cultural traditions and an understanding of traditional ways of life.

Blaisdell testified for the Native Hawaiian Health Bill before Congress in 1986, 1987 and 1988. The bill, passed in October 1988, established five Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems on five islands — specifying that traditional practices be integrated with services offering western health practices.

In 1986, Blaisdell and Na Pu’uwai on Moloka’i conducted a study that showed the traditional Kanaka Maoli diet lowered blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, thereby reducing risk for heart disease.

Blaisdell also served as interim director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa from 1987 to 1988.

Blaisdell was also the convener for the 1993 Kanaka Maoli People’s Tribunal, documenting U.S. abuses in Hawaii before an international panel of judges, and the primary organizer of Ka Pākaukau (literally, “the Table”), an ongoing forum for dialogue surrounding Kānaka Maoli sovereignty and Hawaiian independence.

In 1990, Blaisdell was named a Living Treasure of Hawaii by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. It’s among his many awards.

He graduated from Kamehameha Schools and got a medical degree from the University of Chicago School of Medicine in 1948. He did his residencies at Tulane, Duke and the University of Chicago hospitals.

Blaisdell is survived by son Mitch, daughter Dr. Nalani Blaisdell-Brennan and 4 grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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    • agree. He united traditional Hawaiian medicine with Western medicine. A gentle soul. I disagreed with his sovereignty ideas but they were not central to his many medical contributions to the community.May God give him peace.

      • In the 1980s I visited Hawaii during 3 summer vacations, and was enormously attracted to the spirituality of the ‘aina, and the music and culture of the ethnic Hawaiians. In 1992 I moved here permanently and have never left since then. At first I was inclined to believe the sovereignty activist stories about Hawaiian history. So during the 1990s I attended hundreds of sovereignty rallies at the Palace and in various parks, lectures and panel discussions at UH, and discussions in peoples’ homes. I walked and talked with Kekuni many times, and he always gave me a nice shoulder massage as his way of saying hello. For a few years he carried a camera everywhere he went and seemed delighted to take lots of photos as though it was a marvelous new invention! I went to a couple of his weekly Thursday night discussions at his home in the Dowsett neighborhood a couple blocks from Pali Hwy, and remember how he had a huge Hawaiian flag on the wall of his living room, and the floor was covered with tall stacks of newspapers and magazines, so numerous it was hard to walk. He was always a very mellow fellow, soft-spoken and gentle. As I did more research and thinking and reading and meditating, my views became opposite to his and we drifted apart and I hardly saw him again. Despite our different views, I will always respect him and remember him with fondness. For those who are interested in seeing him interacting with his friends, here’s a 90-minute YouTube video of his 85th birthday celebration at the Queen Lili’uokalani Childrens Center in Kalihi.

  • One of the nicest souls a person could meet. He treats everyone like a good friend. Mahalo for everything you have done for Hawaiians and the medical community.

    • A lot of his wisdom derived from his Chinese background also. Him and Sen Akaka too. He exemplified how the Chinese Hawaiians make a big contribution to the native Hawaiian struggle for normalization so life can indeed be healthier and happier.

    • all true. And he respected indigenous Mandans and their tribal history. I met him as a sophomore undergraduate. He was kind to spend so much time with me. He had faith in the unity of Western and Hawaiian medicine. He blended them in his approach. Unlike some, he never minimized the contributions of the Chinese, the Westerner or any others.

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