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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hansen's activist Clarence Naia

 •  Obituaries

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer


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Clarence Naia, a leading figure in the struggle for the rights of Hansen's disease patients, died June 7 at Le'ahi Hospital. He was 77.

Naia was born Sept. 17, 1928, in the Kalaupapa leprosy settlement on Moloka'i. He was taken from his parents, who had the disease, and was raised by his grandmother on Maui. In 1953, Naia was diagnosed with leprosy while working as an Army truck driver on O'ahu. He later moved to Hale Mohalu, a state-run treatment center in Pearl City.

In 1978, when state officials decided to transfer the remaining 13 patients from the crumbling facility to Le'ahi Hospital, Naia, fellow patient Bernard Punikai'a and others refused to be evicted from their home, even though their water and electricity often were cut off by officials.

After a five-year standoff, when the patients' court appeals were exhausted, officials conducted a pre-dawn raid at the facility in September 1983, with Naia and 17 others arrested for government obstruction. The building was bulldozed, and a senior housing complex was built.

Television and newspaper images of Naia and Punikai'a being carried from Hale Mohalu, their dignity intact, inspired many to support their causes and spurred other protests over land, Native Hawaiian and civil rights.

"These guys are heroes in my mind. What they did took an enormous amount of courage, and they influenced a lot of the rest of us," said Dr. Fred Dodge of Wai'anae on the 20th anniversary of the Hale Mohalu raid. Dodge was among those who were arrested that day.

"Clarence was always a champion for patients' rights," said Debra Punikai'a, wife of Bernard Punikai'a, who is at Le'ahi Hospital. "But he was also known as an avid poker player, and he sure took a lot of people's money.

"I can still see him driving that beat-up blue station wagon with the hood held down by a hollow-tile block. He had Coke-bottle-bottom glasses, so I made sure I wasn't on the road when he was out driving. Thank goodness it was Kalaupapa, and there's nothing to run into.

"He had a full life, a life that was full of a lot of joy and a lot of pain."

Services for Naia were held in Honolulu and at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Kalaupapa. Debra Punikai'a said it was his desire to return to the settlement to be buried near his wife, Rose Wana Naia.

He is survived by his daughter, Pauline Cooke, a grandson and three great-granddaughters, all of Anchorage, Alaska.

Reach Christie Wilson at cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.