Nona Beamer: Hawaiian Elder (1923-2008)


Nona Beamer | Photo © Heidi Chang

Nona Beamer: Hawaiian Elder 
Aired on NPR’s ” Morning Edition,” January 5, 2000
By Heidi Chang

Nona Beamer is a highly respected Hawaiian elder or “kupuna.” She was raised on the Big Island of Hawaii and is one of the last direct links to the art of Hawaiian storytelling, chant and traditional hula. Hawaii’s history is often told through hula. There are special chants for weddings, funerals and greetings. Nona Beamer knows many of these chants and dances, and has been performing them for years.

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Despite an arthritic knee, at 76, Nona Beamer moves gracefully in a long white mu’u mu’u and bare feet. Beamer’s brown eyes sparkle through her glasses, as she chants, about a historic battle in which some of her ancestors died, trying to save Hawaiian traditions.

Spectators fill the grounds of Iolani Palace in Honolulu for this performance of ancient hula. Beamer, who is well known for efforts to preserve Hawaii’s rich cultural heritage, has handpicked another hula master, Maile Loo, to pass on her legacy of telling stories through dance.

“You don’t just use your hands, your feet, use everything. If that means being overwhelmed with joy, you’re overwhelmed with joy,” says Loo. “If that means showing a big mountain that you’re climbing, then you climb that mountain, you take them with you.”

Nona Beamer and Maile Loo | Photo © Heidi Chang

Nona Beamer and Maile Loo | Photo © Heidi Chang

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The “Master ” and “Apprentice” are now taking on the challenge of documenting Beamer’s unique knowledge of 242 different types of ancient hulas. Loo got the idea after she heard how Beamer once tried to do it years ago, but lost everything in a fire. “The information is still in her brain, and it’s still something that would be so valuable for the hula community,” says Loo.

As she chants in Hawaiian, Beamer, shares the meaning behind the chant. “So the poet begins by setting a mood. He says it’s a beautiful day, the lehua blooming, the hala, and scent of the air is sweet and we have long looked forward to this event when friends are gathering.”

Through hula and chant, Hawaiians passed down their beliefs and history. Every little movement means something. For example, to describe rain, fingers gently flutter as the hand descends. If the fingers are spread a little wider apart, it means a hala tree, also known as the pandanus tree. Hand movements also express emotions, including the “mana,” the spiritual power of nature.

“Well I think what was handed down to us was an awareness that everything had a heart and a soul,” says Beamer, reflecting on her roots and cultural traditions. “Animate and inanimate objects. Rocks and leaves, as we were picking the leaves to say chants, and ask permission to be able to pick these leaves to make our leis for our head you know. And to get permission from the spirits of the forest.”

Beamer grew up close to nature. As a child, she remembers chanting to the ocean, and learning from her grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, a gifted composer and hula expert. Beamer began passing on this tradition when she was 12 years old, by teaching hula at her mother’s dance studio on O’ahu. Her first student was silent movie star Mary Pickford.

But in school, she wasn’t allowed to express herself culturally. By the time Beamer graduated from Kamehameha Schools in 1941, she had been expelled twice for chanting and dancing the hula, because her school stressed American culture.

“And to not be allowed to do any of it at all, was a very sad situation, hurting your heart and psychologically demeaning you to a nothing,” recalls Beamer.

But things began to change in the 1960’s, when students began demanding to learn more about their history. Ironically, Beamer was recruited to teach the things she had been forbidden to do.

Over the decades she’s inspired thousands of students, who call her “Aunty Nona.” Countless children and adults, also know her songs by heart. Beamer’s best known composition, which she wrote many years ago is called “Pupu Hinu Hinu,” a lullabye about children gathering seashells at the beach. It’s often performed by her eldest son Keola Beamer, as she dances the hula.

Nona Beamer_Keola Beamer_Moanalani Beamer

Nona Beamer, with her son, Keola Beamer, and his wife, Moanalani Beamer | Photo © Richard Cooke


These days, Beamer, continues to collaborate with her son, Keola, who is a master of kiho’alu, a Hawaiian style of guitar playing. Three years ago, Keola helped his mother make her first CD of stories and music called “The Golden Lehua Tree.”

Nona Beamer - The Golden Lehua Tree

While he’s a reknowned musician in his own right, he’s also performed with his mother on stage since he was a child. “Everywhere we go this woman has had an influence on these people’s lives and they remember and they credit her with helping them be more Hawaiian and understanding, where they came from, and where their families have been, and it kinda charts life a little bit for these people, so it’s an amazing influence,” says Keola.

Nona Beamer’s influence has also been felt in the realm of Hawaii’s politics. She’s crusaded to improve the education and social conditions of Native Hawaiians. And recently, she’s spoken out against the powerful trustees who ran her alma mater Kamehameha Schools. There’s a website of her work, and she’s creating a multi-media database, that will keep her hula legacy alive for generations to come.

Nona Beamer | Photo © Heidi Chang

Nona Beamer | Photo © Heidi Chang


Nona Beamer: Hawaiian Elder was honored with a national award from the Asian American Journalists Association in 2000.

(Story update: Nona Beamer (1923-2008) dedicated her life to preserving Hawaiian culture. She was a gifted storyteller, teacher, songwriter and activist, as well as a master of chant and hula. Beamer passed away in 2008. Her amazing legacy continues to touch the lives of many today.)

Nona Beamer is remembered as the matriarch of one of Hawaii’s most respected musical families. Both of her sons, Keola Beamer and Kapono Beamer, are gifted musicians in their own right.
Keola Beamer – Tales from the Dream Guitar (NPR profile)
A Hawaiian Christmas with Slack Key Master Kapono Beamer (HPR half-hour long special)

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