Hauoli La Hanau, e Mary Kawena Pukui! 1964.

Isle Scholar Celebrates Birthday With New Work


Mary Kawena Pukui, dean of Hawaiian scholars, has two reasons to celebrate today.

It’s her 69th birthday, and the English-Hawaiian Dictionary, part of a project for which she started the research 30 years ago, is just out.

It is a companion volume of the Hawaiian-English Dictionary published in 1957. On both works her collaborator was Dr. Samuel H. Elbert of the University of Hawaii who studied the language with her. Both were published by the University Press.

“IT IS such a relief,” Kawena began in the light, unhurried conversational tones of a Hawaiian tutu, “to have the dictionaries finished.”

But her dark eyes sparkled with the intensity of the scholar as she added, “now I can go ahead with the Kamakau.”

She explained that some years ago she translated the writings on Hawaiian religion, arts and crafts by the early Hawaiian author, Samuel Kamakau. Now she is reviewing the work for publication with Dorothy Barrere of the Bishop Museum.

“AND THERE are lots of other things I want to do, too,” she said with characteristic forward-looking zeal.

Kawena is modest about looking backward. But the record shows 40 years of persistent, scholarly accomplishment as researcher, translator, compiler and writer of authentic Hawaiiana.

Thirty-seven titles in Bishop Museum listings covering ethnology, sociology, natural history and linguistics are the work of Mary Pukui alone or in collaboration with scientists and other writers.

HER MOTIVATION is the urgency she feels to research and record all possible knowledge of the indigenous culture of Hawaii.

When she began writing and translating years ago she started a card file of Hawaiian words “for whoever would do a new Hawaiian dictionary… I never thought I was going to be the one to do it,” she said.

Her source material was Hawaiian newspapers and magazines, the Hawaiian Bible, catechisms and religious writings of all denominations, legends, folk lore, chants and writings of early native scholars.

Legal terms and land law terms were translated, and from the modern Hawaiian vocabulary, such contemporary words as “air raid” and “blackout” were also included.

KAWENA, with Eleanor Williamson of the Bishop Museum, also traveled remote areas of the Islands with a tape recorder to garner all she could from living memories about pronunciation and meanings of words.

She says the Hawaiian language frequently is complicated by multiple meanings.

Advertiser Photo by Charles Okamura


“Hawaiians may refer to a hill or a tree, a really be talking about a person. Or the same object may be called by three different names on separate islands.

“If these things aren’t put down now, what will translators of the future do?” she exclaimed.

“I just filled one shoe box after another full of word cards. And then one day Dr. Peter Buck (former Bishop Museum director) told me I was the one to do the dictionaries.”

MARY ABIGAIL KAWENA WIGGIN was born April 20, 1895, in Kau, Hawaii. Her father, Henry Nathaniel Wiggin, was from a prominent shipping family of clipper ship days in Salem, Mass., and was a descendent of Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. Simon Bradstreet.

He became head luna (field boss) at Hutchinson Plantation on Hawaii and later served as bailiff for the late Judge Alexander Lindsey in the Circuit Court in Honolulu.

KAWENA’s maternal grandfather was a kahuna lapa’au (Hawaiian medical priest) and a kahuna ho’oulu i’a (expert on fish lore). Her maternal grandmother was a practicing kahuna midwife who was also of the family of the priests of Pele.

Because they were people of Kau where the new “palapala” (writings) of Christianity was introduced later than in most places in Hawaii, Kawena’s grandparents possessed undiluted, first-hand knowledge of the early Hawaiian culture.

A REMARKABLE circumstance of Kawena’s infancy was Wiggin’s decision to let her grandmother, Naliipo’aimoku, have the baby, their only child.

“My father gave me to my grandmother,” said Kawena. “My mother was shocked, but he said, ‘Did you look at her face when she asked for the baby? She’s old. Let her enjoy the child. Soon we will have her back again.'”

For nine years Kawena lived with her grandmother, and, with the child’s instinct for learning, absorbed her basic knowledge of the Hawaiian way of life.

WHEN HER grandmother died, she returned to her parents’ home where her father talked to her only in English although he spoke fluent Hawaiian.

“He loved books and read to me a lot,” she said. “He quoted Bible verses, read Dickens to me and recited poetry.

“I always keep a few violets growing in memory of him. When we lived in Honolulu he would take me to the silent movie matinee on Saturdays, and he always bought me a bouquet of violets to pin on my dress.”

ONCE WHEN her father’s brother from Salem told her about aristocratic forbears in America, Wiggin said, “Don’t put those things in her head. What she does counts more.”

A like philosophy was given her by her mother, and Kawena says she passes it on to her grandchildren. It is “Each one of us has something from God. Ask Him how to use it.”

Kawena, who took her high school education five years after she was married to the late Kalolii Pukui, reared three daughters (two of whom were adopted) and two other children. She says her family life and scholarly pursuits have filled her years with great happiness.

“AS A CHILD, I had the curiosity of a mongoose,” she said. “I’ve always liked to talk to people, find out what they think, have fun listening. But there’s one thing I don’t like… gossip. It’s boresome.”

Looking ahead again, she said, “Next year it will be three score and ten for me. I’m very happy about it.

“And this year I’m going to be a great grandmother. I look forward to that with such delight!”

(Honolulu Advertiser, 4/20/1964, p. 17)


The Honolulu Advertiser, 109th Year, Number 54,370, Page 17. April 20, 1964.

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