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The Legacy of Haunani-Kay Trask Will Continue to Grow, UH Mānoa Professor Says

Haunani Kay Trask.jpg
Kapulani Landgraf
Haunani-Kay Trask

The Hawaiian sovereignty movement has lost one of its most influential leaders. Haunani-Kay Trask, a longtime University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa educator and the first director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, died Saturday at the age of 71.

"She served her career as tenured professor in our department inspiring critical thinking and making important contributions in areas of settler colonialism and indigenous self-determination. More importantly, she was a bold, fearless, and vocal leader that our lāhui (nation) needed in a critical time when Hawaiian political consciousness needed to be nurtured," Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies Director Kekuewa Kikiloi said.

"Our center mourns her passing and sends our aloha and to the Trask ʿohana. Our department remains committed to carrying on the legacy of Professor Trask in educating and empowering the lāhui," Kikiloi said.

The Conversation spoke with Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, a political science professor at UH Mānoa and a former student of Trask, who said Trask's impact and legacy will continue to grow.

"She really made it a personal mission to raise the next generation of leaders who were well-prepared, who could speak well, who could know their history, debate their history," she said. "That kind of mentorship from a world-renowned professor was just amazing and still is, I think, unique."

Below are excerpts from Goodyear-Kaʻōpua's interview, edited for length and clarity.

On Trask's legacy as a Native Hawaiian activist and public intellectual

GOODYEAR-KAʻŌPUA: I think that her impact and her legacy will continue to grow and we will continue to see the ways that she has impacted Hawaiʻi. Her scholarship, her work as a public intellectual, as an activist highlighted the importance of land and getting land back to Hawaiians as part of the restitution and justice for the historical and ongoing wrongs that have been committed. And so at this moment, that sort of a trending hashtag on social media is #LandBack and this is something that Haunani-Kay was saying from the 70s onward — that land and restoring a land base to the Native Hawaiian people is absolutely necessary to right historical wrongs that continue to have huge and detrimental impacts on our people today.

She was someone who was talking about the so-called ceded lands, the Hawaiian national land base, that was illegally seized from the Hawaiian Kingdom and from (Queen) Liliʻuokalani from the early '80s. I think one of the things that she would also emphasize is that she has been a hugely impactful and great leader, but she never wanted to claim a position that was only for herself. She was always about a collective capacity, a collective movement. She was always about lifting up other people, other women leaders in particular, and students.

"...she saw education as a vehicle for remedying a few generations worth of miseducation and of hiding the truth from young people of Hawaiʻi."
Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, UH Mānoa political science professor

The third thing that I would maybe add to this is the work that she's done to transform education and particularly higher education in Hawaiʻi. When she came to the university as a faculty member, after having graduated with her Ph.D. in political science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, you could count the number of Native Hawaiian faculty on one hand — on less than one hand — and she took it upon herself to make sure that there was going to be faith at the University of Hawaiʻi for Hawaiian students, for Hawaiian faculty, for Hawaiian knowledge. We wouldn't have a Center for Hawaiian Studies today if it wasn't for her. We wouldn't have Kānaka scholars, Native Hawaiian scholars in various fields, her reach and impact in terms of Hawaiian scholarship and education has been that.

On her politically active family and university education

GOODYEAR-KAʻŌPUA: Her mother was a public school teacher who raised her children to value education from the very beginning. Her father was an attorney. Haunani-Kay shared about how he would have them recite his oral arguments as training. The time that she spent in Madison was particularly formative because it was just at the tail end of the Vietnam War. She was involved in anti-war organizing, she was involved in supporting the movement to bring feminist education, women's studies, education into universities, as well as supporting in solidarity the move to bring African-American studies into the university. So she was in Madison at a time where social movements were challenging white supremacy within universities. So I personally think that when she came back to Hawaiʻi, she became involved in movements that were going on here and she also was one of those folks, a key leader, who connected those Hawaiian movements with making change within the university because she saw education as a vehicle for remedying a few generations worth of miseducation and of hiding the truth from young people of Hawaiʻi. She wanted to make sure people had access to a much more accurate history and reading and analysis of what was happening in the moment.

On the power of women in Native Hawaiian culture

GOODYEAR-KAʻŌPUA: I think that has to do with the fact that women have always been powerful and respected within Hawaiian culture. We come from a people who recognize the value of all genders, who were not in a binary gender system, first of all, and who recognize that everyone, whatever their gender, has the possibility to lead and to give tremendously to the collective. We have many, many examples that Haunani herself writes about, particularly in her poetry. Her poetry has been a huge part of her scholarship, her poetry really honored the role that various akua wahine (goddesses) have had on our people over time and continue to have. I think in terms of her influence, she confronted a wider society in which, in the '60s and early '70s, the Americanization of Hawaiʻi and then when she was living on the continent, there is a wider society that is shaped by patriarchal institutions and she 100% challenged those things. But she always lifted up women and women leadership and challenged the violences of patriarchy in our own communities as well, and still always supported both kāne and wāhine, movements of all genders.

This story aired on The Conversation on July 6, 2021.

Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at
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