Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Pukui

Photo of Mary Kawena Pukui taken when she worked at the Bishop Museum. She is working on the Hawaiian-language newspaper titled “Ka Na’i Aupuni.” Courtesy of Nanea Armstrong-Wassel and Kawena Pukui’s daughter, Patience Namaka Bacon.

Native Hawaiian, Folklore, Narrative, Linguistics, Dance, Music

Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Pukui


Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniohiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Pukui was born in 1895, during the years of struggle between the overthrow of the Native government of Hawaiʻi and the illegitimate annexation of our country to the United States. Her mother was Keliʻipaʻahana Kanakaʻole of Nāʻālehu, Kaʻū, where Kawena was born and raised. Her father was Henry Nathaniel Wiggin of Salem, Massachusetts. As was the custom among Kanaka families, she was raised by her maternal grandmother, Harriet Hannah Kaʻiakoiliokalanināliʻipōʻaimokuwahinepōʻaimoku, known as Pōʻai, who was a knowledgeable kāhuna lāʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine specialist) and pale keiki, or midwife. From her, she learned many legends, the medicinal plants and their uses, and the prayers that were offered while gathering the plants.

Kawena Pukui was raised bilingually in Hawaiian and English. She attended several different elementary schools, including a Catholic one where the children were allowed to speak Hawaiian and English. After the family moved to Honolulu, she attended Kawaiahaʻo, where the Hawaiian language was forbidden. She left school without graduating after being punished for speaking Hawaiian while trying to help another student. Later, at the age of 28, she earned her high school diploma from the Seventh-Day Adventist Hawaiian Mission Academy. 

Kawena Pukui is widely regarded as the twentieth century’s preeminent scholar of Hawaiian knowledge. She contributed an immense body of translations, including published books such as Daniel Kahaulelio’s Ka ʻOihana Lawaiʻa, Moses Manu’s legend Keaomelemele, and the works of Samuel Kamakau and John Papa ʻĪʻī; hundreds of articles from the ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi newspapers; unpublished manuscripts; and interviews with the holders of ʻike Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian knowledge). She was the source and co-author of several books of legends including The Legend of Kawelo: And Other Hawaiian Folk Tales (1936), and the bilingual Folktales of Hawaiʻi – He Mau Kaʻao Hawaiʻi (1995).  

Among her crowning achievements is the Hawaiian-English English-Hawaiian Dictionary (1986), co-authored with Samuel Elbert, the first really comprehensive translation dictionary of the language, and the first to mark the glottal stop and long vowels in order to accurately represent the sounds and meaning of the language. Her posthumously published ʻŌlelo Noʻeau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings (2018/1983) is an indispensable compendium of nearly three thousand poetic expressions necessary to understanding written Hawaiian. 

In recognition of her extraordinary body of work, Kawena Pukui was named a Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi in 1976; inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1995; and awarded a University of Hawaiʻi Doctor of Letters in 1960 and a Doctor of Arts and Letters by Church College of Hawaiʻi in 1974. 

Among her other publications are:

Pikoi, and other Legends of the Island of Hawaii (1983/1949)

Hawaiian Beliefs and Customs during Birth, Infancy, and Childhood (1942)

The Polynesian Family System in Ka-u, Hawaiʻi, co-authored with E. S. C. Handy (1958)

Noenoe K. Silva

(coming soon)