Photo: Haunani-Kay Trask
Photo: Kapulani Landgraf

Remembering Haunani-Kay Trask

By Shane Pale and Healani Sonoda-Pale

Much of our ancient Hawaiian lore recounts tales of leaders who are kupaianaha, individuals born with marvelous intellect and charisma who, by their words and actions, change the course of history for our people. Their stories are remembered in our genealogies and legends. Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask is one such leader.

Haunani-Kay was born on Oct. 3, 1949, in San Francisco where her father, Bernard Trask, was attending law school. Her father and his family were active in Hawaiʻi politics – her grandfather, David Trask, was a territorial legislator for 26 years. Her mother, Haunani Cooper, was a schoolteacher originally from Hāna, who hailed from the famous chiefly Piʻilani line of Maui. Haunani-Kay was raised and lived much of her life on the windward side of Oʻahu.

Growing up in a political family, Haunani-Kay saw the inner workings of powerful political forces, namely the Democratic Party machine, that for decades worked against the interests of Kānaka Maoli.

While attending university on the continent, she was exposed to radical nationalist thinkers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Franz Fanon. Haunani-Kay was a supporter of the Black Panther movement and was active in the anti-Vietnam war struggle. She earned her doctorate in Political Science in 1981 writing a landmark feminist work titled Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory as her dissertation. Her education, genealogy, and political family background culminated in the creation of one of the most important Indigenous intellectuals and leaders of our era.

She returned home to Hawaiʻi from her studies abroad a few years before the first Hawaiian immersion school opened and at the height of the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO) movement where Aloha ʻĀina were occupying Kahoʻolawe, an island long used as target practice by the U.S. military.

Hawaiians were on the rise at the dawn of the 1980s calling for sovereignty and the return of our traditional lands. Haunani-Kay, who at the time was one of a handful of Kānaka Maoli Ph.D.s – and a woman no less – became instrumental in decolonizing the history of Hawaiian lands, culture, and people, laying bare the injustices we endured for centuries that were upheld by white supremacist beliefs.

She became the voice that articulated our struggle; a voice that resounded globally and raised up a generation of politically conscious Hawaiian activists, educators, and leaders.

Photo: Protesters stand at ʻIolani Palace
On Jan. 17, 1993, Native Hawaiians marched on ʻIolani Palace to protest the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom 100 years earlier. Pictured in the front row (l-r) are attorney Mililani B. Trask, UH Hawaiian studies professor the late Dr. Terry Kanalu Young, and Haunani-Kay. – Photo: Ed Greevy

Haunani-Kay was originally hired by the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa as an assistant professor of American Studies. However, she soon moved to the Hawaiian Studies department. Under her leadership, the program grew from a forgotten fourth-floor corner of Moore Hall with single-digit enrollment to a brand new center with an enrollment of over 140 in a little more than a decade. As a professor, Haunani-Kay set a high bar and opened new horizons for Hawaiian students. She was a fearless visionary who forged Hawaiian education forward while fighting off the white male status quo and racism that was, and still is, prevalent at Hawaiʻi’s flagship institution of higher education.

Photo: ʻŌiwi and supporters at ʻIolani Palace
More than 20,000 ʻŌiwi and supporters marched on ʻIolani Palace to protest the 100th anniversary of the overthrow. In a passionate speech to the enormous crowd gathered there, Haunani-Kay famously declared, “We are not American.” – Photo: Ed Greevy

A pinnacle year for the Hawaiian movement was 1993 when Haunani-Kay published From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i, a foundational work that shifted the discussion on Hawaiian sovereignty and rights.

It was also in that year on January 17, at the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, when Haunani-Kay, along with her sister Mililani B. Trask, led over 20,000 people to the grounds of ʻIolani Palace as leaders of Ka Lāhui Hawaiʻi, the largest Hawaiian sovereignty group. Haunani-Kay’s unforgettable words that day, “We are not American,” echoed through the decades and have nestled in the hearts and minds of a whole new generation of Aloha ʻĀina protectors today.

Haunani-Kay was a rigorous scholar and received many awards and accolades for her substantial body of academic work. One of the most prestigious honors was her election this year to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which was founded in 1780 and whose membership includes Charles Darwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. As a sovereignty leader, scholar, educator, filmmaker, poet, and human rights advocate, Haunani-Kay was acknowledged and recognized by Indigenous peoples around the world.

Having dedicated her life’s work to the uplifting of the lāhui (Hawaiian nation), Haunani-Kay passed away on July 3, 2021, after decades of working to change the course of history for Hawaiʻi’s Indigenous people for the better.

It was from her that we learned how to resist oppression, to break our silence, to maintain courage against undefeatable odds, and to be inspired to take up the mantle of leadership. The lāhui mourns her passing but we celebrate and honor a woman warrior kupaianaha who now joins the ranks of other great Hawaiian leaders of legend who have passed on.


A public celebration of life for Haunani-Kay Trask will be planned at a later time, due to ongoing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. In the meantime, if you would like to contribute, go to: gofundme/d020fa36