Mauians celebrate Prince Kuhio Day

WAILUKU – Thousands of Hawaii residents took the day off Thursday to observe Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole Day, but it’s likely many of them were unaware of the significance of the state holiday.

In an effort to educate residents and visitors about the legacy of Prince Kuhio, Mele Fong, affectionately known as “Ukulele Mele,” led a two-hour oral history and singalong session Thursday at the Bailey House Museum. Joined by her husband, Rich Tom, the singer and ukulele teacher chronicled the history of the prince and his enduring contributions to the people of Hawaii.

“He was a prince of the people,” Fong explained, pointing out that Prince Kuhio Day is one of only two state holidays that pay tribute to a royal leader. The other is King Kamehameha Day, which is celebrated on June 11.

Fong said she hoped all in attendance would know why Prince Kuhio is deserving of a state holiday after hearing his remarkable story.

Born on Kauai on March 26, 1871, Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana’ole was the son of Kahalepouli, a high chief, and Princess Kinoiki Kekaulike, the sister of Queen Kapi’olani. Orphaned after his parents died, the young Kuhio was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Queen Kapi’olani and King David Kalakaua, thereby making him a prince.

He attended the Royal School and Punahou School on Oahu, where one of his French teachers took note of his cherubic appearance and gave him the moniker “Prince Cupid.” He went on to study at St. Matthew’s College in California and the Royal Agricultural College in England.

Following the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani in 1893, Kuhio took part in a counter-revolutionary plot intended to reinstate the queen. It was a failed attempt; he was arrested and thrown in jail for one year. While languishing in prison, he received a visitor from Maui, Elizabeth Kahanu Ka’auwai. The two eventually married in 1896 and traveled to Europe, where they were treated as visiting royalty.

Upon his return to Hawaii, Kuhio decided to enter politics. In 1902, he was elected the second delegate to the U.S. Congress from the Territory of Hawaii on the Republican ticket. He served as Hawaii’s delegate until his death 20 years later.

He was also the only person of royal birth ever elected to Congress.

While in Washington, he introduced the first bill for statehood, which was met by staunch opposition. Determined to preserve and perpetuate Native Hawaiian culture, Kuhio testified before lawmakers and sponsored trips to the islands – a lobbying effort that softened the viewpoints of many of his congressional colleagues.

“He generated a great deal of sympathy for Hawaiians,” Fong said.

While his statehood bill was unsuccessful, Kuhio oversaw the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which returned tracts of land to Native Hawaiians. Today, an estimated 6,500 families live on 30,000 acres of homestead land across the state.

In addition to spearheading the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, Kuhio also restored the Royal Order of Kamehameha I and established the first Hawaiian Civic Club. The civic club was designed as an open forum to address the range of issues affecting the Hawaiian people. Today, there are 60 Hawaiian Civic Clubs in 12 states stretching from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.

“His legacy still lives on in the Royal Order and in these civic clubs,” Fong said. “And today, we still benefit from his benevolence.”

On Jan. 7, 1922, Prince Kuhio died from heart disease at the age of 51. He is buried alongside other members of the royal family at the Royal Mausoleum on Oahu.

In 1949, the Territorial Legislature passed a resolution to honor Prince Kuhio every year on March 26, his birthday.

Today, the beloved prince-turned-statesman is immortalized across the state. A larger-than-life statue of the prince now stands in Waikiki’s Kuhio Beach Park. There are a number of other landmarks scattered throughout the islands.

“When I was growing up on Oahu, I took these places for granted,” said Fong. “Once I learned why they are there and their significance, they started coming to life.”

To commemorate Prince Kuhio, Fong and Tom taught Bailey House Museum visitors – many of whom brought their own ukuleles – the chords and lyrics to Hawaiian love songs composed during Prince Kuhio’s lifetime, including “Ua Like No A Like” (“Sweet Constancy”), “Sanoe” and “On the Beach in Waikiki.”

“These songs give context to this very special day,” Fong said.

* Sarah Ruppenthal can be reached at sruppenthal@mauinews.com.