Life Story: Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986)

The Kumu (or source) of Traditional Hawaiian Language and Culture

The story of a woman whose Hawaiian heritage inspired her to resist Americanization and dedicate her career to cultural preservation.

Suggested Activities

  • Show students a video of Mary pounding kalo, or taro root, available on the Bishop Museum’s Hawai`i Alive curriculum website. Ask students to discuss why such demonstrations of traditional practices are important. Take the discussion further by asking students to identify practices they have seen in their family that they would like to capture on video/film.
  • Encourage students to follow in Mary’s footsteps and complete their own oral histories. Ask students to identify an elderly member of their family or community and record a conversation using a phone or other device. Work with students to craft questions that capture important cultural information that might otherwise be lost to history.
  • Mary was not the only woman drawn to anthropology and the preservation of her culture in this era. Compare her life story to that of anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. How did each woman pursue her career and conduct her research?
  • Many believed Mary Pukui was successful because she was able to navigate both Hawaiian and white communities. Compare Mary’s life story with those of Edith Maude Eaton and Zitkala-Sa, two other interracial women who crossed boundaries and fought to educate Anglo-Americans about other cultures.
  • Mary regularly participated in demonstrations of traditional Hawaiian practices, including hula. Show students videos and images of this important art form. View examples here.
  • Combine Mary’s life story with those of other women who resisted Americanization, including Zitkala-Sa and Emma Tenayuca.



Source Notes