Mary Kawena Pukui, 1957.

Star-Bulletin Photo

Mrs. Mary K. Pukui

‘Words Are My Business,’ Says Kamaaina Author


A new and important milestone in the long and fruitful career of Mrs. Mary Kawena Pukui is the long-awaited Hawaiian-English dictionary written by her and Dr. Samuel H. Elbert, University of Hawaii linguist. The dictionary has recently been released by the University of Hawaii Press.

Mrs. Pukui, a storyteller, lifetime student of the hula, chants, Hawaiian music and culture, translator and interpreter, had previously written or collaborated on 42 volumes of folklore, papers and studies on subjects ranging from canoe making to an introduction to the Hawaiian language.

None of these works, however, have approached the scope of the dictionary, which is the result of 20 years of collecting words and eight years of careful verification.

“THE FASCINATING thing about the dictionary is that the late Reverend Henry H. Parker, maker of the last Hawaiian-English dictionary, was a good friend of mine. He used to discuss his problems with me. I was young then and never imagined I would be making a dictionary.

“Twenty years ago I began collecting words I came across in translating old manuscripts and newspapers and in conversation with elderly people,” said the genial, silver-haired tutu, who always wears muumuus and native shell or seed jewelry.

In 1949, she was asked by the late Sir Peter H. Buck, then director of the Bishop Museum, to work with Dr. Elbert on the dictionary.

A DESCENDANT FROM and ancient line of Pele priests on her mother’s side and from the 17th century American poetess, Ann Bradstreet, from her father’s kin, Mrs. Pukui has enjoyed the experience of living the cultures of both ancient and modern Hawaii.

As a child reared by her Hawaiian maternal grandmother in the remote Kau section of the Big Island, she spoke Hawaiian before she spoke English and early developed a keen ear for language.

Although she was brought up in the Hawaiian manner by her grandfather, Mrs. Pukui at an early age was introduced to her American heritage by her father, Henry Nathaniel Wiggin, a Massachusetts-born luna for the Hutchinson Plantation on Hawaii.

“My father an I were pals. He used to recite to me passages from the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. I was familiar with Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane even before I could read,” she said.

AT FIVE SHE BEGAN her education at a small private plantation school in Kau taught by a Canadian. Her father was appointed bailiff to the Circuit Court in Honolulu in 1915, so she then attended Central Grammar School and Kawaiahao Seminary until she left school to help nurse a sick uncle.

It wasn’t until she was 24 and had been married for five years to Kalolii Pukui that she resumed her studies. She was graduated from the Hawaiian Mission Academy at the age of 27.

A widow since 1943, Mrs. Pukui has three daughters, Mrs. George Bacon, Mrs. Edwin Ukishima and Mrs. Bernard Suganuma.

She has been on the staff of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum for 26 years and hasn’t stopped writing except for two years during World War II when she was in the “deceiving business.” She was forelady of a camouflage unit.

(Star-Bulletin, 10/24/1957, p. 27)


Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Volume 46, Number 255, Page 27. October 24, 1957.


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