Composer and Educator Edith Kanakaʻole Protected the Native Hawaiian Worldview

March 24, 2023
Graphic featuring design for quarter with Edith Kanakaʻole’s face blending into a background of mountains and a river. Text on the quarter includes “E hō mai ka ʻike.”

 Image of 2023 Edith Kanakaʻole quarter, part of the American Women Quarters™ Program. Copyright United States Mint. Used with permission.


Today the U.S. Mint released a quarter featuring Hawaiian chanter, composer, and educator Edith Kanakaʻole.

Started in 2022, and continuing through 2025, the U.S. Mint is issuing new quarters featuring American women who changed the nation and the world as part of the American Women Quarters™ Program.

This is the second quarter released in 2023, following a coin honoring aviator Bessie Coleman. Future quarters in this series will honor journalist Jovita Idár, humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt and prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (Osage).

We invite you to explore the teachings and legacy of Edith Kanakaʻole.

Edith Kanaka‘ole

Edith Kanaka‘ole perpetuated Native Hawaiian history, culture, and traditions through lifelong teachings. Edith Kanaka‘ole was born in 1913 in Honomū, in the Hilo district of Hawaiʻi island. Her mother’s family originated from the districts of Kaʻū and Puna and her father’s family came from North Kohala. She had many fond memories of her childhood. Her mother taught her hula, and her father taught her about the uses of local herbs and plants. Her father would often sing and play a variety of instruments while her mother would dance hula. During an interview for the Pau Hana Years, a show by PBS Hawaiʻi in the early 1970’s, Kanaka‘ole remembered her community “lived like one whole family.”

Kanaka‘ole’s parents were born when Hawaiʻi was a monarchy. This changed in 1893 when a group of business owners backed by the U.S. military overthrew the current ruler, Queen Liliʻuokalani, and established a provisional government and later, the Republic of Hawaiʻi. In 1898, the United States assumed government over Hawaiʻi claiming the archipelago as a U.S. territory. The Republic and American governments implemented laws and regulations to extinguish teaching of Hawaiian culture, language, history, ecological knowledge, and ways of caring for the land.

Implemented in 1906, the “Programme for Patriotic Exercises in the Public Schools” required students to pledge loyalty to the United States, even though a vast majority of people in Hawaiʻi fought hard to maintain the monarchy. Every morning, students recited in unison, "We give our heads and our hearts to God and our Country! One Country! One Language! One Flag!” Similar programs discouraged schoolchildren from speaking Hawaiian.

In 1924, Kanaka‘ole’s mother was awarded one of the first homesteading leases in the newly formed Hawaiian Home Land community of Keaukaha on Hawaiʻi Island. The community was established under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, a piece of federal legislation passed by U.S. Congress in 1921 that set aside lands across the islands for the rehabilitation of native Hawaiians having 50% or more Hawaiian blood). Homesteaders were given 99-year leases to a piece of land and expected better their lives and those of their families. . Due to the blood quantum requirement and the slow progress of establishing homesteads across the islands by the Hawaiian Homes Commission (the administrative body of the Act), many native Hawaiians did not become homesteaders. Those who did, like Kanakaʻole’s mother and other early homesteaders in Keaukaha, worked together to build their homes, till the land, harvest the bountiful resources of the sea, and advocate for their community’s needs, including establishing a school, improving their road system, and securing access to water utilities.

The threat of cultural erasure by the United States government spurred Kanaka‘ole to preserve the Hawaiian knowledge systems from her parents and community. She shared these practices and ways of knowing through songwriting, interpreting/translating, and performing. Kanaka‘ole trained as a lifelong practitioner of hula and became a kumu hula (hula teacher). She mastered oli (chants), mele (music), lyrical composition, and dance. She began composing her own oli in 1946.

Native Hawaiians did not have a written language until the first missionaries arrived in the 1820’s and collaborated with their Hawaiian students to convert the oral language to a written one. Prior to this, Hawaiian history and traditions were passed orally from one generation to the next, often through chanting. Chants share past and present beliefs, values, history, legends, and connection to the land and sea. Hula preserves the knowledge found in the chants by pairing it with dance. Kanaka‘ole remarked, "When you learn a dance, you also have to learn the chant for the dance.” Both movement and spoken language are necessary for hula.

In 1953, following the passing of her mother, Kanaka‘ole founded her own hula hālau (hula school) named Hālau o Kekuhi. It became an internationally recognized dance company known for the ‘aiha‘a, a low postured, bombastic style of hula associated with the fire goddess Pele. Kanakaʻole also assisted in the development of the first Hawaiian language program for public school students at Keaukaha Elementary School, as well as the school's Hawaiian Studies kupuna (elder) mentorship program.

In the 1970s, Kanaka‘ole taught at Hawaiʻi Community College and the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. She established courses in ethnobotany (the study of a region’s plants and their practical uses), ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian Language), Hawaiian land practices, mythology, and genealogy that continue to be taught today. Kanaka’ole’s scholarship helped to preserve Hawaiian cultural, linguistic, and scientific knowledge. She feared that if those who knew the Hawaiian traditions, like herself, did not “share it with young people, they would not have it tomorrow." Her teachings and the many students she mentored continue to play a significant role in shaping contemporary conversations regarding ocean conservation, climate adaptation, environmental science, and the management of natural resources.

Respectfully referred to as Aunty Edith, Kanaka‘ole won “Hawaiian of the Year” in 1977 from the State Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. Two years later, she received the Distinction of Cultural Leadership award from the State of Hawaiʻi, the highest honor given to an individual who has made significant lifetime contributions to Hawaiʻi in the areas of culture, arts, and humanities. Twice, she won the Nā Hōkū Hanohano (Hawaiian music award) for Best Traditional Hawaiian Album. Her album, Haʻakuʻi Pele i Hawaiʻi (Pele Prevails in Hawaiʻi) won in 1979 and Hiʻipoi I Ka ‘Āina Aloha (Cherish the Beloved Land) won in 1980.

Kanaka‘ole died on October 3, 1979, just before her 66th birthday. The Edith Kanaka‘ole Foundation was established in 1990 to further promote her teachings of the Hawaiian worldview. Additionally, the world-famous Merrie Monarch festival is held each year in Hilo at the Edith Kanaka‘ole multi-Purpose stadium in her honor.

At the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2004, two of Kanaka‘ole’s daughters, Pualani Kanaka‘ole Kanahele and Nālani Kanaka‘ole, led the Hālau o Kekuhi ensemble in a performance demonstrating their mother’s teachings.


Chelsea R. Cozad was a 2022 Because of Her Story intern for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in History from Miami University of Ohio in 2021. Her work focused on sharing the life stories of groundbreaking American women with the public.