Hula Kiʻi Historical Sources


Hula Kiʻi is a tradition born in Hawaiʻi that reflects the rich cultural heritage and artistic expression of kānaka maoli, the native people of the Hawaiian archipelago. Elements of hula (dance), moʻolelo (story), noʻonoʻo ulu wale (imagination/ creative expression), and hana noʻeau (visual arts) are woven together to form unique and powerful dances that tell of the land and sea, plant and animal beings, ancestors and ʻaumakua (guardians), and of the people that are Hawaiʻi. There are multiple forms of Hula Kiʻi including the use of an image or figurine (made of wood, coconut, gourd, etc.), the use of the body to create images or forms, and the use of a screen which the dancer moves behind or images are manipulated above.

One of the challenges in looking at early kiʻi-related written documentation is the lack of detail as to exactly what kind of kiʻi presentation was observed and/or under discussion. Additionally, those earliest written accounts were produced by American missionaries whose perspectives and interpretations were ethnocentric and from a different frame of reference. Some questions we explored are: Was it a form with puppets (behind a screen; above a screen; with no screen; in the hands of dancers, or some other combination therein)? Or was it the body form where a dancer becomes an image? How did it work? What were the chants? How many puppets were there? What was the screen made of? How were the images manipulated? Were certain chants specific to certain kiʻi forms? Would these types be presented together? These kinds of insights were few and far between. The following are some examples of Hula Kiʻi historical accounts, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. We share these as an initial point to help in your research and learning!

Rev. Samuel Whitney was a member of the first company of American missionaries who came to the islands in 1820. Upon his arrival on the island of Kauaʻi, he was invited to the residence of Kaumualiʻi, the reigning aliʻi nui (ruler). Entertainment in the form of a puppet show was presented. A man chanted and beat a pahu (drum) while six puppets appeared above sheets of kapa (barkcloth) strung across the room (Barrère et al, 1980). In 1886, the Hawaiian newspaper Kūʻokoʻa described a kiʻi performance in which a woman sang and played the ipu (gourd implement) while puppets danced above a screen (Nupepa Kuokoa, 1886).

Hula Kiʻi is listed as one danced by the aliʻi (chiefs) (Kamakau, 1961). The dance form was not profusely written about, but it played a role in activities and events amongst aliʻi and the monarchy of Hawaiʻi. In 1883, four presentations of Hula Kiʻi were performed on the grounds of ʻIolani Palace in honor of King David Kalākaua’s coronation. In the coronation program, Papa Kuhikuhi o Nā Hula Poni Mōʻī (Barrère et al, 1980), the dances were presented by Ehu Keohohina. In 1886, kiʻi was once again presented to King David Kalākaua at the Royal Opera House as part of his 50th birthday jubilee (Nupepa Kuokoa). Although details on these kiʻi performances are not provided, it is still clear that Hula Kiʻi is a traditional and culturally historic practice rooted in Hawaiʻi. 

In Unwritten Literature of Hawaiʻi (Emerson, 1909) an extensive chapter on Hula Kiʻi documents the author’s research, observations, and interpretations. Six kiʻi were gifted to the author who was told they were created during the reign of Kamehameha III. He was also told the kiʻi were used in a performance celebrating the 50th birthday of King Kalākaua, as mentioned previously. These kiʻi are now in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department. In 1912, Professor William Alanson Bryan of the College of Hawaiʻi (predecessor to the University of Hawaiʻi) visited Moanalua Valley on Oʻahu where he observed a kiʻi performance. In the presentation, a dancer stood in front of a screen and danced while kiʻi, operated by puppeteers behind the screen, danced in unison. Musicians beat ipu (gourd implements) and chanted. (Luomala, 1984)

In Hula Historical Perspectives (Barrère et al, 1980), Mary Kawena Pukui recounts Hula Kiʻi as shared in 1936 by Kumu Hula Keahi Luahine from the island of Kauaʻi. Kumu Keahi described and demonstrated Hula Kiʻi of the body form (no puppet) and noted that it was created by the people of Kalalau, Kauaʻi. In this form of Hula Kiʻi dancers chanted and formed their bodies in postures and poses reflective of carved wooden effigies. There was no musical percussion or implement accompaniment like that of other hula. Kumu Keahi also noted that small children would dance this form of Hula Kiʻi after swimming in the ocean. The Hawaiian Dictionary (Pukui & Elbert, 1986) cites Kauaʻi as the birthplace of Hula Kiʻi, describing the body form as well as the form that uses “marionettes”. Kumu Keahi is most known as the teacher and mentor to Iolani Luahine, the 20th century’s foremost exponent of ancient hula.

Auntie Nona Beamer was a Kumu Hula, educator, composer, mother, entertainer, and cultural advocate who was the inspiration behind the creation of Hula Preservation Society. Her hula teacher and mentor was her grandmother Helen Desha Beamer (1882-1952; "Sweetheart Grandma"), a renowned composer and pianist who taught hula to many on Hawaiʻi Island and Oʻahu. As a child under her Sweetheart Grandma's guidance, little Nona grew to love the stories of Hawaiʻi and together they would create kiʻi using baby coconuts with painted faces. Auntie Nona also has an early memory of her great-grandmother Isabella Kaili Desha (1864-1949) doing a form of Hula Kiʻi involving a screen. Learn more about the Beamer tradition of Hula Kiʻi in Auntie Nona's virtual collection here on Digital ʻUmeke (Hula Preservation Society).


Barrère, D. B., Pukui, M. K., & Kelly, M. (1980). Hula historical perspectives. Pacific Anthropological Records, Bishop Museum. Dance Research Journal, 13(2), 41–43. Cambridge University Press.

Emerson, N. B. (1909). Unwritten literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of Hula. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Hula Preservation Society. Nona Beamer Collection. Digital ʻUmeke.

Kamakau, S. M. (1961). Ruling chiefs of Hawaii (Rev. Ed.). Kamehameha Schools Press.

Luomala, K. (1984). Hula Kiʻi: Hawaiian Puppetry. Institute for Polynesian Studies.

Unknown (1886, December 4). Ka La Kuokoa: Ka Iubile La Hanau. Nupepa Kuokoa. Papakilo Database.

Pukui, M. K., & Elbert, S. H. (1986). Hawaiian dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian (Rev. and enl. ed.). University of Hawaii Press.