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Pioneer Native Hawaiian Doctor and Sovereignty Activist Dies at 90

by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang /
Richard Kekuni Blaisdell, center, with his daughter Nalani Blaisdell, left, and University of Hawaii Dr. Kalani Brady, right, in the John A. Burn School of Medicine’s Native Hawaiian Healing Garden. Courtesy of the University of Hawaii /

Dr. Richard Kekuni Akana Blaisdell, founding chairperson of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii and prominent Hawaii sovereignty activist, died of respiratory failure Friday at the age of 90, according to the University of Hawaii.

“Dr. Blaisdell is considered a treasure to every class which has ever graduated from our medical school,” Jerris R. Hedges, dean of the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, said in a statement.

According to the university, Blaisdell graduated from Kamehameha Schools, served in the U.S. military, and was a specialist in hematology and pathology. After World War II, he was appointed to the U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to study the effects of radiation in atomic bomb survivors.

His academic research documented the health disparities of Native Hawaiians, and his advocacy resulted in federal legislation and congressional funding for Native Hawaiian health care programs that integrated both traditional practices and western medicine.

“His greatest accomplishment was to bring medicine, culture and heritage and relate it to modern politics,” Kamanaʻopono Crabbe, CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said in a statement. “He understood that one cannot exist without the other and good governance was necessary to promote good health and medicine. That is why he was such a staunch supporter of sovereignty for the Hawaiian people – to bring the best governance practices to improve the health of Hawaiians and all the people of Hawai‘i. The lāhui has lost a dear patriot.”

He was also the convener of the 1993 Kanaka Maoli People’s Tribunal, which documented U.S. abuses in Hawaii before an international panel of judges, as well as the primary organizer of Ka Pākaukau, an ongoing forum about Hawaiian sovereignty, according to Honolulu Star Advertiser.

Blaisdell was known for mentoring hundreds of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, including Crabbe, fighting to get more Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders into medical school, reviving traditional healing practices, and advocating for culturally appropriate health care.

“He was an inspiration and a mentor to many of us,” Mele Look, director of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health, told Khon 2 News, “Encouraging us to be brave and to be courageous in our research decisions, in our political stands, and in our teaching.”

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