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Wednesday, March 3, 2004



SARAH KAILIKEA / 1911-2004

Hawaiian cultural icon
defended giant tree


LIHUE >> Aunty Sarah Kailikea will be buried at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Lihue Cemetery in what may be one of the largest funerals in the history of Kauai.

A living connection to Kauai's history and a cultural icon in the Hawaiian community throughout the state, Aunty Sarah died Feb. 25 at age 93 at the Big Island home of kumu hula Coline Kona Kaualoko Aiu, her favorite student.

"She died peacefully in a grove of coconut palms she had given to Coline 10 years ago," said her son Malcolm. "When she became ill, she wanted to spend her last days with Coline so she could share her wisdom with her one last time."

Malcolm Kailikea said he expects many people to attend the funeral.

Until Christmas, Aunty Sarah worked in her yard every day. "She was out there with a pick and a shovel and mowing the lawn as always," her son said.

But a few days later, she became ill, suffering from congestive heart failure and later a stroke.

Born in 1911, Aunty Sarah was a genealogist, a hula master, a chanter, a composer and, as her son described her, "a walking encyclopedia on Hawaiian culture. She had a photographic memory and she was a very gifted teacher."

She was a student of both David Bray and Mary Kawena Pukui. On Kauai, her birthplace and lifelong home, she was best known as the feisty and articulate protector of the immense Chinese banyan tree, the largest in Hawaii, that grew in her back yard.

The tree was planted some time between 1890 and 1895 by Grove Farm founder George N. Wilcox near what was then his summer home in Nawiliwili. At one time it was the centerpiece of Menehune Botanical Gardens, a tourist attraction operated by Aunty Sarah and her husband, Melvin, who died in 1989.

In 1976, she led a fight to have the county declare it an "exceptional tree," which gave it legal protection from damage by neighboring property owners. She returned to the County Council and Planning Commission many times to defend the tree, which kept growing onto adjoining property.

"It's my baby," she said in a 1999 interview with the Star-Bulletin. "Feed it and it just grows and grows."

The tree stands 110 feet high and 250 feet wide, covers two acres and has more than 1,000 air roots. The botanical gardens were closed in 1992 after Hurricane Iniki and it has not been available to the public since then. A fire in 2000 destroyed a portion of the tree, but it has since recovered.

The Kailikeas also operated Luau Garden and it was through Aunty Sarah's authentic shows and storytelling that she taught Hawaiian culture to visitors. In 1995, the Kauai Museum bestowed upon her the title of "A Living Treasure."

She is also survived by son Melvin Jr., daughter Lei Christensen, brothers Norton and Joseph Malina, three grand children and four great-grandchildren.

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