Bernard K. Punikai‘a
Bernard Punikai‘a shares stories with children who visit the “Quest for Dignity” exhibit about the history of people affected by leprosy around the world that was featured at Honolulu Hale (City Hall) in 1998. Photo: ©Pamela Parlapiano
Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa was the vision of Bernard Ka‘owakaokalani Punikai‘a, one of the great leaders in the history of Kalaupapa who became known around the world as a human rights activist.
Bernard was taken from his mother and isolated at Kalihi Hospital on Oahu when he was just 6 ½ years old because he was diagnosed with leprosy. He was sent to Kalaupapa five years later. His childhood was filled with hurt, loneliness and uncertainty.
Many years later, while giving a keynote address at the United Nations, Bernard would show a picture of himself as a boy and reflect on his journey from frightened youth diagnosed with a disease he didn’t understand to distinguished leader who came to love Kalaupapa as “my hometown.”
“When I was asked to share my personal experiences as a Hansen’s disease patient – those years of confinement and banishment from family, schoolmates, friends and society – I was forced to reflect back to a time of deep personal pain.
“This picture was taken within a month of my incarceration on Oahu at Kalihi Hospital, also known by the euphemism of ‘Mount Happy Home.’ Upon the face of this child I see the pain he is enduring. ‘The loneliness is so overwhelming, Mama.’
Bernard Punikai‘a pauses outside The Honolulu Academy of Arts.
Photo: ©Pamela Parlapiano
“In spirit I am able to reach out to him, to comfort him, to put my arms around him, and to reassure him that all is not lost. The pain will go away, I tell him. As I look at the photo of this six-year-old boy who was me, something happens. His pain coalesces with my spirit and that pain is no longer his alone. I want to tell him that the time will come when there will be laughter, joy, respect and, yes, dignity. But I am unable to tell him that it will take a lifetime before this time arrives.”
Self-educated and determined, Bernard evolved into a strong leader who was charismatic, eloquent and wise. He was Chair of the Kalaupapa Patients Advisory Council, ran for the Hawai‘i State House and, perhaps in his most visible and notable role, organized the movement to save Hale Mohalu, the residential complex that became a sister facility of Kalaupapa and was under threat by the State government.
The Hale Mohalu ‘Ohana included hundreds of supporters who followed Bernard and made headlines with weekly rallies that stretched in front of the State Capitol.
Bernard’s efforts gained national attention. In 1986, Bernard was featured as one of “100 New American Heroes” in a special Collector’s Edition of Newsweek Magazine where he was described as a “warrior” standing up for the rights of people affected by leprosy.
In the mid-90s, Bernard saw that the population of Kalaupapa was getting older and their numbers getting smaller. He was worried that their voices would no longer be heard and that the wishes of the people of Kalaupapa would not be included in planning the future.
Bernard decided the best way to make sure the people of Kalaupapa remained at the table when decisions were made was to bring together family members and longtime friends of the community.
The first workshop – led by Bernard and other residents of Kalaupapa – was held in 1996. Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa was formed in 2003 and has been recognized as the first organized effort in the world to reach out to and bring together family members of people affected by leprosy.
Bernard said that his Hawaiian name – Ka‘owakaokalani – meant “bright light in the sky.” He certainly lived up to this name.
A talented musician and composer, Bernard wrote many songs during his lifetime and performed them on his autoharp. He was a devoted Roman Catholic who considered Father Damien de Veuster his “north star.”
Bernard died on February 25, 2009. Condolences poured in from around the world and funerals were held in both Honolulu and Kalaupapa. Governor Neil Abercrombie compared Bernard to Ghandi.
Miyoji Morimoto, a friend and fellow activist from Japan, wrote:
“Bernard, you have left uneraseable footprints in the quest for world peace and human happiness… Now you have so many of us who are following your path with the same determination that you had.”
Although physically gone, Bernard continues to make his presence felt in our lives constantly. He forever remains our bright light in the sky.
-- Valerie Monson
Bernard, a longtime musician and composer, plays his autoharp during the struggle to save Hale Mohalu, 1978-1983.
Photo courtesy of The Hale Mohalu ‘Ohana