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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.
Mary Abigail Tui Kawena‘ulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Wiggin was born in Ka’u, Hawai‘I on April 20, 1895. She was the daughter of Paʻahana Kanakaʻole and Henry Nathaniel Wiggin. Mary’s mother was descended from a long line of Hawaiian high chiefs and priestesses who served the volcano goddess, Pele. Mary’s father was originally from Salem, Massachusetts. His ancestors included colonial governors and leaders. He managed a sugar plantation for the Hutchinson Sugar Company. The combination of native Hawaiian and Anglo-American culture in her home significantly influenced her life and future career.
In Hawaiian culture, it was traditional for maternal grandmothers to raise the first-born daughters of their children. Because Hawaiian culture and language is passed orally and not through writing, giving younger generations direct access to their grandparents ensured the culture would continue. This system of intra-family adoption is known as hānai.
Mary’s parents agreed to allow her Hawaiian grandmother to raise her. Mary lived with her grandmother from a very young age. Her grandmother was a sacred high priestess who was honored that her daughter and son-in-law trusted her to raise Mary in the traditional ways. Mary’s grandmother lived in a traditional hut with a dirt floor. Despite their basic surroundings, Mary was treated as a favored child, or punahele. She received clothes, furniture, and silverware that designated her special status within the home. Mary’s grandmother taught her Hawaiian language, religion, and history. She learned much of this through stories and ceremonies passed down over generations. Her grandmother was once a hula dancer in Queen Emma’s court and passed this art form on to Mary.
Mary was only three when her homeland became part of the United States. The U.S. annexed Hawai`i in 1898 and made it an official territory in 1900. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, immigration and tourism to Hawai`i increased, as did the influence of Anglo-American culture. Like many native cultures, Hawaiian traditions suffered under strong policies and cultural influences that promoted assimilation with mainstream white America. As the United States’ power over the colony intensified, fewer people spoke Hawaiian or practiced its traditions. The culture survived through family connections, like Mary’s relationship with her grandmother.
When Mary was nine her grandmother died. Mary returned to her parents’ home, but refused to lose the life she had been given. Mary’s parents supported her desire to maintain her traditional Hawaiian upbringing, but also encouraged her to be bilingual and take advantage of the opportunities available to her as the daughter of a white man. Mary’s father encouraged her to read the authors of his home, New England, including the poetry of her ancestor Anne Bradstreet. Mary went to English-speaking schools and learned how to research and formally record the findings of her studies
When Mary was 15 years old, she dropped out of school to take care of her sick uncle. Three years later, she married Kalolii Pukui, who encouraged her to continue her passion for learning and return to school. Mary eventually enrolled at the Hawaiian Mission Academy and graduated from high school at age 28.
Mary and Kalolii adopted two daughters. Patience was Japanese and Faith was Hawaiian Japanese. In 1931, Mary gave birth to her only natural born child, Pele. Mary taught all her daughters the same traditions she learned from her grandmother, including Hawaiian language and hula dancing.
In the early 1920s, Mary met Laura Green, a young woman descended from Hawaiian missionaries who had similar interests in Hawaiian culture. Laura was fascinated with Mary’s ability to navigate both traditional Hawaiian culture and Anglo-American society. Mary seemed uniquely suited to help researchers bring the Hawaiian way of life to a wider audience.
Laura introduced Mary to the staff of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu in 1921. There, Mary met several well-known anthropologists, including Dr. Martha Beckwith of Vassar College and married researchers Dr. E. S. C. Handy and Willowdean Chatterson Handy. Mary worked closely with these scholars to translate the Hawaiian language and record stories, chants, and other aspects of her heritage. She began a long career of authoring and co-authoring books. In 1923, she collaborated with Martha on Hawaiian Stories and Wise Sayings. By 1933, she published her own book, Hawaiian Folktales. In 1936, Mary and Laura worked together on The Legend of Kawelo and Other Hawaiian Folk Tales.
Mary was officially hired by the Bishop Museum in 1937. She worked as a Hawaiian language translator, a researcher of Hawaiian culture and lore, a consultant for special projects, and a teacher. Under the mentorship of the Handys, Mary continued to publish translations of Hawaiian stories. She also joined the husband and wife team on a research trip to her home community. Mary learned how to conduct field research like a trained anthropologist. She and her traveling companions collected stories and objects through personal interviews. Her research contributed to publications on Hawaiian planters and family systems.
The 1940s were busy but stressful for Mary. She spent part of her time working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an expert in Hawaiian culture. In 1943, her husband died suddenly and she was left alone to raise her three daughters. That same year, Mary helped publish Introduction to the Hawaiian Language with the English-Hawaiian, Hawaiian-English Dictionary. This dictionary became a critically important text for keeping the Hawaiian language alive, and Mary would revise it many times in her career. In later years, she expanded her language education efforts by co-authoring a companion grammar book and a place names book.
“A’ohe lokomaika’i i nele i ke pāna’i”
[No kind deed ever lacks its reward]
In the 1950s Mary focused her attention on collecting oral histories of native Hawaiians, particularly senior citizens. She believed capturing their stories, knowledge, and experience was critical to keeping Hawaiian culture alive. Mary spent over thirty years recording conversations and songs. Most of the recordings are stored at the Bishop Museum.
As she traveled throughout Hawai`i, which became a state on August 21, 1959, Mary developed a reputation as the kumu (or source) of traditional Hawaiian culture. People across the islands looked to her for knowledge and understanding of their heritage. Mary had dedicated her life to embracing traditional ways, but she also conducted research with scholars capable of spreading her work to an international audience.
But Mary was eager to give back and share this knowledge in local communities too. She taught classes at the Bishop Museum and other local organizations like the YWCA and the Kamehameha schools. She demonstrated traditional practices, danced hula, and taught Hawaiian language.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Hawai`i experienced a cultural renaissance that pushed back against decades of Americanization. More people took interest in Hawaiian culture and language. Much of this was possible because of Mary’s work to preserve customs and language that had almost been lost.
Mary died in Honolulu in 1986. She was 91 years old. Her publications and records continue to be the backbone of Hawaiian anthropological research to this day.
- anthropology: The scientific study of human society and culture.
- hānai: A Hawaiian language word that often translates to adoption. It also refers to a cultural tradition of parents allowing older family members to raise their children.
- hula: A traditional Hawaiian dance that is characterized by hip movements and symbolic hand gestures accompanied by rhythmic drumming and chanting.
- Kamehameha schools: A private school system in Hawaii founded by the last direct descendant of King Kamehameha I.
- kumu: A Hawaiian language word describing the source of knowledge, often a teacher.
- missionary: A person sent to spread religion to new communities, particularly in other countries.
- oral history: The collection of historical information through interviews.
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: A government agency that oversees public engineering and design projects.
- YWCA: The Young Women’s Christian Association, an organization that provided classes and social services for young women.
- In what ways did Mary’s ancestry and family heritage shape her life and career? Why was it significant that she was the child of a white father and Hawaiian mother?
- Mary was the product of the Hawaiian tradition of hānai. What is this tradition and how did it shape Mary’s life?
- Mary did not complete high school until she was 28. What does this tell you about her commitment to education and how might this have shaped her life and work?
- Mary had a long and successful career, but the 1930s was a particularly crucial decade for her. What did she accomplish in the 1930s, and how did this shape the rest of her career?
- How did Mary become the kumu, or source of Hawaiian culture? What steps did she take? What type of work did she do?
- Mary turned to recording oral histories during the last thirty-plus years of her career. What are oral histories and why are they important?
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