Honoring Two Women Who Shaped Kaua’i

Maryanne Kusaka, a booster of the Kaua'i Historical Society as mayor, is now a board member and highly involved in planning KHS's gala Nov. 12, honoring two influential women in the island's history, Chiefess Kamakahelei and Emma Wilcox. It's fitting, says Kusaka, because 'Kaua'i is a very feminine island.'

To Maryanne Kusaka, “Kauai is a very feminine island.”

The former mayor and current Kaua’i Historical Society board member adds: “And women played a huge part in Kauai’s history, but they just have not been written about. The world doesn’t, I think, honor women as it should.”

That is why Kusaka chose to honor the lives of two historically important women, Chiefess Kamakahelei and Emma Kauikeolani Napoleon Mahelona Wilcox, during the Kaua’i Historical Society’s annual fundraising event, Na Wahine Kiekie Women of Distinction, Nov. 12.

Chiefess Kamakahelei, the last reigning alii ai moku highest chiefess has a school named after her, yet many people may not know why. Stories of Kamakahelei and Wilcox will be shared by Kusaka and David Scott. The tales told will be integrated with visualizations for the audience, including hula kahiko performed by Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leinaala.

Learning about the princess was no easy task for Kusaka. In fact, much of the reference to Kamakahelei was found only through cross-referencing. Researching Captain Cook’s history and consulting other Hawaiian historians was how Kusaka discovered information about her life.

Not only was she the mother of King Kaumualii, Kamakahelei was the person responsible for saving Captain Cook’s life when he first arrived on Kaua’i.

Maryanne Kusaka (left) with Mary Requilman and Donna Stewart at KHS. Photo by Coco Zickos

“That in itself was significant,” says Kusaka. “He was supposedly the first white man to land here.”

Wilcox’s history, on the other hand, started on Oahu, but her philanthropic efforts reached as far as Kaua’i, being that she was responsible for bringing the Samuel Mahelona (named after a son she lost to tuberculosis) Memorial Hospital to the island.

It is a culmination of stories like these that make Kusaka proud to live on Kaua’i.

Born on the Big Island and raised in Hana, Kusaka also has historical roots.

Her mother was orphaned at a very young age, but was likely of Hawaiian descendancy.

She never knew her mother’s name, age or where she was from, says Kusaka.

“It’s so sad,” she says.

Her mother was raised by the court system on Maui as one of six maids in a judge’s home.

Steeped in Hawaiian culture since she was a child, Kusaka always had a particular interest in its history.

She studied hula and learned from some of Hawaii’s most notable teachers, including Iolani Luahine and Emma Farden Sharpe.

“I loved the ancient hula,” she says. Kusaka also enjoyed studying the Hawaiian language from her kumus, especially since it was banned when she was growing up.

Donna Stewart, Mary Requilman and Maryanne Kuska hope to raise at least $25,000 at the Nov. 12 event. Photo by Coco Zickos

“That drove my passion even deeper because I wanted to know more about our roots and our culture,” says Kusaka. She and her husband of nearly 40 years Charles, who is retired, have one adult son, also Charles, who lives on Oahu, owns a music school and is an entertainer.

Based on song and storytelling, Hawaii’s culture has been passed down through oral history and chants.

One such chant will be performed for the first time in some 200 years during this weekend’s event. It was written by Kamakahelei for her son Kaumualii that was discovered in the Bishop Museum’s archives.

“We need to, as generations go by, remember significant happenings in our community that are significant to us, as a people and as a community,” says Kusaka.

“And if we don’t keep reminding ourselves through different avenues, we’re going to forget, we’re going to lose it it needs to be documented.”

That is why the 97year-old Kaua’i Historical Society is of utmost importance, says the organization’s executive director Mary Requilman.

“We’re preserving the history,” she says. “We function primarily as an archive and a resource center for those who want to do research.”

It is a nonprofit that may not still be possible without Kusaka’s assistance when she served as the island’s mayor from 1994 to 2002.

“We reside in these beautiful offices because we had Mayor Kusaka on our side to get us into our home,” says Requilman while sitting among walls of books in the newly renovated Historic County Building in Lihue. “She saved the historical society from mold and destruction. Our collection would not be in the pristine condition it is had it not been for her help.”

Kaua’i Historical Society’s Donna Stewart agrees and says she is amazed at how dedicated Kusaka has been to this year’s feminine theme.

“She makes time to focus on history,” says Stewart.

Though Kusaka loves all things Hawaiian, since moving to the island in 1964 her affinity for Kaua’i’s abundant past has grown.

KHS Royal Paina 2007 : Nina Kealiiwahamana, Mahi Beamer and Palani Vaughn. Photo from Kauai Historical Society

“There is no place like Kaua’i. Kauai is so, so special this land is special,” she says. “We’re very honored to be able to be here on Kaua’i. I’ve lived on all the islands and it’s by far the most beautiful and it has the most significant history. It’s up to us to keep reminding ourselves what makes Kaua’i so special.”

“The vision of Kaua’i is really what we imagine paradise to be.”

Though Kusaka considers herself “retired,” she might actually be busier than many of those in the workforce.

She volunteers with plenty of nonprofits and serves on the board of several, including the Mokihana Club.

Kusaka also works parttime as a Realtor.

“When I can find a house to sell,” she says.

Prior to her semi-retirement, Kusaka was a teacher for nearly 34 years. Her favorite age to teach was fifth and sixth graders.

“They still depend on you, and they’re sponges for knowledge,” she explains. “And they still want to please you and they’re still lovable.”

Between 1968 and 1978, Kusaka also was a pilot teacher for the statewide Hawaii English Program.

“It would have been wonderful for our kids today, but it was too expensive to maintain,” she says.

It was a financial disappointment that the Kaua’i Historical Society hopes to never face.

Hoping to raise between $25,000 and $30,000 at the event, Requilman has many aspirations for the organization’s longevity.

“If we don’t support the historical society, all this history would be lost,” says Kusaka. “We have such a beautiful collection of things Hawaiian and things Kaua’i that need to be preserved because it needs to be handed down from generation to generation for the sake of our children.”

The fundraiser will be held Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club. Featured entertainers will be Kupaoa. A silent and live auction will be held with items available such as Alaska Airlines tickets and clamshell sinks from the Coco Palms Resort. Tickets, which include dinner, cost $75. Tables of 10 may be reserved for $700.

Call 245-3373 or email kauaihs@hawaiiantel.net for tickets. Visit kauaihistoricalsociety.org for more information.