Emma Kaʻilikapuolono Metcalf Beckley Nakuina (March 5, 1847-April 27, 1929) is widely regarded as the first female judge of Hawaiʻi. She was born at Kauaʻaia in Honolulu’s Mānoa Valley to Theophilus Metcalf, Hawai‘i’s first photographer, a civil engineer and sugar planter and Chiefess Kailikapuolono of Kūkaniloko. Her mother's family came from kaukau aliʻi, lesser chiefs who served the Hawaiian Monarchy. Her father was a businessman from New York and reportedly educated at Harvard University.
Emma herself was well educated. She attended Sacred Hearts’ Academy, Oʻahu College (Punahou School) and the Mills’ Seminary for Young Ladies in Benicia, California. She was also privately tutored by her father in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, English and Hawaiian. She was also brought up with a thorough knowledge of traditional Hawaiian practices and protocol.
While she was attached to the court of Kamehameha IV, the king had Emma trained in laws about water rights. One of the many native Hawaiian intellectuals of the 19th century, she was an expert on a wide variety of topics including water rights and laws. In 1875, King Kalākaua named her as curator for the Hawaiian National Museum, making her one of the first, if not the first, female curator of a national museum anywhere in the world. Most importantly, she was appointed as a Commissioner for Private Ways and Water Rights in 1892.
The next year, the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was overthrown in a US backed coup. Emma was faced with an impossible choice: continue to serve as Commissioner, which meant working with the colonizers, or quit, and take her expertise in traditional Hawaiian law with her. As the first child of a Hawaiian chiefess and an American Sugar Planter, Emma lived in close proximity to both the Hawaiian monarchy and to those who would later overthrow it. She chose to stay and remained responsible for water rights under the evolving Republic and territorial government until 1907, when the circuit courts took her role. Emma never held the official title, but she is regarded as Hawaiʻi's first female judge.
She wrote many articles on Hawaiʻi, including “Ancient Hawaiian Water Rights and Some Customs Pertaining to Them.” Emma challenged haole efforts to claim the right to rule by asserting genealogical connections to Hawai‘i and Kānaka Maoli. She insisted on the primacy of indigenous genealogies and the insufficiency of their Western counterparts.
In later life, Emma wrote and published a book on Hawaiian myths and legends. Ostensibly meant as a guide for tourists, her writing did not hide her disdain for foreign influence on the islands. It is unsurprising the territorial tourism organization chose not to distribute her book. She also was a member of the Hawaiian Historical Society and the Daughters of Hawaiʻi.
Emma Metcalf Nakuina lived through six monarchs and five governments. The era she lived in was also caught somewhere between Hawaiian tradition and Western modernization. It was a time when all Hawaiians were struggling to live pono in an environment full of unfamiliar influences and importations. She was caught in a tumultuous world of underhanded politics, shifting governments, and the reluctant need to transition from a ‘Hawaiian’ way of life to that of the ‘civilized world.’ Throughout her life, Emma chose to serve as a teacher, historian, museum curator, water commissioner, and unofficial judge, and she did so in an era when women were discouraged from holding positions of authority. She serves as an inspiration to young mana wahine and kānaka continuing to fight for our rights today.