Mary Kawena Pukui's given name at birth was Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniahiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonuaināleilehuaapele Wiggin, but she was affectionately known as Aunty Kawena. Her Hawaiian name is translated as "the rosy glow in the sky made by Hiiaka in the bosom of Pele, the earth consuming woman." She was born in the rural Ka'u District on the Big Island of Hawaii to mixed parentage, her mother being full-blood Hawaiian of royal lineage and her father a native of Salem, Massachusetts. Raised in a bi-cultural, bilingual home, she was given to her grandmother who raised her as a hanai (adopted) daughter and taught the customs and dances of old Hawaii. The grandmother, Naliipoʻaimoku, had been a dancer in the court of Queen Emma and her grandfather was a traditional healer. After the death of her grandparents she was returned to her parents and the bilingual environment.
Pukui was born just a few years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian government by a coalition of US military and businessmen. By 1895 the influence of Christian missionaries had gained a strong foothold among the Hawaiian people and hula and the oli (chants) and other traditional practices which had been demonized by the missionaries for most of the century had gone underground, and much of it lost entirely. What had been kept alive was due to practitioners who had maintained halau hula (hula schools) in rural areas such as that of Pukui's upbringing. King Kalakaua publicly revived the hula traditions in 1883, but by 1887 the non-Hawaiian controlled Supreme Court of the Kingdom had established the Kamehameha Schools which were modeled on the assimilationist American Indian boarding schools. The Hawaiian language was outlawed in the education system and Hawaiian children were forced to assimilate into the imported culture of white immigrants. With the relentless influx of foreigners to Hawaii, by the time of Pukui's birth traditional Hawaiian culture was not only endangered by the legal system, but by the influence of the Hollywood industry which was appropriating images of dancing hula girls in dramatic misrepresentations of Hawaii's people. The traditional culture of Hawaii was under grave attack.
Hula and Cultural Preservation
Aunty Kawena Pukui had also studied hula under some of the most important venerated old-time kumu hula (hula teachers), including a woman named Keahi Luahine who had been raised by a long line of hula po'e (folk) and had been one of the last court dancers of King Kalakaua and Queen Lilioukalani. By 1921, Pukui became recognized for her fluency in Hawaiian culture and language by Vassar anthropology professor Dr. Martha Beckwith, and neighbor Laura Green, both of whom she would collaborate with in writing and translating projects. Although she was not formally college educated, she became well-versed in anthropological fieldwork after being hired by the Bishop Museum as a translator in 1937, and eventually evolved into Hawaii's premier and most celebrated oral historian. Altogether, she worked for the Bishop Museum for over 50 years.
Scholarly Recognition and Publications
Pukui authored and co-authored a plethora of papers and books on Hawaiian culture and language (some estimates number over 50), including what is still considered the most important Hawaiian dictionary in existence which she wrote with linguist Samuel H. Elbert. Among her other important publications are Nana I Ke Kumu ("Look to the Source"), Volumes 1 and 2 (1972), a collection of Hawaiian expressions based on traditional lifeways, Place Names of Hawaii (1974), The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawaii, Introduction to the Hawaiian Language (1943), and Hula: Historical Perspectives (1980). In 1960 the University of Hawaii conferred Pukui with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
Kawena Pukui married Kalolii Pukui (twenty years her senior) in 1913 and converted to Mormonism. They adopted two daughters and had one biological daughter together, but her husband passed away suddenly in the 1940's.
Aunty Kawena is often credited with having made the Hawaiian cultural Renaissance possible, although she shied away from the politics of it. Because of her willingness to share her vast knowledge with non-Hawaiians she was sometimes criticized. But thanks in large part to her work, however, the rejuvenation of Hawaiian culture proceeded unabated and has led to the establishment of Hawaiian language immersion schools and even the revival of ancient cultural practices such as traditional sailing may not have been possible without her pioneering efforts. She is known and revered as one of a handful of people to resurrect the traditional form of hula and personally composed over 150 chants. In 1995 she was inducted into the Hawaii Music Hall of Fame and each year the Bishop Museum celebrates the Mary Kawena Pukui Arts Festival featuring story, song and dance. All three of her daughters continued in her footsteps as kumu hula and culture keepers.
Barrere, Pukui & Kelly. Hula: Historical Perspectives. Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1980.
Pukui, Mary Kawena. Nana I Ke Kumu: Look to the Source, Volume 1. Honolulu: Hui Hanai, 1972.
Ware, Susan. Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary of the 20th Century. Harvard University Press, 2004.