Emma Ka‘ilikapuolono Nakuina

Photo circa 1904, from the Hawaii State Archives

Native Hawaiian, Museum Work, Cultural and Judicial Activism

Emma Ka‘ilikapuolono Nakuina


Emma Kaʻilikapuolono Metcalf Beckley Nakuina is recognized as Hawaiʻi’s first female judge, a folklorist, curator, writer, and scholar who preserved Hawaiian cultural rights, history, and traditions in the face of the U S colonization of Hawaii.

Emma Metcalf was born on her family’s homestead in Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu in 1847. Her father, Theophilus Metcalf was a civil engineer and American sugar planter from Ontario County, New York, and considered to be Hawaiʻi’s first professional photographer. Her mother, Kailikapuolono, was a descendant of the kaukau aliʻi (hereditary nobility) of Oahu, a class of lower ranking chiefs who served Hawaiʻi’s royal family.  

As a young woman, Metcalf attained an extensive education both at Sacred Heart Academy and Punahou School in Honolulu. Her father also tutored her in Hawaiian language, cultural practices and protocols, as well as in English and five other languages. While attached to the court of King Kamehameha IV, she was trained in Hawaiian water rights and laws, becoming one of the leading experts on the subject. Her pursuit of college education was cut short after the death of her father in 1866 forced her return to Hawaii from California. Shortly thereafter, in 1867, she married Frederick William Kahapula Beckley, Sr. She served as a lady in waiting to Queen Kapi‘olani, the wife of King Kalākaua, while her husband served as the Chamberlain of the Royal Household and then as the Royal Governor of Kauai until his death in 1881. In 1887 she married her second husband, Rev. Moses Kuaea Nakuina, a man twenty years her junior, who died in 1911. She bore nine children, seven in her first marriage, two in the second. 

After the untimely death of her first husband in 1881, King Kalākaua appointed Emma Metcalf Beckley as the first female curator of the Hawaiian National Museum and Government Library, and one of the first female curators in the world. In this position, she expanded the collections of the museum and became a leading scholar of Hawaiian folklore and history. She served in the position from 1882 to1887, when the funding for the museum was cut and the collections were transferred to the Bishop Museum. 

From 1892 to 1907, Emma Nakuina served as Commissioner of Private Ways and Water Rights for the district of Kona on Oahu. A recognized expert in Hawaiian water rights and law, she was tasked with resolving water usage and rights issues in the region around and including Honolulu. For this work, she is recognized as Hawaiʻi’s first female judge. Withstanding the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani’s government in 1893 by American sugar planters who installed a provisional and territorial government, Emma Nakuina remained in this position until it was transferred to the circuit courts, seeking to preserve Hawaiian cultural rights and traditions against the encroachment of colonization.  She also co-created the National Women’s Suffrage Association to advocate for Hawaiian women’s suffrage lost as a result of the coup. 

Throughout her professional career, Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina published numerous articles on Hawaiian belief and cultural practices as well as a book which translated traditional and place-based Hawaiian legends into English so that non-Hawaiians could better understand Hawaiian culture. Among her writings important for folklorists are:

“Ancient Hawaiian Water Rights and Some Customs Pertaining to Them” (1894)

Hawaii, Its People, Their Legends (1904)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda