Issue 10.4: August / September 2007

Kawena's Legacy

story by Chad Blair

The ancestors have passed on; today’s people see but dimly times long gone and far behind.
—Place Names of Hawaii

Co-authoring Place Names of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Dictionary helped secure Mary Kawena Pukui legendary status in Hawaiian history and culture. No bookshelf in the Islands is complete without them; both are indispensable reference guides—cultural bibles, really—infused with knowledge and insight. But Kawena, as she was known, was not simply the Noah Webster of Hawai‘i. She was much more: teacher, author, historian, translator, genealogist, composer and kumu hula.

“Kawena really is the primary informant for how Hawaiian culture is practiced today,” explains DeSoto Brown, archives collections manager at Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “She recognized that the language and the knowledge were being lost. Kawena felt it incumbent on her to make sure Hawaiians who came after her would be able to go to her work and learn from it.”

Kawena’s work at Bishop Museum was so integral to the institution, it has become virtually part of the mortar, but those who knew Kawena say she would have shunned recognition. “She never thought that she was changing Hawai‘i,” says Patience Namakauahoaokawena Wiggin Bacon (also known as “Aunty Pat”), Kawena’s hanai (adopted) daughter and only surviving child. “She didn’t like to be up there shining in the public,” says Aunty Pat, who is still active at eighty-seven and works as a cultural resource specialist at the museum. “She always wanted to preserve whatever she had learned.”


One wishing to name a child, a house, a T-shirt, or a painting, should be careful that the chosen name does not have a naughty or vulgar meaning. … Even the common toast in Hawai‘i that is a translation of “bottoms up” is ‘okole maluna “buttocks up,” not a pretty picture. —Hawaiian Dictionary

Mary Kawena Pukui was born in rural Ka‘u on the Big Island. Her mother, Mary Pa‘ahana Kanaka‘ole Wiggin, spoke to her only in Hawaiian. Her father, Henry Nathaniel Wiggin, was a native of Salem, Massachusetts. Even though he spoke fluent Hawaiian, he spoke to Kawena only in English. As noted in the introduction to Folktales of Hawai‘i (Bishop Museum, 1995), Kawena grew up bilingual and bicultural.

It was her maternal grandmother, Po‘ai, who instilled in the young Kawena her lifelong desire to understand and preserve her culture. Po‘ai had been a dancer in the court of Queen Emma, and Kawena spent the first six years of her life with her grandmother, as was customary. By her early teens she was collecting stories, legends and traditions given to her by family and friends.

After the family moved to Honolulu, Kawena’s language skills were noticed. “Laura Green was of missionary stock, and she could see that Kawena was good at memory and things like that,” Aunty Pat recalls. “So she encouraged her to write, and they did things together. Later on, her cousin, Martha Beckwith (a noted folklore scholar), was doing some things here at the museum. And so Kawena came to the museum to help her.”

Kawena would spend some fifty years at Bishop Museum, where she worked closely with anthropologists, ethnologists, biologists and others. In fact, she co-wrote the Hawaiian Dictionary to help them. Additionally, many of the stories and chants she translated were published; it’s estimated she co-authored more than fifty books and over 150 songs. That’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a person who quit high school after being punished for speaking to a classmate in Hawaiian. (Kawena would later graduate from the Hawaiian Mission Academy in Honolulu at age twenty-six.)

Kawena also traveled throughout the Islands to record and translate the memories, songs and oral histories of Hawaiians. These are still on file at the museum. So, too, is the Roberts Collection, named for Helen Roberts, who was hired by the Territory of Hawai‘i in the 1920s to make audio recordings on cylinders. “Kawena would make corrections to the typed lyrics either because the chanter didn’t remember them correctly or because the person who transcribed them didn’t understand,” says DeSoto Brown. “Not only was she able to translate these recordings, she was able to translate into poetic English, to make a connection to the tone of the Hawaiian.”

But Brown says Kawena contributed an even greater level of understanding to the transcription work: “If Kawena knew background historical information about the chant—Who was this written for? What were the circumstances behind it? How did it change?—she would write that, too. The only way you know that stuff is because you go to somebody else who tells you who knows. Kawena was that person.”

To look at photos and video and to hear audio of Kawena is to see and hear a woman who projects an almost matronly devotion to all things Hawaiian. Nanea Armstrong, a research assistant for the museum’s library and archives, plays a cassette of Kawena speaking in English:

A poi shop was easily identified by a white flag, frequently just a washed flour sack, open and taped to a stick and set up near the doorway. Everybody recognized the poi flag … in the days when men tucked in their shirts, one that hung out behind was called the poi flag.

“She has the kindest, the sweetest, most non-threatening voice,” says Armstrong. Brown describes that arresting voice in slightly different terms. “There seems—and this is a very Hawaiian thing—a closeness with natural sounds or natural feelings, a kind of flowing of water. I picture the gentle movement of tree branches and leaves, a caressing, even.”

I ask Brown what Kawena might think of her legacy today. His answer surprises me. “I suspect she would have ambivalent feelings,” he replies. “She would have been very happy to see the resurgence of Hawaiian language and knowledge, and acknowledgment of the value of the culture. She would be unhappy with people who glorify or enhance their reputations through the use of Hawaiian culture, however, such as to say, ‘I am an authority,’ because I don’t think she ever did that with herself. That attitude is what I think she would have a big problem with, particularly if someone was using her name to justify it.” Brown observes that Kawena avoided the political activism that followed the revival of Hawaiian language and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s. Still, he says, those activists relied on her work.

Ironically, early in her career, Kawena was criticized by some Hawaiians. “She was told, ‘You shouldn’t be telling the haoles this stuff—these are the secrets of our culture; it shouldn’t be written down so the haole people can read it!’” Brown says. “And her response to that was, ‘I’m doing this for my grandchildren, but also for your grandchildren.’”

E po e
E po e,
Kau mai ma hoku
A ao a‘e helele‘i wale

O night,
Put out the stars
And when the day comes, let them
fall away.

—“Mary Kawena Pukui: No Na Kamali‘i,”

It’s a Sunday morning in February at Bishop Museum, and the parking lot is full. There’s a stage under a tent erected on the Great Lawn outside Hawaiian Hall. The occasion is the Seventh Annual Mary Kawena Pukui Performing Arts Festival, where audiences have come to hear the mo‘olelo (stories, myths, traditions) come to life. Onstage, Native Alaskans and Americans—Yu’Pik, Iñupiaq, Wampanoag—are joined by Native Hawaiians. Performers in colorful traditional clothing sing and play drums.

Thinking about what DeSoto Brown said about Kawena’s legacy, I pose the same question to Aunty Pat. Like Brown, she believes Kawena would be pleased to see the broad use of Hawaiian today, from language immersion schools to the naming of streets, buildings and children. (Interestingly, unlike the street signs or other forms of written Hawaiian, Kawena and the Hawaiians of her era never wrote using Hawaiian diacriticals; they were used in Hawaiian Dictionary for pronunciation purposes only and later became commonplace).

But while the language has been enjoying a revival, “I think she would have been disappointed in some aspects,” Aunty Pat says. “The thinking today really isn’t Hawaiian. Sometimes we’ve gone past Hawaiian thinking and we’ve changed it a little bit so that it fits into today’s world.” She’s being polite—and careful—with her words: “The Hawaiians, they never liked to have any of their problems aired. They had a knack for doing things and reaching a conclusion about how something or other should be done—ho‘oponopono [to put things right]. Could we use more of that today? There’s some that still do, but not very many.”

“There’s never going to be another Kawena, just like there’s never going to be another Aunty Pat,” Nanea Armstrong adds. “Kawena lived at that time, she knew the metaphor, the hidden meaning—the kaona. That time is past, and you’re never going to be able to recreate it, even with the university, with the Hawaiian renaissance.”

Aunty Pat mentions another aspect of Hawaiian culture where Kawena was not always happy with its current direction—hula. “In the old days, the most important thing was the chant,” she explains. “The hula enhanced the text. I’ve talked to some younger kumu, and they tell me that the dance is the important thing,
not the text.”

To illustrate, Aunty Pat stands unsteadily. “Since my stroke, I can’t dance so well,” she says. She begins to dance in the traditional kahiko style, using her hands and words to tell the beauty of Hanauma, where mountains surround the sea. At one point, she attempts a wide sweep of her arms and a roll of her hips to mimic the more physical dance of modern hula. Armstrong, many decades younger, follows Aunty Pat’s lead and embellishes the movements. Aunty Pat laughs, pleased that Armstrong has conveyed her thoughts.

Aunty Pat looks at me and nods toward Armstrong: “Her mind and memory work like my mother’s did. I give her a bit of information, a little thing—then I ask her three months later, and she remembers,” she says. “I am delighted.”

Armstrong blushes, embarrassed but clearly pleased by her mentor’s praise. Here, dancing in the archives of Bishop Museum, Mary Kawena Pukui’s legacy lives on. HH