Twenty Notable Native Hawaiian Women

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Twenty Notable Native Hawaiian Women

1. Queen Regent Ka’ahumanu.  She remains a controversial figure due to her role with abolishing the kapu system and in allowing the Calvinist missionaries to convert Hawaiians. Not many people in history like Ka’ahumanu are singularly credited with bringing down an entire religion and changing an entire nation within a single generation. Ka’ahumanu was one of the most significant figures in Hawaiian history as she served as adviser to three Hawaiian kings and ushered in public education, Christianity, and a written Hawaiian language. She maintained Hawaiian unification and independence throughout her reign as regent and prime minister and in the face of internal political struggles and against American, French, and British colonial designs for Hawai’i.  Strong willed, Machiavellian at times, charming and intelligent, Ka’ahumanu had learned several languages, accounting and accompanied her main consort, Kamehameha I, in his major campaigns.   She was also a champion surfer.

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2. Queen Lili’uokalani. Largely known for being Hawai’i’s first female queen, Hawai’i’s last constitutional monarch and composer of “Aloha ‘Oe”, Queen Lili’uokalani was well traveled and accomplished.  She composed over a 150 songs, had her own glee club, wrote editorials in Hawaiian language newspapers (under pen names), and wrote “Hawai’i’s Story by Hawai’i’s Queen”. She was deposed by a minority of wealthy sugar plantation owners with the support of the US mainly due to her support of wanting a better constitution for her people and for refusing to compromise Hawaiian independence.   She also believed in empowering women politically, socially, and economically. She started the Lili’uokalani Educational Society which helped girls recieve an education. These girls were mainly orphans or from family backgrounds that Victorian society scorned. She also wanted to start a women’s bank to help fund women-owned businesses.  Though a devout Christian, she fought against religious bigotry particularly welcoming Buddhist and Shinto priests to Hawai’i.  She was also active in supporting the Red Cross, the YWCA, Girls Scouts, and numerous charities.  Upon her passing, the Queen willed that all of her properties, jewelry, dressed, and other items be sold and those monies would be used to create a trust to help orphaned and destitute Hawaiian children and their families. That trust, the Queen Lili’uokalani Trust, still exists.

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3. Queen Emma. Queen Emma was well educated, determined, beautiful, and a candidate for the Hawaiian Throne.  She spoke English, Hawaiian and French fluently and was an accomplished equestrian and surfer. She was called Queen Emma’s first political fight was over healthcare. She believed that access to healthcare was not a privilege but a national security concern and a right.  When the Hawaiian National Legislature refused to fund health services to indigent citizens, she took the step of going house to house throughout O’ahu on foot to ask for donations to fund a public hospital. She accomplished that goal and founded Queen’s Hospital, which included a training center for nurses.  She and her husband, King Kamehameha IV, also sponsored an Anglican mission to Hawai’i. When the Anglican mission began to experience financial difficulties, Queen Emma went to England to meet with Anglican bishops and Queen Victoria. On her way to England, she stopped in the US becoming the first Queen to visit Washington DC. While in the US, she experienced racism and sexism (at the hands of the then US president no less) which made her more determined to cement an alliance between Hawai’i, the British, and the French politically, economically and spiritually. She was successful and helped to found St Andrew Girls Priory and St Alban’s School (now called ‘Iolani School) to assist the new Anglican mission and community. She also was a poet. When her husband and young child died, she composed some of the most heart wrenching  kanikau or mourning chants. She was also a friend of Queen Victoria. When Prince Albert passed away, Queen Emma sent Queen Victoria a gold mourning bracelet engraved with a Hawaiian saying in Old English lettering and with Hawaiian fauna. The saying was selected by the then Princess Lili’uokalani. This was the start of Hawaiian heirloom jewelry.  

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4. Mary Kawena Pukui. She was one of the greatest and most prolific Hawaiian scholars of the 20th century publishing over two dozen books on Hawaiian subjects and over 50 scholarly works.  Her works touched on various subjects ranging from fishing traditions to hula to Hawaiian values. Her work made the Second Hawaiian Renaissance (1970s-1980s) possible.  One of the works she edited “Nānā i ke Kumu, Look to the Source, Vols. 1 and 2” and published in 1972 was ground breaking because it touched on the impact of Christianity, homosexuality, family planning, women’s rights, and other subjects that were still taboo to talk about even in the larger general community.  She also helped to preserve and perpetuate many Hawaiian traditions such as feather lei making, hula, and the language itself to the general public.  She also was a teacher at Punahou and a master Hawaiian chanter.

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5. Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott. Dr. Abbot was the first Native Hawaiian to receive a PhD in the sciences. She wrote over 8 books and published over 150 scientific papers.  Her work involved mostly algae and seaweed. She was also one of the first scientists to blend indigenous knowledge with Western sciences.

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6. Queen Kapi’olani.  Queen Kapi’olani is best remembered for founding the Queen Kapi’olani Women’s and Children Hospital (now called Kapi’olani Medical Center) as well as for attending Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.   Queen Kapi’olani was shy, well educated and had traveled throughout Micronesia, the US, and Great Britain.  She and her sister-in-law, Lili’uokalani, were the first royals to make visits to the leper settlement of Kalaupapa. Though an Anglican, she was one of the main supporters of St. Damien of Moloka’i (Father Damien de Veuster) and actively sought donations for Kalaupapa directly from the Church of England.  Being the granddaughter of the last king of Kaua’i, she helped to promoting the Ni’ihau lauhala mat, Kaua’i feather leis and Ni’ihau shell leis by giving those items as state gifts to foreign countries and by wearing this items on formal occassions. She also promoted the Hawaiian language by refusing to use English in the Palace and on state occassions. During an audience with Queen Victoria in 1887, Queen Kapi’olani–who knew English–spoke in Hawaiian as a way to signal back home that Hawaiian was as important and as official as English.  While a promoter of all things Hawaiian, she also promoted diversity and cultural pluralism. She was a patron of the Peeking Opera Society and attended the first official sumo match in Hawai’i with husband, King Kalakaua, in 1885 at the Hawai’i Immigration Depot. This would also be the first official sumo match outside of Japan. She maintained a friendship with Empress Shoken of Japan and sought to have Hawai’i look more towards the East rather than the West.  After suffering from a miscarriage, she adopted two of her nephews.

 7. Manono II. Manono II was a cousin to Ka’ahumanu I and half-sister to Kalanimoku. When the kapu system was abolished in 1819 and after repeated diplomatic attempts failed, she and her husband went to war to defend the traditional Hawaiian religion against Ka’ahumanu and Kalanimoku. She was remembered in hula and mele as someone who heroic figure dying for the love of her ancestors and her husband, Kekuaokalani.

The British missionary, William Ellis, would later report this about the Battle of Kuamo’o.

“The small tumuli increased in number as we passed along, until we came to a place called Tuamoo. Here Kekuaokalani made his last stand, rallied his flying forces, and seemed, for a moment, to turn the scale of victory; but being weak with the loss of blood, from a wound he had received in the early part of the engagement, he fainted and fell. However, he soon revived, and, though unable to stand, sat on a fragment of lava, and twice loaded and fired his musket on the advancing party. He now received a ball in his left breast, and immediately covering his face with his feather cloak, expired in the midst of his friends. His wife Manono during the whole of the day fought by his side with steady and dauntless courage. A few moments after her husband’s death, perceiving Karaimoku and his sister advancing, she called out for quarter; but the words had hardly escaped from her lips, when she received a ball in her left temple, fell upon the lifeless body of her husband, and instantly expired. The idolaters having lost their chief, made but feeble resistance afterwards; yet the combat, which commenced in the forenoon, continued till near sunset, when the king’s troops, finding their enemies had all either fled or surrendered, returned to Kairua.”

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8. Haunani-Kay Trask.  Poet, scholar, documentary producer, writer, professor, TV talk show host and activist, Trask has been involved with indigenous rights, anti-colonial struggles, and feminism both in Hawai’i and abroad for decades.   Her ground-breaking work “From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i” has been recommended reading in many Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies programs around the world for years.

9. Bina Kailipaina Nieper Mossman.  Having been musically trained by Queen Lili’uokalani, Mossman was an accomplished ‘ukulele player, guitarist, vocalist and composer.  She became politically active in the 1920s after women were allowed the right to vote and held several positions within the Hawai’i Republican Party. Her first position was that of Executive Secretary of the newly created Hawaiian Homes Commission in 1922.  In 1938 she became the first Native Hawaiian female to be elected to the Legislature and was re-elected three times. In the year, she was elected National Committeewoman of the Republican Party.  After retiring from Legislature, she was appointed in 1953 as High Sheriff of Honolulu becoming the first Hawaiian female to hold that office.  She then retired from politics in 1957 and focused on music and in preserving Hawaiian ali’i traditions through the civic clubs and ali’i societies. She was elected to the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.

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10. Clarissa “Clara” Haili. Better known as “Hilo Hattie”, she was a singer and comedian.  She was part of “Hawai’i Calls”, a program that broadcasted from over 600 stations world wide. Her comedies and her “kolohe” songs were literally world famous.  She was the first Native Hawaiian comedian to recieve world fame. She originally was a school teacher from Waipahu Elementary School.

11. Kūkaniloko.  She was the first Native Hawaiian to reign as the first female Hawaiian ruler of an island.  In the 13th or 14th century, her father Piliwale, decided to nominate her as his successor to the Kingdom of O’ahu over his other children–including male children. Upon his death, she succeded him as ruler and proved herself a capable one including participating in male temple ceremonies, sports competitions and fighting in combat. She resisted a Kaua’i invasion and brought peace by choosing Luaia, a high ranking chief of Maui, as her consort. Their daughter, Kalaimanuia, would later succede her as the second female ruler of O’ahu and like her mother, was rather successful. Kalaimanuia would suspend the death penality during her reign and is remembered for O’ahu’s agricultural development. Upon Kalaimanuia’s death the question was asked by a male chief “Are we ready to return to kings?”

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12. Emma ‘A’ima Nāwahī. She was one of the first documented female Native Hawaiian journalist and newspaper editor.  She was the wife of the Queen Lili’uokalani’s former Interior Minister, Joseph Nāwahī.  Joseph Nāwahī would later lead an uprising against the Republic of Hawai’i, contract TB from his imprisonment, and pass away suddenly–leaving an entire nation in mourning.  Despite on-going government repression, her husband’s funeral saw thousands of Hawaiians line the streets to pay respects to his coffin. After his death, she became the editor of the popular Hawaiian language newspaper, “Ke Aloha Aina” (“The Nationalist”), for over two decades continuing to resist the oligarchy.  She was politically active opposing US annexation through the Hui Aloha ‘Aina and after 1900, with the Home Rule Party and the Democratic Party.  She wrote passionate articles and editorials on Hawaiian independence, women’s sufferage, labor issues, Hawaiian Homelands and a New Deal for Hawaiians.  She also met Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1934.

13. Emma Ka’ili Metcalf Beckley Nakuina. She was a cultural informant for such people as Abraham Fornander, Thomas Thrum and William Alexander–sometimes not getting the proper citation and credit in their works. King Kalākaua had her appointed as the first curator of the Hawaiian National Museum and Government Library located at Ali’iolani Hale. She used the title curatrix in official documents and was the only official female curator of any major museum in the world. Queen Lili’uokalani in 1892 had her appointed as Commissioner of Private Ways and Water Rights for the Kona district of O’ahu, which included Honolulu. Emma was chosen specifically for this post because of her vast knowledge of traditional land water rights, and she was tasked with the duties of resolving issues in regards to water usage and rights. She would hold this position for fifteen years from 1892 to 1907 until the powers were reassigned to the circuit courts. Though her official title was that of a Water Commissioner, she was addressed as a judge due to her legal and cultural knowledge but due to her gender, she was not allowed to take the law exam. Yet she advised even members of the Hawai’i Supreme Court on water and land issues. In 1904, she wrote her only book Hawaii, Its People, Their Legends, published by the Hawaiian Promotion Committee. The book openly touched upon the “negative influences of the Western civilization” i.e. issues of sexism, racism, colonialism and the overthrow of the Monarchy while promoting her love of her Hawaiian culture.   The University of Hawai’i at Manoa is located on what used to be her estate.

14. Adelaide Keanuenueokalaninuiamamao “Frenchy” DeSoto. Frenchy DeSoto was involved in the O’ahu land eviction and the Kaho’olawe struggles in the 1970s.  She was also in the James Michner movie, “Hawaii”, where she was cast as an extra beating up a missionary. She worked as a janitor before being elected as a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention of 1978 and is considered by most to be the “mother” of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. At the time, DeSoto thought that the Department of Hawaiian Homelands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs would be merged–but that was not to happen.  She was also instrumental in having Hawaiian as an official language within the State constitution. She served as on the Board of Trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for more than two decades. She was a controversial figure among her OHA colleagues due to her blunt talk and a tendency to give certain politicians the middle finger and other expletives for not serving the public.

15. Gladys Kamakakuokalani ʻAinoa Brandt. She was the daughter of a famed Territorial legislator who had literally fought for Queen Lili’uokalani against the Republic of Hawai’i.   She would finish her BA in teaching at the University of Hawai’i (UH)–the first Hawaiian female to recieve a BA in education from UH. She eventually became Hawai’i’s first female public school principal and later became the first woman to be named superintendent of schools. In 1963, she became principal of Kamehameha Schools for Girls becoming the first Native Hawaiian ever to serve as a principal of  Kamehameha Schools. Ironic considering that Kamehameha Schools was a school for Native Hawaiians.  During her tenure as principal, she and Nona Beamer restored the long banned standing hula at Kamehameha Schools and initiated a Hawaiian Studies program. She thought it was absurd that a Hawaiian school would not have Hawaiian programs. In 1971 she retired from Kamehameha Schools and in 1983 was appointed on UH’s Board of Trustees by Governor Ariyoshi–the first Native Hawaiian female to be so appointed.  During her tenureship, she fought for the creation of a Hawaiian Studies Center and for that center that would also have graduate programs.   In 1997, she was a co-author of “Broken Trust”, a public essay which criticized the corruption and ill begotten wealth of the Kamehameha Schools Trustees. After the Rice v. Cayetano decision, she was appointed by Governor Cayetano as a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and would retire for the third time from serving the community in 2002. The Hawaiian Studies Center main building at UH-Manoa is named after her.

16, Moanikeala Akaka. She was a fierce no-nonsense activist and three term Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Trustee representing the Island of Hawai’i. She became politically active in the 1970s as a result of the Kalama Valley struggles and became a prominent member of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana after the disappearance of her cousin, George Helm.  Throughout her tenure at OHA, she fought hard for funding for immersion schools and health clinics and spoke against OHA’s self-interest, overly bureaucratic way of business and corruption. She was instrumental in the settlement between OHA and the State of Hawai’i of $100 million in back payments from the ceded land revenues.  Up until her passing at the age of 72, she was still engaged in trying to protect the land by protesting the Akaka Bill and the Ten Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea.

17. Joyce Kainoa. She was one of the founding members of the Protect Kaho’olawe ‘Ohana (PKO). She literally lived off the land—growing her own crops and fishing. Her fishing boat was used to bring protesters to Kaho’olawe and was later confiscated by the US Navy.  In 1977, she was arrested for “trespassing” on Kaho’olawe and jailed for six months. She was offered bail but refused it saying that she could not recognize the State of Hawai’I and the US Navy’s jurisdiction. 

During a tribute to George Helm and Kimo Mitchell at ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu on March 6, 1982, a Kainoa urged a crowd to change the government.

“As far as the bureaucratic red tape, as far as trespassing on Kahoolawe, to me it’s full of bull…I have gone on Kahoolawe, trespassed, according to the federal government, and they can never give me back my identity, my lifestyle, what I believe in and all the principles my kupuna before me have practiced. And today, I say to whoever the politicians are in this crowd, you betta clean up your ack..[Kaho’olawe]…It is aina, land. The land is ours. It’s our life. It’s our roots. It’s our beginning, and it’s our end….”

18. Princess Victoria Ka’iulani. She was the last Crown Princess of Hawai’i. Her family friend, Robert Louis Stevenson, called her the “Island Rose” and Hawaiians called her the “Peacock Princess” due to her pet peacocks.  She was fluent in Hawaiian, English, French, and German and an accomplished pianist,  painter, Soprano singer, surfer and seamstress.  She introduced the sport of surfing to Europe. She was fascinated by German, French, and Russian history as well by as mathematics, economics and political theory. It was said that she inherited the charisma of her uncle, King Kalakaua, the sense of duty of aunt, Queen Lili’uokalani, and the enchanting beauty of her mother, Princess Likelike.  She also had a sharp wit and hated stupid questions and arrogance.  While in San Francisco, an American woman saw the boar’s tusk belt buckle of Princess Ka’iulani and asked what it was. Princess Ka’iulani said it was her grandfather’s tooth.  After her aunt was deposed, Princess Ka’iulani made trips throughout the capitols of Europe and to the United States to fight for the independence of her homeland. The wide background of her friends showed much of the Princess’ open mindedness. Her friends and acquaintances included opera singers, exiled Tahitian royals, female economists, entrepreneurs, Hawaiian sailors, professors, feminists, suffragettes, Cuban nationalists, businesswomen, Scottish lords, Irish poets, writers, German nobles and artists.  In 1897, she returned to Hawai’i after nearly a years of exile, witnessed the final theft of her country by the United States, and fought for the right of Hawaiians to be able to vote under the new Territorial regime. She died at age 23.

19. ‘Iolani Luahine. She was born Harriet Lanihau Makekau and was a master kumu hula, dancer, chanter,  and teacher.  The New York Times wrote that she was “regarded as Hawaii’s last great exponent of the sacred hula ceremony,” and the Honolulu Advertiser wrote: “In her ancient dances, she was the poet of the Hawaiian people.”  For ‘Iolani Luahine, hula was not simply entertainment. Hula was sacred. It was mystical. It was timeless.  She resisted the commercialized versions of hula and encouraged other hula dancers not to think of hula merely as a dance but as a calling. She also served as curator of Hulihe’e Palace in Kona and was a member of the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace.

20. Edith Kawelohea McKinzie. She literally wrote the book on Hawaiian genealogies and Hawaiian genealogical research. McKinzie was also a master chanter and kumu hula. She taught hula in Hawai’i, Guam, Alaska, and various other places in the United States. McKinzie also taught chanting for the State Council on Hawaiian Heritage and was a regular lecturer with the UH College of Continuing Education in the subjects of Hawaiian genealogy and mele hula. She was the first Hawaiian Studies professor at Honolulu Community College (HCC) a post she held for more than two decades. Among her many honors and recognitions, McKinzie received the Pūlama Award from the Kalihi-Pālama Culture and Arts Society, the Order of Distinction from the State Council on Hawaiian Heritage and the Kukui Mālamalama from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

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