Hawaiians in Peril : Poverty, Ill Health Bedevil a Once Happy-Go-Lucky Culture


When Malina Kaulukukui of El Toro was married 24 years ago on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, friends, relatives and neighbors she had never met carted box after armload of fragrant pikake, plumeria and hibiscus blossoms to her home.

“All these people brought flowers over because they had heard from auntie so-and-so who had heard from uncle so-and-so who had heard from a friend that we needed flowers for the wedding,” she recalled the other day.

Ohana, a Hawaiian word meaning family, or a “feeling of responsibility and connectedness,” brought forth the show of communal support, just as it recently transformed an empty hall in Costa Mesa into a spirited Hawaiian luau, replete with traditional songs and hula dance, roast pig for 500 and heaps of home-grown flowers.


For their annual aha’aina , or festival, members of an Orange County Hawaiian community group took to their gardens--and their friends’ and neighbors’ gardens--to string together delicate leis, fashion aromatic centerpieces and decorate the stage on which they performed.

“That same sense of community exists here,” said Kaulukukui, who helped prepare the meal by hand-mixing 100 pounds of poi--the pasty gray starch that was once a staple of the Hawaiian diet--with water to give it the right consistency.

But good times and get-togethers are not the sole pursuits of the Ainahau o Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club, just as life for Native Hawaiians living on the lush tropical islands isn’t always a luau.

The very people who once made Hawaii a land called Paradise are more prone to be in jail, drop out of school and live on the streets than any other ethnic group now living there. They also suffer the worst health, studies show.

Compared to the overall U.S. population, this group has a 34% higher mortality rate from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and all other causes of death, according to Dr. Larry Miiki, executive director of a Hawaiian health agency. Miiki and other experts attribute the plight largely to the effects of poverty, which prohibits access to good health care and proper nutrition.

The Huntington Beach-based Hawaiian civic club aims to preserve and perpetuate Hawaiian culture in a state that has the most Hawaiians outside of the islands, most of them in Southern California. The 1980 census put the number at 24,245. More current unofficial estimates nearly double that.

Conditions for many Native Hawaiians in the continental United States are just as dismal as those in Hawaii are for their counterparts, civic club members assert.

“The overwhelming health crisis among Native Hawaiians exists whether they live in Hawaii or not,” said Janie Ka’ala Pang, the Hawaiian civic club’s education coordinator.

(Intermarriage has greatly diluted the Native Hawaiian population, but club members use the federal government’s definition of Native Hawaiians as those who can trace any island ancestors to the time before British navy Capt. James Cook arrived in 1778.)

Likening the situation to that of American Indians, Kaulukukui said it stems from the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by the U.S. government and the population’s dominance by the “white man,” which left Native Hawaiians an impoverished minority beset by persisting social and economic ills.

Many Hawaiians who came to the continental United States seeking to better their lives have succeeded in their quest, said Kaulukukui, a clinical social worker born and raised in Honolulu, who specializes in minority issues.

Paul Kalehua, an engineer for Allied Signal Corp., an aircraft manufacturer in Torrance, said many of his friends, Native Hawaiians like himself, are aerospace engineers at Northrop Corp., McDonnell Douglas Corp. and Rockwell International. Others in the community say doctors, lawyers and business executives also make up the work force.

But others say the majority of Hawaiians here work in blue-collar or entry-level jobs, limited by their lack of education. And many never rise above the poverty, discrimination and ill health they sought to escape, Kaulukukui said.

Part of the problem is a cultural reluctance to ask for outside help and a reliance on ohana for financial assistance from friends within a tightly knit community. Fund-raisers, such as luaus or golf tournaments, are held frequently to meet the need, said Bobby Chun, owner of the Voice of Hawaii, a newsletter with a circulation of about 7,400 throughout the United States and abroad.

“The news travels fast, if you need help; everyone donates,” said Chun, senior vice president of Frederick Russell Brown Associates, an Encino firm that provides engineering consultants. “People lose their homes, you go ahead and help them. All the proceeds of these events will go to people who need them.”

But that kind of support goes only so far, said Kaulukukui, adding that erroneous views of Hawaiians compound the dilemma.

“There’s a stereotype or illusion that Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are these exotic people who live a carefree life and sing songs and do a lot of dancing. Well, that’s not true, but when that myth is perpetuated, people don’t have to look at the realities.”

But a worse hindrance has to do with documenting need. When governmental agencies study social and economic levels, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are generally lumped in with Asians, and thus their needs remain totally unrecognized or greatly underestimated, club members say.

“Pacific Islanders are often the invisible race,” said Kaulukukui, citing a 1980 study by the federal government that surveyed Pacific Islanders in the same category as Asians. The study showed, for instance, that 11% of the group as a whole lived below the poverty line. But when Pacific Islanders were counted separately, 16% fell into that category.

Indeed, few studies have been done on the Hawaiian plight in the United States.

Herbert Berringer, a sociology professor of the University of Hawaii, wrote a report in 1989 that showed that as far as economic status, “there was not a lot of difference” between Hawaiians here and in Hawaii, Berringer said.

Miiki, executive director of Papa Ola Lokahi, a federally funded agency creating health care programs in Hawaii, said he would “guess” that Native Hawaiians unassimilated into continental U.S. society would probably suffer similar ill health to those on the islands.

But the Hawaii State Department of Health collects no data on Hawaiians outside of Hawaii, and studies done by the California State Department of Rehabilitation groups Hawaiians in with Pacific Islanders, said Takao Iwasa, the rehabilitation department’s chief of statistics.

The U.S. Census Bureau gives no current population projections on Hawaiians here because “the group is too small for the Census Bureau to make projections,” said Michael J. Levin, a bureau social science analyst.

Similarly, the Asian American Health Forum, a national advocacy agency in San Francisco that promotes improved health among Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, knows of no state or federal or private studies.

“Data may have been collected, but it has not in any way been analyzed or disseminated,” said Tessie Guillermo, forum executive director, adding that raw, unanalyzed data collected from the state health department confirms that “mainland Hawaiians do die in high numbers from the same causes as Hawaiians on the islands.”

“Like all Asian and Pacific Island subgroups, they are not considered a large enough group for anyone to give money to anyone who would want to do a study on,” Guillermo said. “It’s hard enough to get money to do studies on Pacific Islanders as an aggregate, let alone a subgroup.”

“We know they are very under-served,” Guillermo continued. “But it’s like a Catch-22. Unless you have data to prove they are a highly needy ethnic group, you can’t get money to spend on improving their health. . . .”

This week, the Orange County Hawaiian civic club learned that it was turned down for a federal grant. Members had hoped to use the money to register Native Hawaiians here in order to address their medical, economic and educational needs with existing social services or to petition for more.

Club members plan to reapply for the grant next spring. In the meantime, they, along with five other clubs belonging to the Mainland Council of Hawaiian Civic Clubs (in Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Anchorage) will continue their volunteer efforts to register Hawaiians.

“Hawaiians are known not to ask for services,” said Pang, who works as a nurse for Los Angeles County. “It is accepted in our culture to say we have to make due with what we’ve got. We want to help people reach out.

Frequently sponsoring events from luaus to beauty pageants, California’s Hawaiian community is as active as it is cohesive, members say.

Some of its 100 clubs are primarily social and recreational. The 400-member Anaheim-based Kamaaina Club is dedicated to bowling and golf leagues, for instance.

Other clubs focus on tradition. The Hawaiian Inter-Club Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of various groups, had its 11th annual Hawaiian festival this July. Drawing about 75,000 to Alondra Park in Lawndale, the event celebrating Polynesian culture is the largest of its kind outside of Hawaii, organizers say.

The Ainahau o Kaleponi Hawaiian Civic Club (ainahua means land of cool breezes; kaleponi translates to California) places cultural preservation first and foremost, but stresses health and welfare advocacy as well as the perpetuation of traditional song, dance and other cultural practices.

One of six continental U.S. chapters of the Assn. of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, which has 40 groups in Hawaii, the group was formed in 1982 and now has more than 200 members paying dues that range from $10 to $35.

Most members live in Orange County and about three-fourths are Native Hawaiian, said Pang, who is also a mainland council secretary. Officers must be Native Hawaiian but, like other clubs, it allows anyone to join, even non-Hawaiian.

Heather MacLean of Laguna Hills doesn’t have a drop of Hawaiian blood. But she has been a club member for three years and sings with its chorale, scheduled to perform in the Los Angeles Festival at 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Angel’s Gate Cultural Center and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. Both sites are in San Pedro. “I belong because of the feeling of aloha , the love, the giving, the sharing, the good things in life,” said MacLean, 36, who, like so many others, wore a long, loose-fitting muumuu to the club’s recent luau in Costa Mesa.

Also attending the festivities was club founder Mary Ann Kauluwehi Kalama of Costa Mesa, a petite, feisty 86-year-old.

Affectionately known by all as “Auntie,” she said she created the group after the national civic club association held its first convention outside of Hawaii at Anaheim’s Disneyland Hotel.

The occasion drummed up “overwhelming enthusiasm and interest,” said Kalama, who blessed the luau in Hawaiian--she is one of a scant few here who speak the language fluently--and whooped when male dancers in red silk shirts stomped their feet and swiveled their hips.

The evening’s entertainers sang ancient meles , or songs, tapped and jiggled seed-filled instruments they crafted from bulbous gourds and golden chicken feathers, and performed hulas said to have been danced for Hawaiian alii, or royalty.

All ages took the stage, but special emphasis was placed on younger members, the focus of the group’s motto: “The culture of the land is preserved in its youth.”

Aana Mitchell, the club’s master kumuhula, or hula teacher, voiced that commitment as she made an informal, parting speech before a move back to Hawaii.

“My one goal in life is to teach our young people, more than that to see them carry it out,” Mitchell said. “And I have seen them do that.”

Three academic scholarships totaling $10,000 (money raised from the event’s $22 admission) were awarded to teen-age members or children of members. Afterward, club president Hookaulana Carl Bode spoke privately of the critical role that education plays in improving the plight of many Hawaiians.

“Hawaiians have been at the top of the statistics list of anything that is bad,” Bode said. “Maybe we are not going to change these things in our generation. But maybe we can make a start. We hope we can.”