Edith Kekuhikuhipu‘uone o nā ali‘i o Kohala Kanaka‘ole was an Indigenous Hawaiian composer, chanter, dancer, kumu hula and a venerated cultural icon who taught at UH Hilo in the 1970s.
A commemorative quarter honoring former University of Hawai‘i instructor and late legendary kumu hula Edith Kanaka‘ole (1913–1979) has been released into circulation by the U.S. Mint. The award-winning composer, who taught at Hawai‘i Community College and UH Hilo, is one of five American women to be minted on new quarters as part of the 2023 honorees for the American Women Quarters™ Program.
Kanaka‘ole worked as a teacher at Hawai‘i CC from 1971 to 1974 and at UH Hilo from 1974 to 1979. At both schools, she created courses and seminars on subjects including Hawaiian language, ethnobotany, Polynesian history, genealogy, and Hawaiian chant and mythology. To honor her monumental 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 honor of the Keaukaha native.
The coin depicts a portrait of Kanaka‘ole, with her hair and lei po‘o (head lei) morphing into the elements of a Hawaiian landscape, symbolizing Kanaka‘ole’s life’s work of preserving the natural land and traditional Hawaiian culture. The inscription “E hō mai ka ‘ike” translates as “granting the wisdom,” and is a reference to the intertwined role hula and chants play in this preservation.
The other side of the coin depicts a portrait of George Washington, originally designed and sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser to mark his 200th birthday in 1932.
“It was a joy to become aware of Edith Kanaka‘ole’s legacy as I developed a design for her quarter,” said Artistic Infusion Program Designer Emily Damstra. “I came to understand that her deep connection to the land—her home in Hawai‘i near the Maunakea volcano—played a large role in her life and work. To best honor the various ways she made an impact, I felt that the design should emphasize her relationship to that environment.”
Venerated cultural icon
Edith Kekuhikuhipu‘uone o nā ali‘i o Kohala Kanaka‘ole was an Indigenous Hawaiian composer, chanter, dancer, kumu hula and a venerated cultural icon. Through hula, a dance to pass down knowledge to the next generations, and mo‘olelo (stories), Kanaka‘ole helped to preserve aspects of Hawaiian knowledge, history, culture and traditions that were disappearing due to the cultural bigotry of the time.
- Design unveiled for U.S. coin honoring Edith Kanaka‘ole (UH Hilo Stories, Aug. 30, 2022)
She preserved the ancient style of hula accompanied by rhythmic instruments done in the style she passed on which is identified as ‘aiha‘a, or low to the ground. Kanaka‘ole was a kumu hula, a master instructor for hula, and an academic researcher who developed her own chants for cultural preservation and academic work. Her contributions extend to the work of environmental scientists, and universities that teach her philosophies and scientific methods, and position Hawai‘i and the U.S. in the global conversation on climate resilience.
Kanaka‘ole, or “Aunty Edith,” as she is commonly known, was a renowned practitioner of and an authority on modern Hawaiian culture and language. She believed that the oli, or Hawaiian chants, informed the basis of Hawaiian values and history. She learned this art form and performed all the major styles of delivery.
The Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation, a Hawaiian cultural-based non-profit organization established in 1990, helps maintain and perpetuate her teachings, beliefs, practices, philosophies and traditions. A celebration of Kanaka‘ole’s contributions and legacy will be held at UH Hilo on May 6.