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Marion Anderson Kelly

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

Marion Anderson Kelly (1919-2011) was a brilliant scholar, tireless activist, loving mother and grandmother, and a true beacon of light and strength to all that had the privilege of knowing her. Aunty Marion, as most of us affectionately called her, was born on June 19th in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi to Thelma and William-Grieg Anderson, and raised on the North side of Oʻahu in the Waialua Sugar Plantations. She graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1937, and went on to study at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where she met her husband, John Kelly.

After graduating in 1941, the young couple moved to New York City, where Aunty Marion focused on sustainable economies and cultures of Indigenous peoples at Columbia University, while Uncle John attended Julliard School of Music. This began to spark her interest and work in early economic and agricultural models of Native Hawaiian people, later inspiring her famous 1956 Masters Thesis back at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, “Changes in Land Tenure in Hawai’i.” Much of her work at this time was centered upon exposing the ways in which Hawaiian, and Indigenous peopleʻs agricultural and socioeconomic systems were depicted as flawed and debased by Western recollections; as well as proving the actual depth, complexities, and brilliant sustainability of said systems.

When she returned to Hawaiʻi in 1950, she began her career at Bishop Museum, working in Anthropological studies focusing on the agricultural systems of ancient Hawaiians, continuing to correct the ways in which Native Hawaiian practices and histories were misrepresented in the academic world. Through this work, she was one of the first to begin discussing and laying foundations for how traditional land systems worked, sustained themselves, and revealed real and vivid examples of the ingenious practices of ancient Hawaiians. Much of her work was on land, conducting archaeological studies on various places across the Pae ʻĀina, but she also traveled throughout Oceania conducting her studies through traditional ways of navigation and travel. These findings developed into collections of reports, articles, and journals that were foundational to the understanding of pre-contact Hawaiʻi life, and resulted in new perceptions and protections of different sites across the Pae ʻĀina. From Lumahaʻi Valley on Kauaʻi to Kaʻū on Hawaiʻi Island, Aunty Marion was at the helm of protecting these places, and shedding light on the ingenious of Poʻe Hawaiʻi Kahiko in sustaining their communities while stewarding the land.

Aunty Marion was a steadfast activist who created, and was involved with many different organizations and programs working to bring justice to Poʻe Hawaiʻi and their ʻĀina alike. In 1964, Aunty Marion and Uncle John co-founded the Save Our Surf (SOS) organization to protect Hawaiʻi coastlines from overdevelopment and foreign interests. According to photographer Ed Greevy in a FLUX interview regarding SOS, he stated, “it was Marion that politicized the man [Uncle John]. He was crazy about her. She was doing work with the ILWU (the historic International Longshoremen’s Union), where she was Jack Hall’s secretary for a while. I think she said, ‘if you’re gonna keep hangin around, then you’d better read these books.’”

Aunty Marion and Uncle John led SOS in efforts throughout the years to protect land and natural resources across Hawaiʻi, beginning with humble rallies at the capitol, and eventually leading to massive achievements like ending plans for three high rise hotels directly on the reef at Ala Moana. Needless to say, the effects of Aunty Marion and Uncle Johnʻs activist work can be seen throughout Hawaiʻi today. Much of our thanks should go to them for implementing such change, and inspiring more organizations with core values in Aloha ʻĀina- like SOS- to open up throughout Hawaiʻi.

While still continuing her anthropological and archeological work across the islands, Aunty Marion began teaching at the University of Hawaiʻi in the mid 60s, focusing on her studies of “History of Native Hawaiian Culture”. In 1968, she along with a number of radical change seeking educators came together and created the first Center for Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Known by her colleagues and students as “a staunch champion of peace and justice for all of humanity” (dc: Ibrahim Aoude), Aunty Marion has changed the lives of the many she mentored, taught, and worked with. Aunty Marion continued as a professor of Ethnic Studies for the remainder of her career at the University, until she retired at the age of 81.

Her discoveries, articles and reports on Hawaiian life in pre-contact Hawai’i, helped to preserve many ancient sites with the understanding of how Hawaiian people lived and worked. Her groundbreaking work on the “Great Mahele,” was a watershed manuscript that carefully documented the systematic theft of both land and economic stability from the Hawaiian people. She was a lifetime champion of equal rights, peace and justice, and worked tirelessly for Native Hawaiian sovereignty.

Through her work, dedication, aloha, and strength, Aunty Marion has changed the course of Hawaiian history as we understand it today. Her legacy and aloha carries on through the generations of ʻōpio she has impacted.


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