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AANHPI Month: Celebrating Scholar and Advocate, Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask

Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask was a scholar, poet, leader and visionary. Her work not only influenced the intellectual development of the Hawaiian community but also left a lasting impact on the broader conversation surrounding indigenous rights and sovereignty movements worldwide. Born October 3, 1949, Trask and her five siblings grew up on the windward side of Oahu, children of Bernard Kaukaohu Trask and Haunani (Cooper) Trask. Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her dad a lawyer. Alongside her sister, Mililani Trask, she played a crucial role in advocating for Hawaiian sovereignty, contributing to a deeper understanding of the historical and contemporary injustices faced by indigenous peoples in Hawaii.

After graduating from Kamehameha Schools in 1967, Trask pursued higher education at the University of Wisconsin, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, as well as her PhD in Political Science. Upon completing her doctoral studies, Trask returned to Oahu and began her career as a professor at the University of Hawaii, initially in the American Studies Department. However, her vision and commitment to promoting Hawaiian culture led her to co-found the Hawaiian Studies program at the university, and becoming the inaugural director of what is now known as the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. The Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies holds a unique distinction as the only school of Indigenous Studies at a Research 1 institution in the United States, reflecting Trask's pioneering efforts in the field. 

With her sister Mililani Trask, Dr. Trask also co-founded Ka Lahui Hawai’i, the largest grassroots group in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. The two sisters stood on the front line in January 1993, as thousands marched to Iolani Palace on the 100th anniversary of the illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii. This was one of the first major protests calling for a return of native lands in Hawaii.

Trask was also a poet and writer. Written in the same year she helped lead the Kanaka Maoli march to Iolani Palace, she wrote one of the most important books on Indigenous political thought - From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii. She additionally authored Eros and Power: The Promise of Feminist Theory (1981), and two poetry collections, Light in the Crevice Never Seen (1994) and Night Is a Sharkskin Drum (2002).

Before her death in 2021, Trask was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, among the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honorary societies. This has placed her alongside other notable lifetime members including John Adams, Charles Darwin, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Trask has notably said “We will die as Hawaiians, we will never be Americans.” Dr. Haunani-Kay Trask died at the age of 71, on July 3, 2021 in Honolulu, as a Hawaiian.

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