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new Edith Kanakaole quarter design
Edith Kanakaʻole and quarter design concept

A commemorative quarter honoring former University of Hawaiʻi instructor and late legendary kumu hula Edith Kanakaʻole (1913–79) has been released into circulation by the U.S. Mint. The award-winning composer, who taught at Hawaiʻi Community College and UH Hilo, is one of five American women to be minted on new quarters as part of the 2023 honorees for the American Women Quarters™ Program.

Kanakaʻole worked as a teacher at Hawaiʻi CC from 1971 to 1974 and at UH Hilo from 1974 to 1979. At both schools, she created courses and seminars on subjects including Hawaiian language, ethnobotany, Polynesian history, genealogy and Hawaiian chant and mythology.

Coin design

Image of Edith Kanakaole on a quarter

The coin depicts a portrait of Kanakaʻole, with her hair and lei poʻo (head lei) morphing into the elements of a Hawaiian landscape, symbolizing Kanakaʻole’s life’s work of preserving the natural land and traditional Hawaiian culture. The inscription “E hō mai ka ʻike” translates as “granting the wisdom,” and is a reference to the intertwined role hula and chants play in this preservation.

The other side of the coin depicts a portrait of George Washington, originally designed and sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser to mark his 200th birthday in 1932.

“It was a joy to become aware of Edith Kanakaʻole’s legacy as I developed a design for her quarter,” said Artistic Infusion Program Designer Emily Damstra. “I came to understand that her deep connection to the land—her home in Hawaiʻi near the Maunakea volcano—played a large role in her life and work. To best honor the various ways she made an impact, I felt that the design should emphasize her relationship to that environment.”

Venerated cultural icon

Edith Kekuhikuhipuʻuone o nā aliʻi o Kohala Kanakaʻole was an Indigenous Hawaiian composer, chanter, dancer, kumu hula and a venerated cultural icon. Through hula, a dance to pass down knowledge to the next generations, and moʻolelo (stories), Kanakaʻole helped to preserve aspects of Hawaiian knowledge, history, culture and traditions that were disappearing due to the cultural bigotry of the time.

She preserved the ancient style of hula accompanied by rhythmic instruments done in the style she passed on which is identified as ʻaihaʻa, or low to the ground. Kanakaʻole was a kumu hula, a master instructor for hula, and an academic researcher who developed her own chants for cultural preservation and academic work. Her contributions extend to the work of environmental scientists, and universities that teach her philosophies and scientific methods, and position Hawaiʻi and the U.S. in the global conversation on climate resilience.

Kanakaʻole, or “Aunty Edith,” as she is commonly known, was a renowned practitioner of and an authority on modern Hawaiian culture and language. She believed that the oli, or Hawaiian chants, informed the basis of Hawaiian values and history. She learned this art form and performed all the major styles of delivery.

The Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, a Hawaiian cultural-based non-profit organization established in 1990, helps maintain and perpetuate her teachings, beliefs, practices, philosophies and traditions. A celebration of Kanakaʻole’s contributions and legacy will be held at UH Hilo on May 6.

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