In Conversation With: Kumu Puali’i Rossi-Fukino

In Conversation With: Kumu Puali’i Rossi-Fukino

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re so excited to introduce you to Kumu Puali`ili`imaikalani Rossi-Fukino, Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Studies here at Kaua’i Community College!

We had the immense privilege and honor of speaking with Kumu Pua earlier this month to talk about her journey pursuing a teaching career, the influential women in her life, and the powerful women who shaped the history of Hawai’i. Kumu Pua’s influence is widespread in our community, she is one of the most beloved Hawaiian Studies educators on the island.

Hawaiian Studies - a broad discipline encompassing the study of Hawaiian history, culture, religion, language, and more - is unfortun ately not widely studied in curricula outside of Hawai’i. If you are interested in learning more about some of the historical figures mentioned in this interview, or about Hawaiian history and culture, Kumu Pua shared some incredible book recommendations. We’d love for you to join us in learning more!

Before we jump into questions about Hawaiian history, I’d love to learn more about your journey to becoming an educator! What influenced your path to teaching Hawaiian Studies at KCC?

I was born on Kauaʻi and raised in Wailua since I was just four months old. Both of my parents are Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) with genealogical ties to Wailua, Waimea, and Kōloa.  I consider myself blessed because my parents made the decision to homeschool me at a time when that wasn’t really allowed. However, it allowed them the freedom to introduce a different type of education. Since I was a hula dancer (I started at age four), my parents wove what I was learning in hula into my curriculum. So when we learned a hula about an aliʻi, for example, I also learned about the aliʻi in my homeschool studies. 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in or practicing my culture, so it made sense to pursue a degree in Hawaiian Studies. I enrolled at Kauaʻi Community College and earned an A.A. in Liberal Arts and a certificate in Hawaiian Studies. My time at KCC was so amazing and I had so many opportunities that it was really difficult to leave! I ended up going to UH Hilo since it was as close to Kauaʻi as possible, and earned a Bachelor Degree in Hawaiian Studies and one in Anthropology. 

Even though I enjoyed my time in Hilo, my heart was still on Kauaʻi. Whenever someone asked me what I planned to do with my degrees, my answer was always the same: “I would love to teach at KCC.” So I moved home with that dream in mind and began pursuing a graduate degree in Hawaiian Studies from UH Mānoa. When a job position opened up at KCC, I applied but I wasn’t really qualified since I hadn’t yet achieved my graduate degree. However, they decided to give me a chance and I am so glad they did! I’ve been there since 2007. 

The Hawaiian Studies umbrella encompasses a lot of different subjects - what are the classes you teach? 

I’m fortunate to teach a wide array of subjects. My courses include Hawaiian language, Hawaiian history and the history of Kauaʻi, religion and mythology, Hawaiian anthropology, and hula. I love being able to teach across disciplines because it gives me the opportunity to approach the study of Hawaiian culture from different angles. 

Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said you teach a wide array of subjects - I could ask you a million questions about each and every one of them! But in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll try and keep my questions on the theme of history.

Who are some other influential women of Hawaii who shaped history that you think more people should know about?

My favorite woman of Hawaiian history is undoubtedly Queen Emma, who lived from 1836 to 1885. She was the wife of Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV) and the mother of Prince Albert, both of whom she lost before she even saw her thirtieth birthday. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for her! However, she was a woman who persevered and always did her best to lift up her people. She understood the importance of healthcare and, with her husband, worked to establish the Queen’s Hospital (now The Queen’s Medical Center). She saw the value of education, especially for young women, and helped to build St. Andrew’s Priory. She even ran against Kalākaua in 1874 for the highest position in the Kingdom. When she could have given up and secluded herself from the public, she drew strength from helping her people.

I love women who help other women, and so I also have to bring attention to Queen Kapiʻolani (wife of King Kalākaua). She had a great love for children but couldn’t have any of her own. Her concern for the health of children and young mothers influenced her decision to establish the Kapiʻolani Maternity Home (now the Kapiʻolani Medical Center). 

And though their names may not be as well known as the two women above, I also have a deep respect for Emma Nāwahī (1868-1935) and Abigail Kuaihelani Campbell (1858-1908). In the late 1800s, these women were political activists and community organizers. They fought against the injustices being done in their Kingdom and understood the power of women having a voice in their community. Talk about inspirational! 

Who are some of the women who have been monumental in your own life? 

When it comes to women who have been monumental in my own life, that answer is easy: The women in my family, especially my mom and my grandmothers. My father’s mom passed away long before I was born, but she was such an inspiration in my ʻohana that her legacy still continues. She was an educator, like myself, but she was very much invested in the restoration of Hawaiian culture. During the 60s, she worked with people like Mary Kawena Pukui and traveled around the islands to interview the elders and to share her knowledge. She could even speak four languages! Even though she wasn’t physically in my life, I really aspired to be like her when I was going through my own educational journey. 

I was also blessed with having a very present maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom were teachers. They were strong women and had gone through some real hardships in their lives, but they were strong in their faith and in their love for their families. 

However, my hero is undoubtedly my mom. She is a force and I love it! She is tough when necessary, but that toughness is always wrapped with love and compassion. She has an amazing work ethic, which I do my best to model in my own work, but she also understands that you need to take a break once in a while and get a massage! 

For folks who are interested in learning more about the women we've discussed or about Hawaii in general, can you share any resources or books you recommend? 

I love books, so I’m definitely going to recommend some of my favorites! The biography, Queen Emma: A Woman of Vision (Rappolt), first sparked my interest in Queen Emma. However, Kanahele’s Emma: Hawaiʻi’s Remarkable Queen is a great biography of all her wonderful accomplishments. I would also recommend Queen Liliʻuokalani’s Hawaiʻi’s Story by Hawaiʻi’s Queen, which is her story in her own words.

Finally, a book that really resonated with me is Noenoe Silva’s Aloha Betrayed. This is such an eye-opening book about a specific time in Hawaiian history and it made me proud to be a Hawaiian woman. 

We have linked each of these book recommendations to Amazon where we know they will be available, but we encourage you to purchase through independent bookstores! You can also contact Talk Story Bookstore, the westernmost bookstore in the USA located in Hanapepe, Kauai, to see if they have these books available and they will arrange shipping to you.

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