story by Chad Blair
The ancestors have passed on; today’s people see but dimly times long gone and far behind.
—Place Names of Hawaii
Co-authoring Place Names of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Dictionary helped secure Mary Kawena Pukui legendary status in Hawaiian history and culture. No bookshelf in the Islands is complete without them; both are indispensable reference guides—cultural bibles, really—infused with knowledge and insight. But Kawena, as she was known, was not simply the Noah Webster of Hawai‘i. She was much more: teacher, author, historian, translator, genealogist, composer and kumu hula.
“Kawena really is the primary informant for how Hawaiian culture is practiced today,” explains DeSoto Brown, archives collections manager at Bishop Museum in Honolulu. “She recognized that the language and the knowledge were being lost. Kawena felt it incumbent on her to make sure Hawaiians who came after her would be able to go to her work and learn from it.”
Kawena’s work at Bishop Museum was so integral to the institution, it has become virtually part of the mortar, but those who knew Kawena say she would have shunned recognition. “She never thought that she was changing Hawai‘i,” says Patience Namakauahoaokawena Wiggin Bacon (also known as “Aunty Pat”), Kawena’s hanai (adopted) daughter and only surviving child. “She didn’t like to be up there shining in the public,” says Aunty Pat, who is still active at eighty-seven and works as a cultural resource specialist at the museum. “She always wanted to preserve whatever she had learned.”