Kūhiō Day, More Than Just A Holiday

Written by: Jacob Aki on March 26, 2018

In Hawaiʻi, this three-day weekend (March 24-26) is known as “Kūhiō Day weekend.” Established as an official holiday in 1949, Hawaiʻi has been celebrating Kūhiō Day (March 26) for nearly seven decades.

Many associate the holiday with the annual parade (named in his honor) that takes place in Waikīkī; beginning at Saratoga Road and ending at the Kapiʻolani Park. But, most take joy in having an extra day-off to relax, hang out at the beach and enjoy a delayed start to an already short week.

Yet, as we take advantage of all the perks that come with the official holiday, do we really know the man whose name we honor on March 26? Do we understand the impact that he had on Hawaiʻi and the legacy that he left behind that continues to this very day, almost one hundred years after his passing?

Prince Cupid, The People’s Prince

Born as the youngest child to David Kahalepouli Pi‘ikoi and Victoria Kūhiō Kinoiki Kekaulike in 1871, Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaʻole would one day grow to become one of the most well-respected political leaders of his time.

At the age of 14, he, along with his brother, David Kawānanakoa was adopted through a royal proclamation by his aunt and uncle, King David Kalākaua and Queen Kapiʻolani. They were bestowed the title as “His Royal Highness” and was named potential heirs to the throne.

Prince Kūhiō was sent to be educated at Saint Matthew’s School, a private Episcopal military acamdey in San Mateo, California and the Royal Agricultural College in England.

In 1895, following the illegal overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, Prince Kūhiō took part in a counter revolution led by Robert William Kalanihiapo Wilcox against the Republic of Hawai‘i. After the failed coup, the prince was charged with treason and served a one-year sentence in prison. During his imprisonment, a Kaua‘i chiefess, Elizabeth Kahanu Ka‘auwai, visited him each day, and after his release, the two married on October 8, 1896.

Following his release, he and Princess Kahanu travelled extensively throughout Europe. In 1899, he joined the British Army and served in the Second Boer War against the independent Boer (Dutch-settled) republics of Transvaal and Oranje Vrijstaain in southeast Africa.

A New Age of Hawaiian Politics

Upon his return home to Hawaiʻi at the turn of the twentieth-century, Prince Kūhiō took an active role in politics. He originally joined the Home Rule Party of Hawaiʻi, which represented Native Hawaiians and continued to advocate for the restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom. His brother Prince David Kawānanakoa was also politically active and established the Democratic Party in Hawaiʻi.

However, he later split from the Home Rule Party and joined the Republican Party in 1901. Part of the reason for his departure was his recognition that Republicans were in power, especially in the United State Congress. Thus, he believed that in order to best advocate for his people, he needed to align with those influential powers. In joining the party, he helped Republicans gain significant support from various Hawaiian communities.

In 1902, at the urging of party leaders Joseph P. Cooke and Jack Atkinson, Prince Kūhiō decided to run as the Republican candidate for Hawaiʻi’s non-voting delegate seat to Congress.  He later beat Robert Wilcox in a landslide victory and was sworn in to office in 1903. Subsequently, winning ten consecutive elections and serving as a delegate to Congress for 19 years.

Prince Kūhiō was known for his effective leadership in building alliances and coalitions with colleagues who had the privilege of a vote.

During his tenure in Congress, he was credited with many legislative accomplishments, including the institution of local government at the county level, creating the island county system. He also strategically staffed political positions with Native Hawaiians; a move that combined American politics with the traditional Hawaiian chiefly role of beneficently delegating authority. For example, Honolulu’s first two mayor’s, Joseph J. Fern and John C. Lane were Native Hawaiian’s who shared many of the same sentiments as Prince Kūhiō.

He also re-established the Royal Order of Kamehameha in 1903; which led to the formation of two other benevolent royal societies: Hale O Nā Aliʻi O Hawaiʻi and Ka Māmakakaua.

Though, Prince Kūhiō is most well-known for his advocacy in the passage of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA).

As both an aliʻi and political leader, he understood the relationship between the ʻāina and its kānaka. Native Hawaiians at the time, continued to suffer from many socio-economic disparities resulting from the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the further displacement from their ancestral homelands. Prince Kūhiō recognized that in order to rehabilitate his people, he needed to return them to the land. The HHCA was the vehicle to accomplish.

Challenged with lack of support from the Governor of Hawai‘i and his colleagues in Congress, Prince Kūhiō formed the first Hawaiian Civic Club in 1918 to mobilize his Native Hawaiian constituency. He wanted to form a group of Native Hawaiians who would dedicate themselves to help elevate and promote their social, economic, civic and intellectual status, and become outstanding citizens and leaders. The Hawaiian Civic Club (later known as the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu) has evolved into a movement that is spearheaded by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs; an organization of over sixty clubs that are still very active in the advocacy of political issues that impact the Hawaiian community.

In July 1921, his years of hard work and advocacy finally paid off. President Warren Harding signed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and created the Hawaiian homestead program we know today. Despite Prince Kūhiō’s wishes, the act contained high blood-quantum requirements (50%), and leased land instead of granting it fee-simple, thus, creating a perpetual government institution.
Yet, nearly one hundred years after the passage of the HHCA, more than 10,000 Hawaiian families live on homestead lands still administered by the Hawaiian Homes Commission.

Inspiring A New Generation of Hawaiian Leaders

Many may wonder why Prince Kūhiō, a staunch advocate of the Hawaiian Monarchy, would choose to engage in the same American political system that sought to undermine his people. However, Prince Kūhiō understood his responsibility and he made it a priority to rehabilitate Native Hawaiians. Therefore, if serving as a delegate in the United States Congress could help him do so, then he would do it; even if it required him to be 5,000 miles away from his homeland.

Always uppermost in his mind was the welfare and prosperity of his constituency, especially that of Native Hawaiians. He was a bright political mind who understood the inner workings of politics. Prince Kūhiō knew that in order to better advocate for his people, he needed to reach across partisan lines.

To better familiarize his colleagues about Hawaiʻi, he sponsored official congressional visits to his homeland in 1907, 1909, 1915 and 1917. He believed that his colleagues needed to see Hawaiʻi and its people with their own eyes before making any opinion about proposed bills regarding the islands.

Prince Kūhiō even operated his own private men’s club, the Birds Nest, where he could lobby his congressional colleagues to support his efforts.

The prince continues to serve as an example of the type of leadership Native Hawaiian’s need to further advance the lāhui. He was fluent in both ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi and English; he was athletic; he was culturally grounded; he was intelligent; and possessed the ability to bridge the Hawaiian and Western world views. More importantly, he wholeheartedly dedicated his life to his people and maintained his cultural identity no matter where he went.

More Than Just A Holiday?

For Native Hawaiians, March 26th should be more than just day to hang at the beach and enjoy the day off. It is a day to honor and remember a man who gave entirely of himself for the betterment of others.

Prince Kūhiō possessed the qualities and characteristics that are needed to inspire a new generation of Native Hawaiian leaders to rise to the occasion and begin to lead their communities.

So on this day, let us all remember Prince Kūhiō and the legacy that he left for us so that future generations of Native Hawaiians can thrive and be proud of who they are and where they come from.  

Mahalo iā ʻoe e ke aliʻi
ʻO Kalanianaʻole nō kou inoa
E hana like kākou me ke aloha
I mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono

Thanks goes to you, chief
Kalanianaʻole indeed is your name
Let us all work together with love
So that the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousnes


Burgess, Kāwika K. Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniʻanaʻoke: Ke Keiki Aliʻi Hope Loa o Hawaiʻi Nei. Hale Kuamoʻo, 1998.

Kamae, Lori Kuulei. The Empty Throne: a Biography of Hawaii’s Prince Cupid. Topgallant Pub. Co., 1980.

“Prince Kūhiō.” Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, 12 Mar. 2015, dhhl.hawaii.gov/kuhio/.

Schmitt, Robert C. “Holidays in Hawai’ʻi.” The Hawaiian Journal of History, vol. 29, 1995, evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/10524/338/1/JL29147.pdf. 

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