Memories of Ileialoha Beniamina

SUBHEAD: She was equally at home in both the Hawaiian and modern world.

By Juan Wilson on 17 July 2010 for Island Breath - 

Image above: Map of Niihau with Puna moku (district) as per Jean Ileialoha Beniamina 7/1/10. Click to enlarge.  
I met Ilei Bemiamina when I became involved with mapping for the Aha Kiole Advisory Committee of the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Council (WesPac). Ilei was the Niihau representative and chair of the Committee. It was a Kona District committee meeting being hosted by LLewelyn William Kaohelaulii at Poipu Beach Park. My impression of Ilei was of an energetic, happy woman focused on Hawaiian culture and its relevance to our spiritual and physical needs.

 Ilei was very supportive of the project of mapping the Hawaiian moku (bioregional) and ahupuaa (watershed) land divisions used historically by Hawaiians and their importance in future sustainability efforts. When the Kauai map was nearing completion she helped launch the effort to map Niihau. Her detailed efforts to identify the names of places on Niihau was essential in that project.

As I mapped Kauai Nei I became aware of the work of the 19th century Hawaiian Simon Peter Kalama. His 1837 map of Hawaii Nei moku divisions became the foundation of my conclusion that Kauai had a sixth moku that was not often referred to - namely Mana. When I mapped Niihau I used only those two moku identified by Kalama. Ilei disagreed.

She mentioned that there was a Puna on Niihau. The Kalama map showed only two moku on Niihau - Kona (leeward) and Koolau (windward). I could find no reference to Puna on Niihau in my research and continued to resist including it.

With some difficulty I was able to find the 1838 followup map to Kalama's first. Still no Puna, but this later map identified the ahupuaa that Kalama was aware of on all the islands. This discovery led to Ilei getting me a project with the WesPac to map the moku and ahupuaa on all the Hawaiian islands.

 I am doing that work now and I think it is the most important work I have been involved with since I came to Hawaii. A few weeks before she died I visited Ilei in her daughter's home in Lihue. I gave her copies of the latest versions of the maps of Kauai and Niihau. She had me put them up on the walls and we talked about them. S

he told me a story about fishing on Niihau and how the youngsters were told, at certain times of the year, that they could go from the town of Puuwai (heart) down south and west across the island to fish in Kona, but they had to avoid Puna... the shoreline between the Halalii, great lake to the south, and Pueo Point and the cliffs to the north. Ilei said that there the four valleys with streams that flow south to the ocean were forbidden... kapu.

Fish would spawn in the ponds at the base of the valleys. That was Puna. And then I knew she was right. Ilei had a great knowledge of the Hawaiian language, and a gift for discerning the deeper meaning of the stories, songs and legends.

I'm sure that Ilei knew more about Niihau than Simon Kalama or the state of Hawaii. I went home and remade the map with the appropriate Puna Moku between Kona and Koolau. I was able to give her a copy of the new map the next day, just before the July 4th holiday. It was the last time I saw her. She was my mentor in this mapping project. I will miss her laughter.

 See also:
Ea O KA Aina: NA Mokupuni O Kauai Nei 6/2/10

Beniamina a ‘resource’ beyond her years  
Image above: Ilei Benimina in a recent photo from TGI article.  

By Paul Curtis on 16 July 2010 in The Gaden Island News -  

More than one person remembers today Jean Ilei Beniamina as a valuable “resource” for things Native Hawaiian, whether they be language- or culture-related.

Beniamina, 54, died July 10 at her Lihu‘e home. She was a Ni‘ihau native and outreach counselor and assistant professor at Kaua‘i Community College.

“A wonderful Hawaiian resource person,” said Nathan Kalama of Wailua, who had Beniamina “paka” (to look over, in this case) his Hawaiian-language musical compositions to make sure they were OK and correct.

“She was such a resource,” said kumu Sabra Kauka, adding that Beniamina was an advocate for Hawaiian-language schools and courses, “a leader in keeping the language alive” and over the years showed “tremendous support” of the Punana Leo Hawaiian-language preschool.

Beniamina offered “thoughtful explanations of the meaning of Hawaiian phrases and concepts,” and could explain them in easy-to-understand terms,” said Kauka.

Kalama, who said he will long remember Beniamina’s infectious laugh, recalled a time when she was scheduled to be the presenter at the popular E Kanikapila Kakou (let’s all sing) gatherings. Kalama called her the morning of the event to remind her she would be the presenter of a mele (song), and she had forgotten all about the engagement, he said.

So, in the matter of a few hours, she wrote and composed “Pua Ala Aumoe,” about fragrant flower blossoms, presented it to those in attendance and, later, it was made into a hit song by Jerry Santos of Olomana.

“It was wonderful and became a hit,” said Kalama, adding that Beniamina also won a Na Hoku Hanohano award for another of her compositions. “Her work (as a singer, composer and advocate of things Native Hawaiian) spoke for her, and was respected,” Kalama said.

“Even though she was younger than me she was a role model with a foot in each world — modern and Hawaiian — and felt comfortable in both,” could exist, live and excel in both, he said.

“What a loss for all of us. What a loss.”

That loss, though, means someone in the Native Hawaiian community must step up and carry on her works, especially for the youth of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, he said.

“What a role model to all of us to accomplish so much in her short life,” said Kalama.

As a friend, she believed in the power of prayer, said Kalama. “As much as we miss her, her work here was done and Ke Akua called her home.”

“She was all for the Hawaiians,” said Don Cataluna, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee who also taught management, business and economics at KCC during some of the years Beniamina was also there.

“She was kind of set in her ways,” and was tough to move off any position she had adopted, he said.

“Ilei is beloved by the entire KCC community, and was an incredibly warm and positive presence among us,” said Helen Cox, KCC chancellor.

“We’re really going to miss her. She was always there to help, and to help us be mindful of where we live and who we live with,” said Cox.

“She was just a wonderful human being” and a main reason so many Ni‘ihau Native Hawaiians graduated from KCC, initially in education and facilities engineering but later in many other fields, Cox said.

“She was a well-respected member of the community and made great contributions,” said Ron Kouchi, a former county councilman who admitted he didn’t know her very well.

“I know she was a leader in the community,” said former state Sen. Gary Hooser, who went to Ni‘ihau once with Beniamina.

“She and I were good friends,” said Keith Robinson.

Visitation is from 10 a.m. to noon today, with a service at noon, at the Lawa‘i Garden Island Mortuary chapel, with burial to follow at Kekaha Hawaiian Cemetery, where her mother and husband are also buried.

Image of Ilei's mother Jean Ileialoha Keale Kelly at Kamehameha School in 1952. From PDF link in source article.  
Distinguished Women of Niihau  

By Ednette Chandler and Muriel Gehrman in 1974 for Kamehameha Schools Archives (

 Interview with Jean Ileialoha Keale Beniamina (KS class '74) about her mother Jean Ku'uleialoha Kelly Keale (KS Class '52) the first student from Niihau at Kamaehameha School. To paraphrase an old saying, the kukui nut does not fall far from the tree.

A daughter shares her memories of her deceased mother while she herself carries on her mother's legacy to educate the youth and families of Ni'ihau and not coincidentally, other Native Hawaiians on the island of Kaua'i. Their lives are inextricably entwined, a result of their values stemming from the same upbringing, which focused on striving to improve the educational, financial, health and social welfare of especially the Ni'ihau people, truly "like mother like daughter".

Jean Ileialoha Keale Beniamina (who uses her Hawaiian name "Ileialoha", shortened to "Ilei") described her mother Jean Kelley Keale as the "classic example of a community leader who is educated, teaches, interprets needs, and a devoted Christian who goes to church."

She added, "You become your profession in your own personal life." Jean Kelley (her last name was Anglicized from Kele by her father) was born in 1935 in Kona on the Big Island to Joseph Kelley and his Ni'ihau wife, Ku'uleialoha Keamoai. Ilei remembers "Mother had her chores to do like the family laundry, care of younger siblings, and other domestic chores, but she did it in jig time so that she could be off helping Grandfather break and ride horses, picking limu and opihi, swimming to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest, hunting with ropes to catch wild boars and fishing with Grandfather's favorite net. She was the first to do a lot of things and she loved to be competitive. She was fearless.

She was a jack-of-all-trades and the queen-of-all-trades because she did everything extremely well. She was musically talented, too, playing slack key guitar, ukulele, piano, autoharp, accordion and steel guitar to accompany her singing and religious compositions." Jean entered Kamehameha School for Girls in 1947 as an eighth grader.

At that time, schooling in Ni'ihau was from first through sixth grade only. The Robinson family, recognizing her talents and abilities, provided her with a full scholarship. Ilei called her a "Hanau Mua ", first born and a pioneer in many ways as she was the eldest and did things expected of a first-born. Moreover, she was the first female to leave the island and to be educated at Kamehameha and the first Ni'ihau resident to receive a college degree and return home.

In so doing, Jean "opened the door for public curiosity" as Ni'ihau was known as a mystery island with permission needing to be granted by the Robinson family for ingress and egress. She fascinated her schoolmates with her storytelling of mo'olelo (stories and legends) and nohona (way of life) of Ni'ihau.

Ilei added that she also appreciated life at Kamehameha learning proper etiquette, appropriate mannerisms be it in waiting on tables, hostessing, or leading prayer in the dining room; in short, "she liked the change of mannerisms" which meant doing things that were not done at home in Ni'ihau. This was the start of an expanded worldview which she adopted for herself and wished for her students, that everyone be part of the global world and not just of Ni'ihau.

Only education could provide for this outlook. According to Ilei, Jean flourished at Kamehameha. She loved all her subjects and performed well academically. According to the Kamehameha Schools Archives account, she was a member of the National Honor Society, Deputation Team and was awarded a permanent silver pin for outstanding citizenship. She also won many other honors and awards.

Of note was the winning of an amateur talent contest in which she played the ukulele and sang as part of a trio of girls. Other musical pursuits included the piano, accordion and harp. In addition, she wrote a regular Ka Mo 7 column titled E Na Lahui Hawai'i in which she attempted to help students improve their knowledge and verbalization of Hawaiian.

During her senior year, she won the Bishop Museum Fellowship, a work-study program to prepare for church leadership. Upon her graduation in 1952, she returned to Ni'ihau and taught first and second graders. She married John Keale and Ilei was their firstborn in 1955, followed by John, Jr., and Luana Ku'ulei. However, Jean decided to obtain a B.A. degree in education and Department of Education certification and juggled teaching and motherhood duties to attain both. It was a very lengthy course of study as she could only attend summer classes at the University of Hawai'i.

Coming full circle, she did her practice teaching at the Preparatory Department at Kamehameha in the fall of 1959 and received her degree and teaching certification in 1960. With DOE funding, she was able to expand the Ni'ihau school system to include kindergarten through 12th grades rather than just first through sixth grades. Jean spent her 30+ years at Ni'ihau School as teacher, community leader and as a principal before she retired in 1991. In 1991, the House of Representatives, by legislative resolution, honored her for her contributions to the Ni'ihau community. In the meantime, she and Ilei pursued their vision of furthering the education - of Ni'ihau students who chose to go off-island.

Ilei and her brother John elected to attend Kamehameha, but to accommodate other students who were not as fortunate, mother and daughter conceived of the idea to start a charter school on Kaua'i's South Shore at Kekaha for permanent or transient Ni'ihau students. Academic skills would be taught but the main focus was the preservation of Hawaiian language skills. Mrs. Gladys Brandt, mentor and friend to both Jean and Ilei, with support from the Honorable Governor Ben Cayetano, assisted others in acquiring an abandoned National Guard building which they converted to house a kindergarten through third grade Ni'ihau indigenous Language School.

They named the school Ke Kula Ni'ihau o Kekaha (The Ni'ihau School at Kekaha). Regrettably, Jean died in her sleep the day before the school opened in 1993. Fortunately, her legacy continues as the school continues to operate now with kindergarten through twelfth grades and a fluctuating student enrollment of between 30 to 50 students. "Mother led by example," Ilei reiterates.

Her demeanor, mannerism and style of leadership in teaching are very visible in the generations of students under her tutelage. Testifying as to Jean's life, Ilei commented, "My mother was a very religious person. She would always say to me whenever I was worried, 'My precious, let go! Let God!' Mother never received fully the accolades she deserved, but she was not into being praised. She always directed people's attention and praises to God. She was a classic example of a godly woman."

Jean Ilei Keale Beniamina has walked in her mother's footsteps as well as in step with her lineage and now has become a leader in her own right. She was born in Ni'ihau in 1955 and also entered Kamehameha as an 8th grader. She remembers experiencing the "biggest cultural shock" upon admission.

Seeing sinks and toilets flushing water down the drain and electric lights to illuminate and extend the night hours amazed and concerned her. "We collected rain water for drinking and bathing and our survival depended on conserving water. We had well water but this was used to irrigate our food gardens, again a matter of survival."

Adjustment came quickly and she quickly adapted to the unlimited use of water and the joy of nighttime illumination. "I was fascinated by lights getting up at night to switch on and off the hall lights in the dorm until the housemother would appear, clap her hands and threaten to give me a pink slip if I didn't go back to bed. I'd also climb out on the roof to look at the city lights for hours!"

 Like her mother, she was fearless, not afraid of challenges and enjoyed her studies and activities. She remembers playing tennis, going home to Ni'ihau where there are no tennis courts and inventing her own backboard practice by hitting balls at the cows and kiawe trees.

Like her mother, she was on the Deputation team during her sophomore through senior years. She was a member of her dorm advisory committee named DRAC where her leadership skills were trusted by her dorm advisors. In her senior year, she was senior girls song leader singing their rendition of Johnny Aimeida's "Mehealani Moon ". She graduated from Kamehameha in 1974 and went on to obtain her B.A. in Education and her M.A. in Hawaiian Language and Literature at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo.

She married Larry Beniamina, a rancher and cattleman, in Ni'ihau and they adopted two girls, both of whom attended Kamehameha and are now living with their families on Ni'ihau. She is now a single mother, having lost her husband some years ago. True to her nature and much like her mother, she subscribes to "facing things head on, taking on tasks whatever they are and following them through knowing there's someone dear at the receiving end of these tasks." Her upbringing defines who she is and what she is about.

Above all, she remembers where she's from and how her environment, both familial and natural, have shaped her life's course.

Her gentle grandmother spoke "eloquent English in a Biblical manner" and observed those Hawaiian and Christian principles, also shared by her mother, who stressed "follow the sun in your habits" (meaning proper rest at night and on Sunday after attending church) and respect for yourself as well as others. She was the community mediator, teacher, midwife, healer, respected elderly leader, artisan, herbalist and keeper of Ni'ihau genealogical traditions."

Her grandfather instilled a sense of discipline and responsibility through assigning her tasks that tested her intelligence, perseverance and endurance. He designated long sections of rows in the garden for each of us to plant and water and you dared not let any of your plants die, the ramifications of which one will hear chanted in your consciousness for a lifetime. He taught lessons from timing to seasons, from moon phases to wind names, from sun directions to appeasing a higher spirit at dawn. She learned:
"not to take more than you need, give back in gratitude and without expectation of recognition or reciprocation, honor the living, conserve water and take care of the aina and kai that feed you ... and most of all, help your people.
Consequently, conservation and nurturance are major themes which direct Ilei's energies and are reflected in her achievements to improve the status of the Native Hawaiian community through initiating educational programs or serving as a member of community organizations toward this end. Ilei is currently is an Assistant Professor in Counseling at the Student Services Branch of Kaua'i Community College. She not only teaches Hawaiian language courses at KCC but also serves as guest lecturer in Culture and Literature at the University of Hawai'i Hilo campus.

In her capacity as Counselor she is responsible for the placement examinations given to all new students entering the College. Recruitment and retention are among her duties in providing academic advising in their matriculation needs. She especially enjoys her counseling role as educational liaison between Ni'ihau students and Kaua'i Community College.

In 2003, she developed a course for Ni'ihau men and women to obtain State Commercial Driver Licensing that allowed them to drive tractors, trailers, tanks and other heavy equipment vehicles. However, when word of the fall one-semester course spread to the Kaua'i community, the enrollment jumped to over 30 students. The course was repeated in 2005 with fewer students but it qualifies as a true continuing education course which provides employment opportunities for Ni'ihau men and women both on and off‑island. Ilei worked for the Department of Education (as did her mother) for a number of years.

During her tenure there, she also saw the need to further her mother's vision to "help your people" adding "Some will not appreciate it, others will be too embarrassed to ask. Help them anyway!" In 1983, she became a member of a small group of Hawaiian-speaking educators who were concerned about the demise of the Hawaiian language. They patterned a similar pre-school after a Maori model in New Zealand where native speaking children could be mixed with English speaking Hawaiian children to be educated exclusively in Hawaiian.

The school was called 'Aha Punana Leo (nest of voices or language nest). Since then, there has been considerable expansion to eleven pre-schools, two K-12 model programs, three laboratory schools, teacher training, curriculum and technological support for all immersion students.

The latter includes a highly developed Hawaiian medium computer network which can be integrated with a variety of academic and professional degree programs at the university level as well as providing outreach to both islandwide Native Hawaiians and elsewhere, epitomizing the success of the vision of 'Aha Punana Leo...the Hawaiian language shall live.

Toward this end of perpetuating the Hawaiian language, Ilei was invited in 1984 to author the revival of a Hawaiian Language column in the Kaua'i Garden Island newspaper. Aunty Jeanne Holmes, then editor of the paper, chuckled at the brave weekly columns that featured community concerns and feature stories in the Hawaiian language. The Na Nu Hawai'i (Hawaiian News) was the first revival of public newspaper articles since the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the last printed Hawaiian language newspaper in 1917.

A dedicated audience of readers from the visitor industry, Hawaiian communities, and businesses from Boston, Canada, Australia and Japan wrote in for translations of the weekly column. In 1985, Ilei joined forces with a group of medical personnel to form Ho'ola La Hui Hawai'i (Give Life to the Hawaiians), a nonprofit organization. They were concerned about the prevalence of diseases afflicting Hawaiians, namely cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Their first act was to conduct a survey among Hawaiians on Kaua'i to determine health risks and attendant mortality.

When the average age at mortality emerged at 50, the wheels were set into motion to create a Community Health Center and prevention program that served Native Hawaiians especially and is still functioning with two clinics in Waimea and Kapa'a. Coincidentally, one year after the formation of Ho'ola Lahui Hawai'i, Ilei lost her husband to heart disease at the youthful age of 35.

True to statistics and prevalent among her families, the federally funded Community Health Centers could not have been organized at a most critical time in [lei's life. Doctors give of their time and expertise, all insurance plans are accepted and fees are on a sliding scale. Other arrangements are made to accommodate financial need.

In keeping with her vision, she is currently helping to translate a Hawaiian text for Human Anatomy (Anatomia - 1838) by Gerrit P. Judd in collaboration with Dr. Kekuni Blaisdell. Her Hawaiian community can better communicate their needs to their health provider through these anatomical terms and phrases. In 1993, she and her mother fulfilled their vision of educating Ni'ihau children in their native language by establishing a pre-school that they called Ke Kula Niihau 0 Kekaha (The Ni'ihau School at Kekaha).

It is open to permanent and transient students and now serves between 30-50 students at any one time. The site is controlled by 'Aha Punana Leo but co-administered with the Hawai'i State Department of Education and the laboratory school program at the College of Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo.

There were three graduates in 2003 and two in 2004 with one student now attending Stanford University in California. In 1998, Ilei served on the State Commission on Sovereignty and traveled to every island to discuss the issue and to obtain feedback from the Hawaiian community as to their thoughts and opinions.

She also began serving as a representative to HAO (Hawaiian Agencies and Organizations) which includes representatives from such organizations as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (she served as Interim Trustee in 2000), Hawaiian Homes Land, Department of Education, Kaua'i Community College, Queen Liliuokalani Children's Center and Alulike.

Her input as to the question, "What are we offering to the Hawaiian people?" is based on her experience and expertise in the field of education, health, and not coincidentally, conservation and preservation. As of 2003, she serves on the State Environmental Impact Commission, a watchdog organization which monitors environmental issues such as air and water pollution, hazardous materials in rivers and the ocean, noise abatement, commercial development, etc. Moreover, she also is a member of the Hawaiian Burial Council which identifies burial sites, notifies families to that effect and negotiates the return of Native Hawaiian artifacts to their proper location.

Her talents and abilities extend to other endeavors such as music. In 1986, she composed a song titled Ho'ola Lahui 0 Hawai'i ("Give Life to the Hawaiian People" which incidentally is the name of the medical program she helped organize in 1985) which was sung by the Makaha Sons of Ni'ihau and included in their album of the same name.

Incredibly, four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards were awarded that year for Album of the Year, Traditional Hawaiian Album, Group of the Year, and Haku Mele (Ilei's composition). A repeat performance in 1987 for Haku Mele was awarded to Ilei for her composition of Pita 'Ala Aumoe (The Night Blooming Jasmine) which also honored her as a favorite hula performed at the Merry Monarch Festival.

The run of Na Hoku Hanohano Awards continued with a 2001 Religious Album of the Year Award, a compilation of 23 original compositions by Ane Kanahele who was accompanied in singing by Ilei. Finally, students and teachers of Ke Kula Ni'ihau of Kekaha who sang Ni'ihau hymns garnered a 2002 Religious Album of the Year award. In recognition of her unceasing dedication to improving the status of Native Hawaiians on Ni'ihau and her contributions to serving the needs of Native Hawaiians everywhere, Ileialoha Beniamina was designated as Living Treasure of the Year and of Kauai in May, 2005.

Like her mother, she is graciously modest. "My eye is fixed on the special aspects of the community such as grassroots work and initiatives, not on personal aggrandizement. I think where I am today comes from a very strong foundation of knowing who I am, where I come from and where I've been." This kukui nut has become a giant tree which as in ancient times, provided food, light, medicine, adornment, shade and life‑giving oxygen. Long live this natural, nurturing treasure.


1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Thank you Juan,

For that beautiful story. I know you really worked hard on that. That is some great information that you shared. Those are some very beautiful people, and they have really done some important things for their community. Keep up the great work.

How is your Shrimp farm story going?


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