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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, June 20, 2005

Forced assimilation may hurt Hawaiians

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Cultural trauma" caused by forced assimilation into Western culture continues to wreak havoc on the health and well-being of Native Hawaiians even today, according to a Hilo, Hawai'i, researcher.

Bud Pomaika'i Cook, education director for Ka Maluhia Learning Center, said evidence suggests that what he refers to as "the cultural trauma syndrome" has occurred not just with Native Hawaiians, but also with aborigines in Australia, American Indians in South Dakota and others he characterized as "disenfranchised populations."

All disenfranchised populations appear to share similar trends and a primary one is the attacks that were made on their cultures, which he defined as "shared beliefs, values and practices."

Western writers who arrived in Hawai'i in the late 1700s described Native Hawaiians as "a very vibrant, very healthy, very vigorous and fit race," Cook said at a breakout session of the three-day Pacific Global Health Conference last week.

But a study done by the state Department of Health in 2002 concluded that a Hawaiian male, on average will die six years earlier than the average male in all other populations, Cook said.

One common pattern of cultural trauma syndrome is that often, attacks against the original culture start to manifest themselves from within, he said. "This is ... where a person becomes his own worst enemy, and (engages in) self-destructive behavior," he said. Often, people will engage in "suicide by lifestyle," which could result in such things as ignoring the advice of health experts to eat healthier, exercise more or quit smoking.

The key to blunting the impacts of cultural trauma is education, Cook said. "It's the process of empowerment; it's the process of growth; it's education which heals and not just informs, but develops wisdom and understanding in individuals, in families and in communities."

Cook said he and Kelley Withy, a medical doctor with the John A. Burns School of Medicine, are continuing their research.

Also speaking at the health conference was Keawe'aimoku Kaholokua, who was part of a team that compared the prevalence of smoking among Native Hawaiians with Caucasians, Japanese and Filipinos in Hawai'i. The findings reaffirmed earlier studies that showed Native Hawaiians with a greater prevalence of smoking than other ethnicities, and a greater percentage of Native Hawaiian women who smoke than Native Hawaiian men.

The research by Kaholokua's group showed 20.8 percent of Native Hawaiians smoke, a larger percentage than the other groups studied. Among other groups, 17.6 percent of Filipinos, 11.6 percent of Caucasians and 7.7 percent of Japanese surveyed smoke.

What's more, Kaholokua's group found that 22.1 percent of Native Hawaiian women smoke, more than Filipinos (13.8 percent), Caucasians (11.1 percent) and Japanese (3.7 percent). Among men, 23 percent of Filipinos reported smoking, followed by Native Hawaiians (19.2 percent), Caucasians (12.1 percent) and Japanese (11.8 percent).

Kaholokua, a researcher with the Department of Native Hawaiian Health in the Burns School, said the findings track studies elsewhere in the U.S. showing that while men as a whole tend to smoke more than women, that's not the case among native populations, including American Indians and Native Alaskans.

The data, Kaholokua said, suggest a need for tobacco-prevention programs to target specific genders within specific ethnic groups.

The conference, held Wednesday through Friday at the Hawai'i Convention Center, was sponsored by the Hawai'i Public Health Association and the state Department of Health.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8026.