Kūkahekahe: Celebrating Mary Kawena Pukui

Apr. 20, 2022

In this Kūkahekahe column, we celebrate the birth of one of our foremost ‘ōiwi scholars and beloved cultural authority Mary Kawena Pukui.

Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Pukui (nèe Wiggin) was born on an early spring morning on Saturday, April 20, 1895. She was born in Hale Ola, (House of Life), her grandmother’s house, Hāniumalu Hill in the village of Nāʻālehu in the moku (district) of Kaʻū on the island of Hawaiʻi.  She was the daughter of Henry Nathaniel Wiggin, formerly of Salem, Massachusetts, and Paʻahana Kanakaʻole, a pure Hawaiian whose ancestral roots are found in the line of priests and chiefs of the district of Kaʻū.

Mary Kawena Pukui’s lifetime during the early 1900s spanned years when Hawaiian society was experiencing dramatic shifts, and knowledge from older generations was being rapidly lost. Pukui herself became a bridge between cultures and world views, forming a living connection between successive generations and allowing access to a knowledge base left generously and purposefully by our kūpuna. Pukui became a living repository of Hawaiian cultural knowledge and history, and her lifetime of efforts to preserve this ʻike reinforced her belief that “Knowledge is life.”    

Hula became one of the most significant realms of knowledge and practice that Pukui sought to preserve. Pukui grew up with the hula; her grandmother, Poʻai, was a court dancer for Queen Emma. Pukui’s life passion to honor her Hawaiian heritage and culture by recording and documenting for perpetuity was instilled in her from an early age by both family and friends. In her young adulthood, Pukui devised a plan to save some of the hula she had been taught from oblivion, by carefully memorizing every aspect of hula taught to her.

Pukui’s lifetime of learning hula was passed on to her beloved daughter, Pat Namaka Bacon. Pat’s instruction in hula began when she was just four years old, with Pukui’s favorite hula, “Mūkīkī Wai,” a hula noho (sitting dance).

To improve their dual capacity to document and retain what they were being taught with as much accuracy as possible, Bacon learned the hula movements while Pukui concentrated on the hoʻopaʻa (the chant and accompaniment), which she also documented as text. Pukui felt that many of the traditional dances were being lost and was trying in her way to save some of them. Together, the mother and daughter duo spent nearly two years with their first formal kumu hula, Keahi Luahine, learning not only the dances, but also the cultural context of the hula, including the protocols surrounding training within the hālau hula. This information survives today as one of the most complete records of the hula tradition.

In 1939, Pukui was hired to work at Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum by celebrated Polynesian scholar, Director Sir Peter Henry Buck, Te Rangi Hīroa. This employment allowed Pukui to expand her work to preserve Hawaiian ʻike.

In the early forties, Pukui was called upon by Kamehameha Schools to give lessons in Hawaiian culture to its students. Pukui’s classes started first in the Prep School, which was at the time located in lower Kalihi on Libby McNeil Street, when Blossom Nary served as principal.  Pukui and Bacon traveled to the school often to give lectures and demonstrate hula. Later, the school was moved to Bishop Hall on the museum campus, which was conveniently located near Pukui’s office.

After a brief hiatus during World War II in the 1940s, Pukui resumed working at the museum.  Besides translating Hawaiian language materials, Pukui often traveled throughout Hawaiʻi interviewing knowledgeable Hawaiian elders. Around 1953, family and friends would come and visit Pukui in Punaluʻu, where she resided for a few years at the guest cottage of her dear friends E. S. Craighill and Elizabeth Green Handy. Here, she compiled the “Hawaiian Dictionary.” The Handys would go on to collaborate with Pukui on many significant projects. For example, Pukui and the couple traveled around Hawai’i Island; much of the ethnographic documentation of this trip and others appeared in the invaluable books, “The Polynesian Family System of Kaʻū and Native Planters.”

Over the course of her life, Pukui worked diligently to perpetuate the knowledge of her ancestors, producing an astonishing 52 published titles in Hawaiian culture. She received many awards for her work, including from the State of Hawaiʻi, City and County of Honolulu, as well as many community groups.  Pukui also received a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in literature and two honorary doctorates.

Pukui is perhaps one of the most prolific Hawaiian scholars, having composed over 150 songs and chants, produced countless manuscript collections, completed thousands of pages worth of translations, and contributed over a decade of her life travelling from Kauaʻi to Hawaiʻi conducting oral interviews with kūpuna. These interviews are recorded in an audio repository held by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum Archives Audio Collection that remains invaluable because Pukui conducted the interviews in the Hawaiian language. Not only does this resource record unique familial and place-based knowledge, but it also allows contemporary Hawaiian language learners and speakers to hear the Hawaiian spoken by their elders and provides a connection to the past that will be available to future generations.

As Pukui states in one of her recordings:

“Hoʻokahi o kuʻu noi i ka poʻe: e mālama i ko lākou moʻolelo, ma kahi e mau ai…nā moʻopuna aku ana, nā kualua, a makemake nā moʻopuna, e lohe i ko kākou leo. Hele pololei nō i ka hale no ke Aliʻi, a hoʻolohe i ka leo o ke kūpuna e kamaʻilio ana. No kākou ka hala aʻe, a makemake nā moʻopuna e lohe i kou leo, koʻu leo, e hele i ka hale o Pauahi.”

I have only one favor to ask of people: to take care of their stories, let them be kept in a permanent place…so that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren can come and hear our voices. Go directly to the house of the Princess, listen to the voice of their ancestors speaking. When we are gone, should your grandchildren want to hear your voice, my voice, go to the house of Pauahi. (Translation by Pat Namaka Bacon .)

We close this haliʻa aloha – these fond recollections – in Pukui’s own words with the following transcription of a recording she made at her Birch Street home on March 15, 1965. It was recorded on a reel-to-reel tape and captures Pukui presciently discussing the importance of preserving Hawaiian culture. This audio recording is just one of the many pearls that can be found within the aforementioned Bishop Museum Archives Audio Collection:

“Will Hawaiʻi remain Hawaiʻi without the knowledge of Hawaiian culture?  Without it, what will make Hawaiʻi distinctive?  If we make no effort to preserve all we can, what then?  What about the untranslated materials yet to be done in the [Bishop] Museum, the [Hawaiʻi State] Archives, the legal documents in the land office?

“How are cases to be settled when the attorneys do not know what the words written on the documents mean? I have seen untranslated letters written by Hawaiians to missionaries in the Children’s Mission House some years ago, and letters from our own Hawaiian missionaries from the Marquesas, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands. Do we not realize that they contain history?

“I am now exchanging knowledge with those interested in Hawaiians themselves, their thinking pattern, the why of their behavior. I tell them of the old and they tell me of the new and together we learn. I like to learn, even if I am over three score and ten.  Because I know my mother’s language, I’ve enjoyed exchanging thoughts with other Polynesians to discover our alikenesses and differences. And because I know my father’s, I can explain to others what we have had here and lost and what we still retain.

“The art of lua, a method of attack and defense used in Hawaiʻi has been outlawed long ago. Today, our youth learn judo, aikido, and the karate of the Japanese because they had the good sense to preserve their culture.

“There is now an interest in our uses of herb medicines, and method of treating the sick. But, how much of this do we know? What about the songs sung in Hawaiian? Are they being sung properly? I’ve heard words set to music and recorded that would make me wither with shame to sing. Thank goodness that these are in the minority. It is in the pronunciation of some of the others that make me shake my head in dismay.

“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness declared a Hawaiian king, and may I add it is all of the cultures of that same land, native and introduced also.

Knowledge, to me, is life.  Ua mau ke ea i ka ʻāina i ka pono.”

Pat Nāmaka Bacon and her mother Mary Kawena Pukui performing hula. Pukui was born in April 20, 1895. Photo courtesy of Bishop Museum.

Mary Kawena Pukui with an ipu. Photo courtesy of Bishop Museum.