Cultural icon Edith Kanaka‘ole celebrated at UH Hilo
It was a day of celebration and reverence for the beloved Kumu Edith Kanaka‘ole, who played a pivotal role in laying the foundation for Hawaiian studies programs in higher education and throughout the community.
By Susan Enright.
The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo co-hosted a day of celebration May 6 to honor the life and legacy of legendary educator and cultural icon Edith Kanaka‘ole.
Aunty Edith worked as a teacher at Hawai‘i Community College 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, laying the foundation for Hawaiian studies programs in higher education that continue to grow and expand to this day.
“Aunty Edith sang literally and figuratively in a way that not only taught, it inspired,” says UH Regent Alapaki Nahale-a, vice chair of the Board of Regents representing Hawaiʻi County, about the award-winning composer. “She delivered sacred knowledge, life affirming and perpetuating knowledge, in a way that was powerful and reverent while also being accessible and joyful.”
Saturday’s “He Ka‘ao No Aunty Edith Kanaka‘ole” events started at the campus Performing Arts Center with a kīpaepae (welcoming ceremony) and hoʻokupu (ceremonial presentation of gifts and tributes) and was livestreamed on YouTube. The event was co-hosted by Hawai‘i Community College, the United States Mint, the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The celebration then continued with the unveiling of a mural of Aunty Edith at Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall, along with hula and other activities.
The ceremonies held at the Performing Arts Center tied into the release of a U.S. coin honoring Kanaka‘ole. On March 27, the United States Mint released into circulation a coin from the American Women Quarters™ series honoring the cultural icon. She is one of five American women being honored in new quarters in 2023 as part of the American Women Quarters™ Program. Each year, the U.S. secretary of the treasury selects the honorees following consultation with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, the National Women’s History Museum, and the Congressional Bipartisan Women’s Caucus.
Unveiling of the mural
At the opening event, Chancellor Irwin delivered remarks about the mural of Edith Kanakaole created on campus this week by local artist Kamea Hadar in collaboration with Kūha‘o Zane who is Edith Kanaka‘ole’s grandson and creative director at Sig Zane Designs, a local textile and clothing business in Hilo renowned for a signature aesthetic rooted in Native Hawaiian culture. The mural was created with the support of UH Hilo Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Services.
“As a faculty member of both Hawai‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, Aunty Edith openly shared her deep ancestral knowledge passed down to her through her familia hula lineage,” says Irwin. “Her early contributions to the university’s Hawaiian language program and numerous community initiatives have set a foundation that continues to be built on today. It is an immense honor to share her story through this mural and have her portrait serve as a prominent feature on campus.”
Located at Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall, which was built in 1982 and named after the beloved kumu hula, the mural was unveiled at ceremonies shortly after the event at the performing arts center. The 1,000 or so attendees then enjoyed hula performances and other cultural activities.
Miles Walsh, a UH Hilo alumnus who attended the event, says about Aunty Edith, “The amount that she has touched so many people is just astounding, not just through her hula, but thorough her teaching and through everyone that’s her legacy.”
“I’ve never known anyone with such a big legacy as Edith Kanaka‘ole,” Walsh adds.
The mural project at Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall will continue over the next few months in different areas of the building but as one contiguous mural with thematic design elements created by Kūha‘o Zane, who collaborated on his grandmother’s portrait.
“UH Hilo students will be an integral part of the process by contributing to the mural throughout the summer,” says Chancellor Irwin.
Sneak Peek + Video! Edith Kanakaʻole mural now underway; unveiling scheduled for campus event May 6
UH Hilo Chancellor Irwin announces commission of Kekuhikuhi mural honoring Edith Kanaka‘ole
Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.