Today we honor the life and legacy of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and education pioneer, Jean Beniamina.
Jean Ileialoha Keale Beniamina was a Hawaiian language advocate, educator and award-winning composer. Many people remember today as a valuable resource beyond her years for all things regarding Hawaiian language and culture.
Beniamina was born in Puʻuwai, Niʻihau. She graduated from the Kamehameha Schools in 1974. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in Hawaiian language and literature at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, according to a profile in the book, "The Legacy Lives On," by Ednette Chandler, Muriel Gehrman and Andrew Poepoe. Kamehameha Schools posted the profile on its website.
A strong advocate of perpetuating the Hawaiian language, Beniamina helped establish a preschool in Hilo, ‘Aha Punana Leo, where children are taught exclusively in the Hawaiian language, according to the profile.
Other schools, including K-12 Hawaiian language immersion schools, followed, as did outreach programs. She and her late mother, Jeane Ku’uleialoha Kelley Keale, also established a preschool on Niihau called Ke Kula Ni’ihau O Kekaha. Beniamina took care of her community and ensured educational opportunities were available to freinds and family from Niʻihau.
An outreach counselor and assistant professor at Kauai Community College, Beniamina served as a mentor to many interested in Hawaiian language and culture. According to lifelong friend Charles Kaupu, "You would get the richness of not only her life but countless generations before. She was taught in the old style and educated in the modern.”
Beniamina also composed the Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning song, "Ho’ola Lahui O Hawaii" which means "Give Life to the Hawaii People." It was performed by the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau. She also won the Na Hoku Hanohano Haku Mele award for composing "Pua ‘Ala Aumoe," which means "The Night Blooming Jasmine."
Nathan Kalama, a songwriter from Wailua who often called on Beniamina to verify correct Hawaiian translations in his compositions, recalled the story behind the “Pua ‘Ala Aumoe”. He explained that Beniamina was scheduled to be the presenter at the popular E Kanikapila Kakou (let’s all sing) gatherings. Kalama called her the morning of the event to remind her she would be the presenter of a mele (song), and she had forgotten all about the engagement, he said. So, in the matter of a few hours, she wrote and composed “Pua ‘Ala Aumoe,” about fragrant flower blossoms, presented it to those in attendance and, later, it was made into a hit song by Jerry Santos of Olomana.
Beniamina’s cousin, Moon Kauakahi of the Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau, said, "To me, she was a kupuna in a young person’s body. She had so much knowledge not only of the Hawaiian language, but also things that were ancient, the ancient practices of Hawaii."
Beniamina also served as a trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs in 2000. A scholarship has since been established in her honor through the Hawaii Community Foundation to provide students with family ties to Ni’ihau and are proficient or fluent in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi with financial assistance through college. Beniamina’s legacy stands as a testament to impact that our Ni’ihau ʻohana has had within our lāhui.