When you ask anyone with any knowledge of Hawaiian history or culture to name the most culturally significant scholars who preserved ancient knowledge, Mary Kawena Pukui will top the list. More than any single person I can think of, her work paved the way for rebirth of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.
Born in 1895 and following the ancient traditions of hānai, she was initially raised by her mother’s parents in Kā‘u on the Big Island. It was during this time that she learned to cherish her Hawaiian heritage and began building her formidable foundation as a Hawaiian scholar, dancer, composer, and educator.
Her grandmother had been a hula dancer in the court of Queen Emma and taught her chants and stories. From her grandfather, a traditional healer who was known as a kahuna pale keiki (obstetrician) who used lomi lomi (massage), laʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine), ho‘oponopono (forgiveness), and pule (prayer) came her great knowledge and understanding of the Hawaiian people’s relationship between the spiritual and mundane.
Mrs. Pukui composed over 150 songs, recorded miles of audiotape, published over 50 books including Nānā i ke Kumu (Look to the Source), and co-authored the definitive Hawaiian-English Dictionary in 1957. Bishop Museum, that bastion of Hawaiian culture where she worked as an ethnological assistant, has preserved her notes, film clips, and oral histories. They are considered priceless.
In my mind, Mary Kawena Pukui stands as a giant among Hawaiian scholars. Hero worship isn’t going too far.
Which makes the story my grandmother told me all the more mind blowing.
It was a couple of days before the publication of One Boy, No Water. I’d called her to wish her happy birthday and to find out how the party she’d hosted—champagne and cake—for friends in her retirement community turned out. Talk turned to the book. Ever mindful about manners and proper protocol, she asked if I had an acknowledgement section in the book.
“Yeah, Grammie, I do.”
“Well, did you remember to thank everyone? You didn’t write that book alone.”
“Yeah, I thanked my family for their support, Kamehameha Schools for my education, and people like Mary Kawena Pukui for their preservation of Hawaiian history and culture.”
“Oh, Aunty Mary! Good, you remembered her.”
Aunty Mary? “Grammie, I’m talking about Mary Kawena Pukui, the mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance.”
“Yeah, Aunty Mary! After school, we used to go to Bishop Museum and run up and down the stairs and take all the covers off the displays and she’d chase us around the halls and finally call the police station (Grammie’s father was with the HPD) and say, ‘George! Your kids are driving me nuts! Come get them!’ Oh, we loved to tease Aunty Mary! She and my Dad were good friends. She used to come to our house often.”
And my mouth is on the floor and I start to think about it and realize that her family home in Kalihi was a block or two from Bishop Museum and my Grammie isn’t joking. She kept telling me stories and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the woman who wrote at least 20 books on my shelves about Hawaiian history and culture was Aunty Mary to my grandmother!
Blows my mind almost as much as the idea of Grammie and her siblings playing hide and go seek in Bishop Museum’s hallowed halls after school!