Wilson, Kini (1872–1962)

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Wilson, Kini (1872–1962)

Hawaiian dancer, singer and musician who was recognized as Hawaii's "Honorary First Lady." Name variations: Ana Kini Kuululani; Kini Kapahu; Jennie. Born Ana Kini Kuululani on March 4, 1872, in Honolulu, Hawaii; died after a stroke on July 23, 1962, in Honolulu; daughter of John N. McColgan (an Irish tailor) and a Hawaiian mother; hanai (adoptive) daughter of Kapahu Kula O Kamamalu; received three years of schooling, and was trained as a hula dancer, ballroom dancer, ukelele player, and singer; married John Wilson (an engineer who later served as mayor of Honolulu), on May 8, 1909.

Joined the royal troupe of hula dancers (c. 1888); began touring the U.S. and Europe (1893); returned to Hawaii (early 1900s) and became politically active in the Democratic Party (c. 1919); served as one of Hawaii's first presidential electors (1960).

Kini Wilson was born Ana Kini Kuululani in March 1872 in Honolulu, Hawaii, the 14th child of an Irish tailor and his "pure-blooded Hawaiian" wife. Kapahu Kula O Kamamalu , a stranger, was passing by the grass house by the sea near Honolulu Harbor when she heard the cries of the newborn. Entering the house, she bathed both infant and mother, who rewarded her in the Hawaiian tradition by giving her the child to raise as hanai (adoptive) mother. Kini (Hawaiian for Jennie) thus became known by the name Kini Kapahu. Because Kapahu Kula O Kamamalu lived next door to the Hawaiian king's residence, the little girl grew up as a neighbor to King Kalakaua.

Wilson attended school for only three years. Her mother taught her how to dance the hula, and when she was 14, the king invited her to join the court's troupe of hula dancers. Kapahu, however, believed that the dance should be performed privately, and opposed the public nature of such display. When Wilson was 16, Queen Kapiolani (1834–1899) approached Kapahu and persuaded her to allow her daughter to perform. By this time, Wilson had become a stunningly beautiful woman. She was nearly 6 feet tall and wore her long black hair like a splendid shawl on her shoulders. As one of the king's seven dancers (he called her "Lady Jane"), she was part of the royal court and was responsible for entertaining dignitaries, visitors to the Hawaiian court, and naval officers based on ships in Honolulu's Harbor. She danced the hula, played ukelele, and, as a member of the Kawaihau Glee Club, sang under the king's direction. She studied ballroom dancing in order to partner guests at court, and also continued her studies of Hawaiian dance. After the death of the king and the accession of his sister Liliuokalani in 1891, Kini learned from teachers Nama-elua and Kapaona, who were from the island of Kauai.

White settlers were already scheming to gain control of Hawaii, and Queen Liliuokalani was deposed by rogue American troops in 1893. Wilson then decided to tour the United States and Europe, despite the objections of friends who considered this shameful. In the U.S., she performed in Portland, San Francisco, and at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. She continued on to Europe the following year, dancing at the Folies-Bergère in Paris, for Tsar Nicholas II in Russia, and for Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany. Refusing to believe Wilson's long hair was genuine, Wilhelm's wife Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein gave it a yank; after the dancer cried out, the empress was so embarrassed she gave Wilson the necklace she was wearing. In 1895, Kini returned to Chicago, where the Royal Hawaiian Band had stopped while touring the United States. The band's manager, John Wilson, was a childhood friend, and they had a happy reunion. Of Irish, Scottish, Hawaiian, and Tahitian origins, he had been born and raised in Hawaii, where his father had served as chief engineer under Kalakaua and as marshal of Hawaii under Liliuokalani. John's mother had been a lady-in-waiting to Liliuokalani both before and after she ascended to the throne. Kini and John's renewed friendship soon blossomed into romance, although it would be 13 years before they married.

Meanwhile, Wilson continued touring with troupes of Hawaiian dancers to the Omaha Exposition of 1899 and the Buffalo Exposition of 1901, among others. It was during these tours that she claimed to have invented the ti-leaf skirt, now a staple of Hawaiian dancing along with the grass skirt. She also added zest (and, some have claimed, an unwonted sexuality) to the hula by rolling her eyes and wiggling as barkers introduced "the naughty girls from Honolulu [who] do the naughty hula dance." Early in the 1900s she returned to Hawaii, where she and Kapahu, her hanai mother, consulted (as unnamed sources) with Nathaniel B. Emerson regarding the hula legend, ritual, and dance forms. Emerson later published Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula (1909). His book is still the definitive work on this native dance, although Wilson countered many of his statements and published corrections in academic journals.

During these years John Wilson had attended Stanford University, where he received an engineering degree. Kini and John married in 1909, and went to live in the Pelekunu Valley on the island of Molokai, where she served as postmistress and farmed small patches of taro while he worked as an engineer and contractor. In 1919, they moved back to Honolulu and became active in public life. John became the chief engineer for the city of Honolulu, and a year later, after the death of the incumbent, was appointed mayor. Hawaii was now a territory of the United States, and that same year, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Wilson organized the women of the territory in their first meeting to "discuss the new sphere of womanhood as created by the equal suffrage amendment."

Although her life on the stage had ended, and her remaining years were occupied with her husband's interests, Wilson's eye for detail, perfectionism, and strong opinions kept her in prominence beside her husband, not in his shadow. John headed Hawaii's Democratic Party for years, and was repeatedly elected mayor of Honolulu (in 1924, 1928, 1948, 1950, and 1952). Between mayoral stints, he was Honolulu's postmaster (1934–39) and administrator of Social Security and Public Welfare for the territory (1939–46). Wilson supported her husband's political endeavors and told reporters that she wanted him in office so she could "kick some shins."

Kini Wilson received many visitors over the years, including politicians seeking her endorsement, scholars researching Hawaiian lore, and dancers interested in learning traditional hula dancing styles. Her own importance to the community—she was known widely as "Auntie Jennie"—was commemorated after Hawaii was admitted to the union as the 50th state in 1959, when the legislature designated her as Hawaii's "Honorary First Lady." Her history with the Democratic Party, extending back to 1919, made her a figurehead for Democrats. In December 1960, after Hawaii participated in its first presidential election, Wilson was one of the four presidential electors who cast the new state's first electoral votes. At the time, she was 88 years old and was living in a cottage on the grounds of Maluhia Hospital, but she left her hospital bed to cast her electoral vote at Iolani Palace. Less than two years later, at age 90, she suffered a mild stroke and died on July 24, 1962.


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

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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Wilson, Kini (1872–1962)

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