Sisterhood keeps old traditions alive
By Yasmin Anwar
Advertiser Staff Writer
Nicole Maldonado Thompson might seem a tad young for a society of well-bred Hawaiian ladies who wear black and uphold a century-old mission to nurse the sick and bury the dead.
Following in the black mu'umu'u-clad trails of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, the glamorous 23-year-old Polynesian dancer has just entered the exclusive society dedicated to Kamehameha the Great's favorite and most feisty queen.
The emotion of it all hit her last Monday when dozens of black-clad tutus tearfully embraced her at an induction ceremony at Kawaiaha'o Church.
"They were overwhelmed that I wanted to be part of them, that I was young blood and that it wasn't a dying society," Thompson said. "It feels like I suddenly have 100 new aunties to take care of me."
More than 100 years after Princess Victoria Kamamalu founded a charitable effort to nurse the sick and bury the dead, there is no shortage of genteel young ladies committed to keeping the 'Ahahui Ka'ahumanu alive.
Thompson, the scion of a prominent Hawaiian family and bride of former University of Hawai'i running back Afatia Thompson, is the club's latest poster child. She and other new recruits were out in full black bloom at Saturday's Kamehameha Day parade.
"We just keep regenerating," said Margaret Kula Stafford, the society's 65-year-old president and a member since 1962. A former secretary for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, she has observed the cycle of women joining the 'Ahahui Ka'ahumanu, leaving because of work and family obligations and then returning when they retire.
While most of the club's 300-plus members are older than 40, a growing number of young women like Thompson are drawn to its quaint protocol and values. Members must be at least 18 and of Hawaiian ancestry, and they must be invited to join. Dues are $25 a year.
The club organizes fund-raisers, scholarships, supports Hawaiian language-immersion and cultural programs, among other charitable endeavors, and generally rallies around those in need.
"We're Hawaiian women who take pride in being Hawaiian, and perpetuating the culture, the language and the philosophy of aloha," said Thompson, a Polynesian dancer at the Tihati Productions show at the Princess Kaiulani in Waikiki and the great-granddaughter of kumu hula Rose Joshua.
She has been intrigued with the society since she was a girl in St. Louis Heights watching her grandmother put on her black finery before meetings of the 'Ahahui.
Indeed the ladies cut a striking figure when they stream into Kawaiaha'o Church on Sunday mornings. Tourists and malihini sometimes ask them if they're going to a funeral.
"You can't really blame them," said Mary Ann Hutchinson, 80, a former president whose grandmother joined the society in 1906.
Hutchinson is trying to persuade her granddaughters to join, but it's not easy selling the antiquated values to modern women. Still, she hopes more young women will grow to value the timeless Hawaiian sisterhood, as she does.
"It's their right as Hawaiians to belong to the 'Ahahui," Hutchinson said. "We support each other. We enjoy each other. We're family."
In honor of Queen Kuhina Nui Ka'ahumanu, who had missionary wives sew her a black silk dress, the ceremonial dress code for the 'Ahahui is an ankle-length black holuku or mu'umu'u, black hat and gloves, and the yellow feather lei of the ali'i.
As ruler from 1819 to 1832, Queen Ka'ahumanu overthrew the kapu system that segregated women from men, and shunned ancient gods in her crusade to convert Hawai'i to Christianity. She also adopted a formal education and judicial system.
Mission remains the same
In her honor, Princess Kamamalu established the society in 1864, but it faded after her death. It was Lucy Peabody, Queen Emma's lady-in-waiting, who helped resurrect the organization June 14, 1905.
Over the years, the society attracted a diverse group of Hawaiian celebrities, including the late Diana K. Fernandes, who performed with the Annie Kerr Trio in the 1920s, and as a soprano with the Farden Sisters in the 1950s.
Members sought to take care of the poor and dying, and educate the young.
Today, the mission remains fundamentally the same, although new causes pile on. One steady passion is the preservation of the Hawaiian language and culture.
"We change around the edges, but at the core, we stay the same," Stafford said. "We're Hawaiian women taking care of one another."