Mary Kawena Pukui, 1983.


Guardian of the Hawaiian Language

By Helen Altonn, Star-Bulletin Writer

SAMUEL H. Elbert vividly recalls the first time he met Mary Kawena Pukui. “She had a flower in her hair and she just captivated me.”

That was in 1937, on the top floor of the Bishop Museum. Pukui, affectionately called Kawena, had just joined the staff as a translator. She was working with E. S. C. Handy, an ethnologist, on a book entitled “Polynesian Family System at Kaʻu,” the Big Island home of her Hawaiian mother’s family.

Elbert had abandoned a fledgling newspaper career in New York several years earlier for the warmth and romance of the South Seas and had just arrived in Hawaii via Tahiti, the Marquesas, Samoa and Fiji.

“I had heard about her and wanted to meet her,” he said. By then he was fluent in Spanish, French, Marquesan and Samoan languages. “I told her I wanted to study Hawaiian. She was so good. She gave me lessons at her house and her mother was there…”

It might seem an unlikely team—an adventuresome scholar from Des Moines, Iowa, and a hapa-haole from the Big Island—but their relationship was the start of a loving friendship and a “perfect combination” of talents, knowledge and personalities.

Elbert had studied journalism at Columbia University but said he didn’t go on with it because it was “too ephemeral,” so he went back to the Mainland to study linguistics. He returned to become University of Hawaii professor of Pacific languages and linguistics. (“Since I’m not ‘Hawaiian,’ they wouldn’t use that word,” he noted.)

He said Pukui helped him teach Hawaiian and he was “very strict” with his students because he believes the Hawaiian language “should be taught in a scholarly way,” similar to any other language.

Pukui was 28 and married when she completed high school in 1923 at the Hawaiian Mission Academy in Honolulu. She had no formal training but was blessed with a natural gift for writing the Hawaiian language and culture.

Now 87, and confined to a nursing home, she has left a legacy of Hawaiian translations and writings that are still being discovered on little scraps of paper at the Bishop Museum.

“Dr. Handy said she (Pukui) was half haole and 100 percent Hawaiian,” Elbert laughed, sharing warm memories of his longtime associate during an interview at his Manoa home.

“She had a genius for explaining Hawaiian culture to others, and a genius for explaining the Hawaiian language… She had a tremendous memory. She would go talk to native Hawaiians and remember everything.

“There is no one who can take her place,” he added.

Elbert and Pukui wrote “Place Names of Hawaii” with Esther T. Mookini, but their best-known collaborative effort is the “Hawaiian Dictionary,” a combined edition of two earlier Hawaiian-English and English-Hawaiian dictionaries that they produced.

They also wrote a pamphlet that they expand into “The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary” with Mookini’s participation. It is the most popular book ever published by the University of Hawaii Press; almost 84,000 copies have been sold since it was published in 1975.

In 1976, Elbert and Pukui were recognized as “Living Treasures” of Hawaii for their contributions to the understanding of the Hawaiian language. This is just one of many honors bestowed on them, together and individually, for their achievements.

Elbert said he was encouraged to join forces with Pukui on a new Hawaiian dictionary in 1950 because the one in use at the time by Lorrin Andrews was inadequate and “had a lot of errors.” She had started the work and together they greatly expanded the effort.

“We never thought of it as a big seller at all, or paying royalties,” Elbert said. “Kawena was very uninterested in money. We never dreamed what it would lead to…

“Tom Nickerson (then head of the University of Hawaii Press) never thought it would sell at all. But it has sold all over the world. I have a vanity streak, so I look it up,” he said, with a big grin.”In Des Moines—so remote a place as that—there are a lot of copies.”

Elbert said Pukui “was criticized by some for collaborating with haoles, with authors or scientists… This hurt her very much, but she kept on working” and her door was always open to anyone who wanted information or help, even the naming of children or buildings.

“She said once, ‘I’ve never named a pig but I’ve named everything else…,” Elbert recalled. “She had a wonderful sense of humor. Doing a dictionary, you can’t be prudish.”

While Pukui devoted her lifetime to the preservation of her Hawaiian heritage, Elbert said, “She was sort of torn with some of her Hawaiian beliefs because contacts with scholars made her doubt them a little bit…”

Pukui had a poi-and-potato type of upbringing, reflecting the heritage of both her father, Henry Nathaniel Wiggin of Massachusetts, and her mother, Mary Paahana Kealiʻi-kanaka-ʻole of Hanaiumalu on the Big Island.

Pukui was born on the Big Island. Her parents gave her as infant to her maternal grandmother to be raised and instructed in Hawaiian traditions, customs, religion, language and music. Her grandmother died…

A 1944 portrait of Mary Pukui by Madge Tennent, above.

‘She had a flower in her hair and she just captivated me,’ Samuel H. Elbert,  far left, recalls of his first meeting Pukui. Elbert and Pukui worked together for years to preserve the Hawaiian language.

Pukui, called Tui by her father, lived with her Hawaiian grandmother until she was 6, left, learning Hawaiian traditions, customs, religion, language and music.

Pukui in 1972, bottom left.

Below, a sample of unpublished material by Pukui in the Bishop Museum files.

(Star-Bulletin, 1/30/1983, p. C1)


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Page C1. January 30, 1983.

…when she was 6 and her mother took over her Hawaiian instruction.

She also attended Big Island schools “to be educated in the manner of the white people” and her father told her stories of the Bible and American folklore.

Another glimpse of Pukui—a “gentle person, not one toraise her voice and yell and shout”—comes from Pat Bacon, who as an infant was adopted by Pukui’s parents but raised “like sisters” with Pukui’s daughter.

“She loved and enjoyed her Hawaiian background, but she had the greatest respectt for her haole father for giving her an opportunity to understand the whys and wherefores of Hawaiian culture,” Bacon said of Pukui.

She said Pukui spoke nothing but Hawaiian  during the first years of her life because her grandmother spoke no English. When she returned to her parents, her father spoke only English to her although he could speak Hawaiian.

“Her father would tell her thiings about home (Massachusetts). She has never been to the Mainland, but was always interested in Salem and places he talked about… She talked about ‘maybe, some say’ (going to Massachusetts) but ‘some day’ never came around.”

Pukui began writing and translating Hawaiian folklore, poetry and historical tales when she was 15, blossoming into a prolific author with more than 50 publications bearing her name in collaboration with others.

Elbert has written about 14 books and many articles and the 75-year-old professor emeritus is involved in a number of new projects, including revisions and “a great many additions” to the “Hawaiian Dictionary” stemming from “more reading” of Hawaiian material.

There wasn’t time to make exhaustive studies of Hawaiian books and newspapers for the first Pukui-Elbert dictionary, he said. Much of it flowed from Pukui’s memory. “She would think of people saying things that were never published. She would think up things at home—idioms and expressions. None of those things were in the old dictionary.”

She would speak in Hawaiian and “notice their phrases,” Elbert said. “She would write them and I would rewrite them as concisely as possible. I was very careful to consult her about everything. I read every page to her. She would listen intently and stop me when something was wrong. She was always observant and thinking about it and would pick up many things not known.”

“She knew her limitations and concentrated on what she knew,” Elbert said. “That is why she was so respected… She would ask her mother a lot. Her mother was an expert hula dancer. One of Kawena’s specialties was hula, and poetry. She could recite it by the hour, but she couldn’t chant.

She kept a diary for years and years,” Elbert revealed. “I don’t know where it is but she wrote clearly—very easy to read. She would ‘scribble’ as she said. She had great literary flair.”

She also enjoyed writing songs and working with musicians, Bacon said. “She was so well versed. A word may be too long in Hawaiian but she could pick out another word with the same meaning that would fit in with the beat.”

Pukui watched the changes affecting Hawaiians through the years, Bacon said. “Sometimes she said ‘fine,’ and sometimes she said, ‘well,’ and that was it.”

‘One of Kawena’s specialties was hula, and poetry,’ Samuel Elbert says of Mary Pukui. ‘She could recite it by the hour,but she couldn’t chant.’

(Star-Bulletin 1/30/1983, p. C3)


Star-Bulletin, Page C3. January 30, 1983.




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