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Edith Kanaka'ole is the first Native Hawaiian woman to be featured on a U.S. quarter

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time, a Native Hawaiian woman is being featured on a U.S. coin. Edith Kanaka'ole played a key role in keeping many Hawaiian traditions alive. Here's Heidi Chang reporting from Honolulu.

HEIDI CHANG, BYLINE: Throughout the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s, Edith Kanaka'ole was a dynamic force in reviving the Hawaiian language, hula and chant. Fondly known as Aunty Edith, she was born on Hawaii Island and died in 1979 at the age of 65.

HUIHUI KANAHELE-MOSSMAN: We celebrate my grandmother every day through what we do.

CHANG: Huihui Kanahele-Mossman heads the Edith Kanaka'ole Foundation.

KANAHELE-MOSSMAN: Just her being this Native Hawaiian woman who refused to let go of her language, held onto the fact that hula and oli is necessary as a part of the lifestyle of Hawaii.

CHANG: But those practices were almost lost after a group of American and European businessmen, backed by the United States, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in the 1890s. The Hawaiian language was soon banned in government and public schools. And over the decades, other traditions were suppressed.

JON OSORIO: Some of our people felt sorrow, maybe even shame, for that loss.

CHANG: Jon Osorio is a Native Hawaiian musician and historian.

OSORIO: I knew I grew up thinking that Hawaiian was completely gone from all households because it was gone in ours, but it wasn't.

CHANG: When he was 20, he studied Hawaiian with Aunty Edith for one semester. Osorio is now the dean of the School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

OSORIO: Had it not been for folks like Edith Kanaka'ole, there would have been no expertise to turn to. They are these gentle, loving - because she was that way - earnest reminders that our ancestors were amazing.

PUAKEA NOGELMEIER: She was criticized for teaching deep culture to a group that wasn't all Hawaiians.

CHANG: Puakea Nogelmeier, who's white, studied hula and chant with Aunty Edith.

NOGELMEIER: In her mind, it was very important that if you want knowledge to live on, you teach those who are interested. And she said, I know you all care and you will be willing to carry it forward.

CHANG: Nogelmeier taught Hawaiian language for more than 30 years at the University of Hawaii. He now runs a nonprofit that trains people to interpret historical Hawaiian documents. These days, Nogelmeier still recites a chant Aunty Edith taught him to grant wisdom.

NOGELMEIER: (Chanting in Hawaiian).

CHANG: A few words from that chant are inscribed on the quarter. Photographer Franco Salmoiraghi made the image of Aunty Edith, which an artist used for the coin.

FRANCO SALMOIRAGHI: Well, we went into the forest, where she was happy because she hadn't been out in a beautiful place like that in two or three years because she was so busy teaching.

CHANG: Salmoiraghi's favorite photograph shows Aunty Edith chanting in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

SALMOIRAGHI: Because it's not just the photograph. It's her. And it's all the energy that came from her.

CHANG: The coin depicts Aunty Edith's hair flowing into nature. She cared for the planet. You can hear it in her music and in a PBS Hawaii television special.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDITH KANAKA'OLE SONG, "KA ULUWEHI O KE KAI")

CHANG: She sings her beloved song about the plants of the sea, "Ka Uluwehi O Ke Kai."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KA ULUWEHI O KE KAI")

EDITH KANAKA'OLE: (Singing in Hawaiian).

CHANG: For NPR News, I'm Heidi Chang in Honolulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KA ULUWEHI O KE KAI")

KANAKA'OLE: (Singing in Hawaiian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Heidi Chang