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Chancellor’s Monthly Column, May 2023: Honoring Aunty Edith

Bonnie Irwin pictured in her office.
Bonnie D. Irwin

This month there is a celebration planned to honor Kumu Hula Edith Kanaka‘ole. Save the date, Saturday, May 6, 2023, 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. at the Performing Arts Center, and then 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall, on the campus of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, when the community will come together to celebrate Aunty Edith’s life and legacy.

It is a local event with co-hosts being the Kanaka‘ole ‘ohana, the Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation, UH Hilo, and Hawai‘i Community College, but it also is sparked and supported through the national recognition of Aunty Edith by the United States Mint, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Edith Kanaka‘ole (1913–1979) was a renowned Native Hawaiian composer and educator, teaching at both Hawai‘i Community College (1971-74) and UH Hilo (1974-79). She created curriculum and public lectures on Hawaiian language, ethnobotany, Polynesian history, genealogy, and Hawaiian chant and mythology that without a doubt helped lay the foundation for the coming decades of Hawaiian language and culture revitalization within higher education in Hawai‘i.

Edith Kanaka‘ole pictured with head lei.
Edith Kekuhikuhipu‘uoneonāali‘iōkohala Kenao Kanaka‘ole
Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall pictured, a long, 2-building complex with palms lining one side and a large lawn quad on the left side.
Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall on the UH Hilo campus. (Courtesy photo Hyungwon Jeon via UH System News)

To honor Aunty Edith’s groundbreaking contributions to the UH Hilo campus and community, the humanities building at UH Hilo, which houses subjects such as languages, English, philosophy, and kinesiology, is named in her honor, Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall. For a long time, most people referred to the building as “EKH,” a habit that many in our university community are trying to break, replacing with the respectful Kanaka‘ole Hall or even the simple Kanaka‘ole, rather than reducing a kumu’s honor to an acronym.

This attention to learning and practicing respect toward not only kumu among us today but also toward those who came before—those who blazed a clear path toward Hawaiian language and culture revitalization within the too often stodgy and stubborn world of academia—is part of who we are at UH Hilo. We are a Native Hawaiian grounded institution working every day to revitalize the language and the culture, weaving Native Hawaiian protocols, wisdom, ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, and cultural awareness into all life on campus.

It was an honor to be included in the Merrie Monarch parade, walking alongside students, educators, and cultural practitioners from UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, our laboratory public charter school Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki, and the non-profit Aha Pūnana Leo. Experiences like that, of being immersed in a sea of dedicated and unwavering scholars and educators whose work on Hawaiian language and cultural revitalization is an inspiration to dying cultures around the world, is humbling to the core. An experience like that fills me with the energy to focus on the work ahead, doing everything I can to help keep UH Hilo blazing up that path toward the future Aunty Edith envisioned for Native Hawaiians.

Large group walking in parade on Hilo street, one person is pulling a green wagon, most people have on red shirts and hats, city buildings are in the background.
It was an honor to be included in the Merrie Monarch parade, walking alongside students, educators, and cultural practitioners from UH Hilo’s Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, our laboratory public charter school Ke Kula ʻO Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Iki, and the non-profit Aha Pūnana Leo. (April 15, 2023)

In March, a commemorative quarter honoring Edith Kanaka‘ole was released into circulation by the United States Mint, one of five American women to be minted on new quarters as part of the 2023 honorees for the American Women Quarters™ Program. In addition, last month, Aunty Edith was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by the UH Board of Regents in recognition of her contributions toward the preservation and revitalization of the Hawaiian language and culture.

I invite you to come celebrate these milestones of Aunty Edith’s honorable and inspirational legacy at the May 6 events.

With aloha,

Bonnie D. Irwin

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