Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month

asian american & pacific islander heritage month

By JoNelle Sood, May 10, 2023

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we are honoring Edith K. Kanākaʻole (affectionately known as Aunty Edith).  She was a Kumu Hula Master and an expert Hawaiian Culture Practitioner and fluent in Hawaiian language from Hilo, Hawaiʻi.  Aunty Edith passionately fought for Native Hawaiian culture and education. She was known as a warrior for her people. Her battle was perpetuating our Hawaiian culture, language, and customs, a way of life.  She pushed to educate the world on the importance of being Hawaiian and how our culture is very much alive and thriving.  She fought for Indigenous rights when discrimination against Hawaiians was high in our own homelands.   She created Halau Hula  (Hawaiian dance schools), fought for schools to be able to teach the Hawaiian language and culture,  and she supported various humanitarian efforts especially regarding Hawaiian issues. She passionately loved her culture and people.  He Hawai’i Au. (I am Hawaiian). 

As I continue my journey to grow a deeper connection with my culture, history, language and kūpuna (elderly, ancestors), it was an honor to take a trip with my husband, daughter and our Hālau Hula family to the Hawai’i Island (Big Island) for Merrie Monarch in the Edith Kanākaʻole Stadium.  Merrie Monarch is the “Olympics of Hula”, a week-long cultural event held in Hilo, Hawaiʻi each spring, featuring Hawaiian culture and a premier hula competition. 

When I was a kid, we used to watch Merrie Monarch on VHS months after the event.  In recent years, I tried to watch as much as I could streaming it online, despite the fact that it's on from 9pm-3 am PST and it is hard to keep your eyes open at that hour!  To be there in person, with my family, on the 60th anniversary was EPIC!  The energy was indescribable.  There were many Hawaiian and Pacific Islander artists and designers selling art, crafts and clothing.  You can shop during the day, buy your gorgeous outfit for the night and then go to this wonderful display of culture in the evening.  It was fun to see everyone in their beautiful clothes, all decked out. It was like the Oscars with you wanting to see who’s wearing what.  Meeting our halau family in the lobby or in line at the stadium for pictures in our outfits was fun. It was a blessing to be there and a dream our Kumu Hula, Katrina Hali’imaile made come true in honor of her mom, Kumu Hula Aunty Nalua. 

Through networking for Ho’omau Foundation, I met Aunty Nani Espinda, program coordinator for post-secondary scholarships.  Aunty Nani has been instrumental in how we’ve set up the Ho'omau Foundation operationally. She knew I was going to Merrie Monarch and she connected me with Aunty Dora at the craft fair. Aunty Nani wanted to make this a special visit and asked Aunty Dora to make a lei po’o (floral headpiece) as her makana (gift) to me. I felt so special and wore it proudly for the evening. If you find yourself at the Honolulu Airport, please stop by Aunty Dora’s Lei Stand to pick up fresh leis. Give her my love when you see her. 

While we were in Hilo, we explored the National Volcano Park to visit Kilauea. We witnessed a Hālau Hula that was competing in Merrie Monarch, do their protocol and give their ho’okupu (offering of gratitude, gift) to Madame Pele. It was so special to witness such a beautiful tribute as this halau shared their oli (chant) and their mahalo (thanks) to Pele in the presence of all that she has created, the craters, the steam and the new ‘āina (land). 

While we were on our trip, there was a ceremony by The Royal Order of Kamehameha I at Mauna a Wakea (Mauna Kea) and it happened to be on the same day as my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 76 this year. This event was so special for many reasons.  I met Aunty Pua Case in person. She’s a Kumu Hula, a teacher of the ways, culture and traditions of the kanaka maoli or native peoples of Hawai’i and Kia’i (protector) of Mauna a Wakea.  I was exchanging a few messages with her coordinating the time prior to our trip and felt so honored to meet her since I’ve seen her be such an influence on Mauna a Wakea.  We got to participate in a ceremony and I said my dad’s name for a blessing and to set him free. To set him free and to thank him in Hawaii was priceless and an emotion my daughter and I felt deeply. My husband and I each offered a ho’okupu to my dad and to Mauna a Wakea. It was a beautiful and emotional moment especially when we all gathered around and said alo-ha pushing our Hā (breath) from our na’au (depth of your belly). 

It was so special to be at Mauna a Wakea and give thanks to her. It was surreal to be there in person. I watched and cried from California the day Küpuna was arrested for protesting the build of the TMT- Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna a Wakea. When I quit my job in 2020, I was planning what I dubbed “my pilgrimage “. I was going to go to Mauna a Wakea to stand alongside the Kia’i with my cousin, then I was going to meet another cousin in Kauai to visit the area our grandmother was born and raised. My final stop was to our home island O’ahu to visit family but unfortunately, COVID shut down the world by March 2020. I was fortunate enough to travel to Kauai in 2022 and the Hawai’i Island this year. It was amazing to be there in person, connecting my support of Mauna a Wakea, intertwining our time in Hilo with Mauna a Wakea, linking the stories, the news, hula, culture, ancient practices in person. 

This trip further strengthens my commitment to the Ho'omau Foundation. I look at the past and present advocates for the success and development of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders and admire their work and legacy. It’s a guiding light for us as we continue our mission. 

In closing and honoring AAPI month, I’m especially thinking of Aunty Edith and her role in history. Her legacy lives on through her children, grandchildren and we are all reaping the benefits of her passion.  She was one of five women honored in the U.S. Mint’s four-year long American Women Quarters program to further put her on the map as an influential person in history. 

I’m grateful for my time on Hawai’i Island and all of the people that have and are helping me make the Ho'omau Foundation successful.