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The Conversation

Historians assemble over 60 biographies of women who shaped the National Park Service

Geraldine Kenui Bell the first Native Hawaiian woman to be superintendent of a National Park Service (NPS) unit
National Park Service
Geraldine Kenui Bell, better known as Geri, at the Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historic Park visitor center dedication ceremony in 2003. She was the first Native Hawaiian woman to be superintendent of a National Park Service unit, according to the NPS. Through her job and community work, Bell has advocated for the celebration and protection of Hawaiian culture for current and future generations of Native Hawaiians.

"America’s Best Idea." That’s been the unofficial slogan of the National Park System since the seminal 2009 Ken Burns documentary brought the majestic landscapes directly into homes. But the notion that the country’s most beautiful places are preserved for everyone to enjoy overlooks a complicated history of imperialism, particularly of Indigenous women.

In order to bring the story to the forefront, the National Park Service teamed up with a group of researchers at the University of California, Davis who combed through the archives to find the women at the center of the park service's history. UC Davis historians Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor and Lisa Materson, along with Ph.D. student Ellie Kaplan, shared more about the biographical series.

UC Davis
Lisa Materson and Ellen Hartigan O'Connor

The women featured in the project with connections to Hawaiʻi are:

  • Geraldine Kenui Bell - "Geraldine Kenui Bell, better known as Geri, was the first Native Hawaiian woman to be superintendent of a National Park Service (NPS) unit – in fact, she oversaw the operation of two different parks in Hawai‘i simultaneously. Through her job and community work, Bell has advocated for the celebration and protection of Hawaiian culture for current and future generations of Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians)."
  • Hana Shimozumi Iki - "Born in Hawai‘i and raised in San Francisco by Anglo-American guardians, Hana Shimozumi still had to prove her “Americanness” throughout her life due to her Japanese ethnicity. During World War II she was sent to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center solely because of her Japanese ancestry."
  • Katherine Ah Lan Lowe - "The striking photo of Katherine Ah Lan Lowe and four other women looking determined as they hold a powerful fire hose steady in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard is familiar to many as an image of female heroism in World War II."
Katherine Lowe pearl harbor
Public Affairs
Katherine Lowe and four other women training with a fire hose, from left to right: Elizabeth Moku, Alice Cho, Katherine Lowe, and Hilda Van Gieson, ca. 1940s.

  • Ka‘oana‘eha - "Ka‘ōana‘eha was born into the royal family that consolidated power over a unified Kingdom of Hawai‘i at the end of the eighteenth century, but her role in opposing Christian missionization following the collapse of the kapu (meaning both sacred and restricted) system meant that she died out of favor with her powerful family. During the height of these tensions and for years before and after, Ka‘ōana‘eha resided on grounds contained within the present-day Pu‘ukoholā Heiau National Historic Trail."
  • Kiyome Tsuda - "Kiyome Hirai Tsuda was a kibei, a US citizen educated in Japan, who exemplified the deep connections between Hawai‘i and Japan before World War II. When war broke out, her frequent trips to Japan and status as a religious leader made her a target of the US government. She spent most of the war imprisoned in the Honoʻuliʻuli Internment Camp."
  • Maria Keawea Maki - "Maria Keawea Maki was among the Native Hawaiians who participated in nineteenth-century Anglo-led missionary efforts in Oregon Territory. Maki and her husband Joseph were affiliated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) through the Kawaiaha‘o Church in Honolulu."
  • Olivia Robello Breitha - "Olivia Robello Breitha was a renowned author and Hansen’s disease activist who resided in Kalaupapa from 1937 until her death in 2006. In 1988, Breitha raised awareness about the ostracization that she and others experienced when she published one of the few memoirs by someone with this now curable disease."
  • Princess Ruth Ke'elikōlani - "Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani was a direct descendent of Kamehameha I, the leader who united the Hawaiian islands and founded the kingdom of Hawai‘i. She was an advocate for Hawaiian culture who was best known for defending the town of Hilo during the 1880–1881 eruption of the Mauna Loa Volcano that is part of the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park."
Wikimedia Commons
Queen Liliʻuokalani

  • Queen Ka'ahumanu - "Queen Ka‘ahumanu was one of the most powerful women in Hawaiian history, whose decisions would affect her people for centuries. As the favored wife of the powerful King Kamehameha I and the kuhina nui (regent or co-regent) of her stepsons Kings Kamehameha II and III, Ka‘ahumanu demonstrated a keen political sense and a strong understanding of power. She also likely spent some time in the area that is now encompassed by Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau; the Ka‘ahumanu Stone in the park is named after her."
  • Queen Lili'uokalani - "Queen Lili‘uokalani was the last sovereign of Hawai‘i. Many continue to admire Lili‘uokalani for her resolute and peaceful resistance to the US businessmen who ended her reign and to the United States’ annexation of Hawai‘i during the 1890s. The 1892 Highways Act was one example of her diligent labor as queen for the welfare of her people. It defined and protected Hawaiian trails and endures as a tool that the state of Hawai‘i uses to claim public trails and maintain rights of access despite private land ownership, including much of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail."

This interview aired on The Conversation on April 14, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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