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Towering figure in Hawaiian culture is gone

April 11, 2008
LAHAINA — A towering figure in the Native Hawaiian cultural community, Winona “Aunty Nona” Beamer, died peacefully in her sleep early Thursday in Lahaina, family members said. She was 84.

“She was very, very happy on Maui,” son Keola Beamer told The Maui News by phone from San Francisco, where he was winding up a concert tour.

“She was still engaged in her work. We would get the ukulele and sing and watch sunsets. I was hoping to do more of that,” the slack-key-guitar virtuoso said, noting that his mother had moved to West Maui from Hawaii island in early 2006 after heart-bypass surgery.

Nona Beamer was a veteran educator, a songwriter, performer, revered storyteller and hula loea, or master, who helped found the Hula Preservation Society. She was a popular presenter at the Celebration of the Arts of the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

Winona Kapuailohiamanonokalani Desha Beamer was born in Honolulu and raised in South Kona on the Big Island. Her paternal grandmother and major influence in her life was Helen Desha Beamer, a prolific songwriter and kumu hula.

After graduating from Kamehameha Schools, she attended colleges on the Mainland, eventually earning a degree in anthropology from Columbia University. In 1949, she began teaching Hawaiian culture at Kamehameha and remained there for nearly 40 years. She took over her mother’s hula studio and taught hula in Waikiki for 30 years.

Maui County residents remembered her as someone who epitomized Hawaiian values while she sparkled with playfulness.

Lee Ann DeLima, headmaster of the Kamehameha Schools Maui and a 1977 Kamehameha graduate, used the term “hulu” (feather), a cultural metaphor for an esteemed elder.

“Ue ka lani — the heavens weep — as we mourn the loss of our hulu kupuna, beloved Hawaiian treasure, Aunty Nona Beamer,” DeLima said. “Although this is a great loss for our community and culture, Aunty Nona’s legacy will live on through the many students she has taught and touched over the years at Kamehameha Schools and beyond.

“We are so grateful for the ike (knowledge) she has left us and the spirit of aloha she taught us as she embodied that spirit in her daily interactions. We will sorely miss her beautiful smile that always lit up the room and her sense of humor that brought laughter to each of us,” she said.

Kahu Kalani Wong, Kamehameha Maui chaplain and a 1974 Kamehameha alumnus, was another of Beamer’s students.

“Having Aunty Nona as a teacher was more than just learning about the subject. It was learning how to be a true Hawaiian with a haahaa (humble) spirit, always striving to better oneself, not for one’s sake but for the sake of others,” he said.

“She enjoyed life, always laughing with a twinkle in her eye,” he added.

Hawaiian cultural specialist Kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell of Pukalani recalled that “she wrote ‘Ka Huli Aku’ and all the favorite children’s songs. She was so awesome with children. . . . She was so well-respected.”

“She was a sweet lady in whatever she did, and I have very fond memories of her. . . . Hawaii has lost a tremendous resource.”

Teri Waros of Kalae, Molokai, met Beamer four years ago at the Beamer family’s Aloha Music Camp on the Friendly Isle. She called Beamer “my true teacher . . . generous in her smiles,” and spoke of “the magic she weaves” in her keiki lullabies and stories.”

“She was to me the epitome of aloha,” Waros said. “When we spoke of aloha, it was in a spiritual sense, and she held up her hands to form a diamond: talking about God, aloha and the many facets of what we called living aloha — and how she wove that into her daily life.”

A Kamehameha schoolmate who lives in Kihei said her 1940s campus chum showed the same willfulness as when Beamer penned a 1997 letter to the Hawaii Supreme Court. The letter ignited a movement to overhaul the Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate board of trustees.

“I took hula from her mother, Louise,” recalled Emily Cobb-Adams Brandl. “In those days, they were the ones who were perpetuating the Hawaiian hula. We would have little tiffs with the faculty where Nona would come forth about the Hawaii she thought it should be like in that circumstance; so she was quite an advocate even then.”

Beamer’s hanai son, Kaliko Beamer-Trapp of Hilo, was a 19-year-old British emigre when she took him under her wing. He said he lived with her for four years in Puna, Hawaii, and went on to become a Hawaiian language and cultural specialist.

He said Beamer had continued the legacy of her “sweetheart grandma,” famed composer Helen Desha Beamer, and now, “Our kuleana (responsibility) . . . all of us who had even a minute with Aunty Nona, is to continue her legacy into the future.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from — those are her very words; what is important is that we have aloha for each other,” Beamer-Trapp said.

One matriarch of a premier Hawaii island musical family expressed admiration for another. Mary Ann Lim of the Lim Family of Kohala said the last time she saw Beamer several years ago, the latter had come to pay respect to the deities Ku and Lono at Mookini Heiau during Makahiki season.

“She along with her family was very, very versed in all things Hawaiian, especially the music and language. . . . They’re a very, very profound family, the Beamers are,” Lim said.

Keola Beamer said his mother requested no public funeral and a private scattering of cremains at the Big Island ranch of her father, the late Francis Kealiinohopono Beamer. In lieu of flowers, the family requested memorial donations to her new nonprofit: Mohala Hou Foundation, PMB 685, 843 Wainee St., No. 107, Lahaina 96761.

“She touched many lives, but I think her main task in this world was to try to urge her students to live in a pono (correct) fashion, to get educated to become better Hawaiians, and to care for each other,” he said.

Nona Beamer’s hanai daughter, Maile Loo — Hula Preservation Society president, whom Beamer uniki’d (graduated) as kumu hula — was too moved to speak by phone but wrote in tribute to her iconic mentor:

“My hanai mom was one of a kind: passionate, funny, sweet, kolohe, and full of life. My haumana (students) and I will forever be grateful for the time we had with her and for her heart of aloha.

“All of us who knew and loved her will miss that mischievous twinkle in her eye, her gentle voice, and sweet tender ways. Most of all we’ll miss her loving spirit that made each and every one of us feel important, proud, motivated, and committed to living our lives with joy and abundance like she did.”

Beamer’s survivors are her sons, Keola Beamer and Ka-pono Beamer; an adopted son, Kaliko Beamer-Trapp; an adopted daughter, Maile Loo; and a grandson.

• Kekoa Enomoto can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Article Photos

Winona “Aunty Nona” Beamer and son Keola Beamer are shown at a recent Aloha Music Camp held each February and June in Kaupoa, Molokai.

Richard Cooke photo

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