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Trouble Undermines Paradise : Economic, Health Problems Afflict Native Hawaiians on Mainland, Too

September 02, 1990|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Malina Kaulukukui of El Toro was married 24 years ago on the 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.

But good times and get-togethers aren't 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 populate 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 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 Miike, executive director of a Hawaiian health agency. Miike 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 their Hawaiian island 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 Captain James Cook arrived in 1778.)

Likening the situation to that of American Indians, Kaulukukui said the situation stems from the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by the United States 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 U.S. 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., the 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 compounds the dilemma.

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