Kanahele, Helen Lake (1916–1976)

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Kanahele, Helen Lake (1916–1976)

American labor leader. Born on May 26, 1916, in Kona, Hawaii; died on June 12, 1976, in Honolulu, Hawaii; educated up to the eighth grade at Central Intermediate School in Honolulu; married Alfred Kanahele; children: Mary Jane Kanahele; Helen Kanahele.

Helen Lake was born in Kona, Hawaii, in 1916. Her English father died when she was five and her Hawaiian mother one year later, so Helen was adopted by Irene West . At a young age, she gained fame as a singer and dancer—performing three world tours—but her interest in politics proved to be the stronger ambition. Helen's first introduction to politics occurred at age 12 when she assisted Democratic candidates in their political campaigns.

Not much is known about Helen's life from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s; during this period, she married Alfred Kanahele and had two daughters, Mary Jane and Helen. Three years after their marriage, Alfred walked away from the marriage and disappeared from their lives, leaving Helen to support her two children. In 1948, she was employed by the City and County of Honolulu as a laundry worker at Maluhia Hospital. While there, she started to assemble the workers into a division of the United Public Workers (UPW). When the chief administrator of the hospital, Dr. Thomas Mossman, discovered her union activities, he transferred Kanahele to the morgue to assist in autopsy work. She filed a grievance against Mossman, which led eventually to her work as custodian at the Kalakaua Intermediate School. In the spring of 1949, Kanahele joined the Hawaiian Homesteaders Improvement Club, leading campaigns to benefit the homesteaders. She held several offices in the club, including vice chair and director, as well as corresponding secretary.

The International Longshoremen and Ware-housemen's Union (ILWU) strike in early May of 1949, to gain wage parity with the West Coast longshoremen, proved to be a turning point in Helen Kanahele's public life. The community divided into two camps over the strike: one supported the strikers, the other was angered by the interruption. When the ILWU's Women's Auxiliary formed a counter-picket line in response to the May 31 protest by 200 women sympathetic to the employers' side in the strike, Kanahele became so impassioned that she marched all day alongside the ILWU picketers. She also joined the ILWU Women's Auxiliary and became an active and enthusiastic member.

Kanahele was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1950, she ran unsuccessfully as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention on a seven-point platform that included equal rights for women, guarantees of individual and minority rights, and the right to a job and a decent wage. Throughout the 1950s, she continued to be a strong advocate of women's political rights. In 1951, Kanahele was elected president of the ILWU Women's Auxiliary.

Helen Kanahele was also an advocate of human rights. Perhaps her most public cause was her campaign to save two Hawaiian youths, James E. Majors and John Palakiko, from being hanged in March of 1948 for the murder of Therese Wilder . With just three days to spare before the execution, she visited Governor Oren E. Long to commute Majors' and Palakiko's sentences to life imprisonment; however, he offered no support. Kanahele remained undeterred and obtained the aid of labor attorney Harriet Bouslog . She also initiated an island-wide petition

campaign, gathered thousand of signatures for clemency, and raised money to pay the youths' legal defense fees. Kanahele's and Bouslog's efforts would pay off in 1961 when the new governor, John A. Burns, commuted the sentence.

Kanahele remained active in union organization activities throughout the Majors-Palakiko campaign. She recruited new members into the UPW, worked as a lobbyist, and served on grievance committees. From 1954 on, she held numerous offices, including Oahu division vice president, territorial secretary-treasurer, and secretary and board member of the political action committee. Her courage and charisma as a labor leader were legendary. For example, in April of 1954, she was subpoenaed to appear before the Territorial Committee on Subversive Activities. The committee questioned her beliefs on capital punishment, world peace, activities in the UPW, and leadership in the ILWU Women's Auxiliary, attempting to elicit a confession that she was a Communist. Despite the pressure, Kanahele held her ground and testified that she took full responsibility for her political actions and statements.

Helen had so severely injured her arm during her janitorial duties at Kalakaua Intermediate School that she retired on a disability pension; her influence in the union, however, remained strong. Helen Kanahele died in Honolulu in 1976 and was buried in Oahu Cemetery. She was a controversial figure in Hawaiian public life. Although some regarded her as an enemy, she was much admired by union loyalists and others in the Hawaiian community. At a time when women were not involved as leaders in union and other organizational activities, her authority and power were accepted.


Peterson, Barbara Bennett. Notable Women of Hawaii. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Kim L. Messeri , freelance writer, Austin, Texas