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Aunty Aloha

A researcher's look into Lei Day's founder leads to an influential but mysterious Maui woman

By Tom Markle

Special to the Star-Advertiser

LAST UPDATED: 10:01 a.m. HST, Mar 5, 2013

For 50 years I've collected and researched Don Blanding, author, artist and the father of Lei Day in Hawaii.

My research has taken many twists and turns and is presently focused on a Hawaiian woman, Aunty Pinau Kalaukalani. Blanding referred to her as "Aunty Pinau" in his 1930 book, "Hula Moons."

In 1934 it was reported that she was "80 Hawaiian summers" in age. That would have made her birth date around 1854. In 1935, Blanding wrote a tribute poem in her honor when he learned of her death.

The University of Hawaii, Hawaiian websites and independent searches have been unable to locate an obituary or any reference to her. She has seemingly disappeared from written history.

Blanding, who was born in Kingfisher, Okla., in 1894, arrived in Hawaii on Dec. 24, 1916, with nowhere to stay and $5 in his pocket. On his voyage from San Francisco, he became acquainted with a Hawaiian family who invited him to their home in Hono­lulu.

He stayed with them for several weeks. The father of the family recognized Blanding's fascination with the beauty of Hawaii, as he was always drawing or doing watercolor paintings that vividly portrayed the raw natural beauty of Hawaii.

The man suggested that he go to Maui and stay with one of his relatives, who was named Aunty Pinau. This would have been in early 1917, and she would have been in her early 60s.

Blanding, who worked during this time as a cartoonist for The Hono­lulu Advertiser, spent several months as her guest on Maui in the area of Kaupo, Kipahulu and Hana. Her nephew Pua and her grandchild Nalani befriended Blanding and helped teach him Hawaiian culture and language.

Blanding's summation of Aunty Pinau in "Hula Moons" is as follows:

"This remarkable and admirable old woman was a joy to me. She was ripe with living, and her tolerant understanding of human frailties and weaknesses was godlike. She had seen the passing of the old days with regret, but she kept herself well informed about the new. Her fund of stories was inexhaustible, and her pride in Hawaii and Hawaiians earned my sincere respect."

After several months and some pleading from Blanding, Aunty Pinau decided his Hawaiian name would be "Alohi Lani." Blanding asked what it meant, and Aunty Pinau said, "When you get up in the mornings before the sun comes up, you see its light on the bottom of the big clouds in the sky and you see it shining down from the clouds on the water. That is light from heaven. So, Alohi, for that is your name now, when you go to the States with your pictures of Hawaii and your stories of our gods, you will show the people the beauties of our land, although they cannot see it except through you. You will be Alohi Lani of Hawaii."

From this time on, Blanding took his love of Hawaii to heart and became a famous author and artist of the islands as Aunty Pinau predicted he would.

Though he didn't always reside in Hawaii, his heart, spirit and mind remained here. He often returned to the islands to refresh himself or finish a book he was writing. Hawaii was always an inspiration to him.

Aunty Pinau influenced him greatly, and he had a respect for her until she died. It is my belief that she was an inspiration for his early writing.

Portions of Blanding's first book, "Leaves from a Grass House" (1923), have similarities with his time spent on Maui with Aunty Pinau and her family. This book set the stage for 21 published books of his art and poetry.

Her name also appears in the 1970 autobiography of Harry Owens, "Sweet Leilani." He was the 1930s bandleader for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Owens reports it was Aunty Pinau who sang 10 old Hawaiian chants for him.

The music for the chants was never written, as per Hawaiian tradition. The chants were passed down orally for centuries.

Owens created his first Hawaiian big-band songs from his interpretation of these chants. She continued to mentor him as she did Blanding.

Owens does report in his book that she lived until 1946 or 1947. I believe that to be a mistake and that she actually died in or around 1934.

In the months before his death in 1957 at age 62, Blanding wrote a column for the Hono­lulu Star-Bulletin's Hawaiian Life magazine, each one signed, "Aloha, Don Blanding."

I am interested in finding information about Aunty Pinau and believe there might still be family in the islands who know of her.


Contact Tom Markle at or call 530-966-3816.

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