DUKE KAHANAMOKU: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY HAWAIIAN MONARCH The Values and Contributions to Hawaiian Culture from Hawai`i’s Sporting Legend

Open Access
Nendel, James Dean
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 13, 2006
Committee Members:
  • Mark Dyreson, Committee Chair
  • Robert Scott Kretchmar, Committee Member
  • Arlene Thompson, Committee Member
  • Doug Anderson, Committee Member
  • Olympics
  • Swimming
  • History
  • Sport
  • Hawaiian Values
  • Hollywood
  • Hawaii
On August 24, 2002, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in honor of the man whom Robert Rider, Chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, called “a hero in every sense of the word.” The stamp honored Duke Kahanamoku, a man regarded with the reverence bestowed upon a legendary figure in his home State of Hawai`i, yet relatively unknown on the United States mainland. Bishop Museum archivist Desoto Brown described Kahanamoku as “the most famous Hawaiian person who has ever been, in terms of him being 100 percent ethnically Hawaiian.” Known as the “Hawaiian fish,” Kahanamoku is indisputably one of the greatest heroes that the Hawaiian Islands have ever produced. Two years before the stamp issue, Sports Illustrated named Kahanamoku the top athlete of the twentieth century from Hawai`i. He is often compared to King Kamehameha I. The significance of the contrast in these two figures is critical in understanding Kahanamoku. Kamehameha was the last effective monarch to rule over the islands before Euro-American civilization began its conquest. Kamehameha’s reign marked the beginning of the end of native Hawaiian sovereign rule. Conversely, Kahanamoku became a popular yet mythical king of a vanquished race who symbolized a new Hawaiian identity. As a result, Duke Kahanamoku’s life represents more than great athletic achievements and heroic feats that allowed him to become a legendary figure in Hawai`i. Kahanamoku became the link between the old and the new images of Hawaiian culture. The swimmer and surfer was perfectly suited for that role. Born in 1890 Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku died in 1968. In his lifetime, Hawai’i moved from an independent monarchy to full statehood in the United States of America. During Kahanamoku’s era Hawaiian traditions, banned under the puritanical influence of nineteenth-century missionaries, were rediscovered and used as marketing tools to advertise a new Hawaiian culture. The concept of being Hawaiian moved from a standard of bloodlines to one of geographical citizenship. Kahanamoku was instrumental in all of these developments, whether by intention or by default. He symbolized the new Hawai`i, and yet he was at the same time a vivid reminder of the old dying breed of pureblooded Hawaiians. Kahanamoku’s life reflects so much of the cultural changes occurring in Hawai`i that a study of him reveals much of the cultural, racial, political and economic battles that have served to create the Hawai`i, that many now embrace as a tropical paradise and playground.