Prince Kūhiō: Lessons from a Hawaiian Statesman

Mar 26, 2018

Lei adored the Prince Kuhio statue in Waikiki following the annual parade in his honor this past Saturday.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Today Hawaiʻi celebrates Prince Kūhiō Day. For some island residents this may just be another day off. But for the hundreds who celebrated this weekend across the island chain, Prince Kūhiō is more than just a holiday. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

He is memorialized in beaches, schools, shopping centers, and much to the chagrin of Hawaiʻi traffic reporters street names.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole – a firm believer in grassroots governance, he established country government in the islands. His dedication to returning native Hawaiians to the land led him to establish the homesteading program. And his strong sense of acountability to his constituents allowed him to serve nearly 20 years as Hawaiʻi’s delegate to Congress. But all of this almost didn’t happen.

“When the government was overthrown he was thrown in prison for a year. He self-exiled him out of Hawaiʻi because he was so disraught and disgusted and saw nothing to look forward to that he left,” says Toni Lee, “Until the people begged him to come home because they needed his leadership.”

Prince Kuhio was imprisoned for a year for participating in an armed rebellion to restore the Hawaiian monarchy following the overthrow in 1893.
Credit Hawaii State Archives

Lee led statewide efforts to organize events honoring Prince Kūhiō on behalf of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs. It’s been 96 years since he passed. And every year Hawaiʻi celebrates him on his birthday – March 26.

“He accomplished so many things,” says Rae DeCoito, “And its relevant and important that we every year continue to commemorate his legacy so that the future generations can understand what he did for us and their kuleana to perpetuate it.”

Ever year, Prince Kuhio is celebrated across the island chain throughout the month of March. The official state holiday is celebrated on March 26, his birthday. Here, celebrants honor him at an Ali'i Sunday service at Kawaiaha'o Church in Honolulu.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

DeCoito helped put on the Prince Kūhiō Hoʻolauleʻa at Kapiʻolani Park on Saturday. This year’s rainy weather in Waikīkī did not put on a damper on festivities, says Aaron Mahi, former conductor of the Royal Hawaiian Band.

“It’s a wonderful day, even though it rained heavily,” says Mahi, “In spite of all of that. I wanna wish you all a Happy Kūhiō.”

A young Kuhio.
Credit Hawaii State Archives

Prince Kūhiō was born in Kukuiʻula, Kōloa on the island of Kauaʻi in 1871. After returning from self-imposed exile in Africa in 1902, he became Hawaiʻi’s first delegate to Congress. The non-voting delegate proved to be a skilled statesman in Washington D.C.

Prince Kuhio joins his fellow Republicans at the National Convention.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“To be likeable to have those people in Congress with the vote to vote on his behalf,” says Lee, “Be as charismatic as he was and pass the law of the Hawaiian Homestead Act.”

Kalama'ula on Moloka'i was the first Hawaiian homestead in Hawai'i. Prince Kuhio died before seeing the fruit of his labor in lobbying U.S. Congress to pass the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act in 1921.
Credit Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

The 1921 act set aside more than 200,000 acres for native Hawaiian homesteading. Today, nearly 10,000 homesteaders reside on Hawaiian home lands. As a leader in a Hawaiʻi that was rapidly changing, he pioneered efforts to cultivate a sense of civic duty among native Hawaiians.

Prince Kuhio in his 'ahu'ula or Hawaiian feather cape. He helped reorganize the Royal Order of Kamehameha after the benevolent society went underground following the overthrow.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

“When the government was overthrown, everyone went underground including hula, language, and all of that,” says Lee, “And he wanted them to have a safe place to be able to talk story to be able to discuss the issues of the day and that was very important.”

He founded the Honolulu Civic Club in 1918. One hundred years later there are nearly 60 Hawaiian civic clubs in Hawaiʻi and across the continental U.S. DeCoito says it’s this kind of leadership that we need now more than ever.

“Its public service, and its service to the ʻāina it’s service to the people and to be selfless and to do things because it’s the right thing to do” says DeCoito, “I would love to see the politicians emulate that more closely.”