Exploring Na Wahine leadership from a Native Hawaiian perspective

Nani Lee
School of Social Work, University of South California
July, 2005


This study explores the leadership of Nā Wāhine , exemplary Native Hawaiian female leaders, from a Native Hawaiian perspective through the lives of 6 Nā Wāhine. An emic perspective is used to study the interplay of ethnicity, culture, gender, oppression and the assumption of community leadership. The research was designed as a qualitative exploratory study using ethnography with a grounded theory methodology to generate a model of Native Hawaiian leadership. Five themes emerged from the analysis of the qualitative data. They were: the importance of the family in their development as leaders, na' au pono, a deep sense of social justice; the integration of Native Hawaiian values in their leadership; the role of mentoring in their development and venue and strategy for their leadership. The model that was develops describes the emergence of Nā Wāhine leadership through the `ohana. The `ohana is a collective body that nurtures and transfers knowledge of culture, tradition and values to it members. The `ohana also serves as the first practice arena for emerging leaders. The value base identified by the kupuna is critical to understanding the 'essence' of a Nā Wāhine. The reliance on values to insure the collective protection of their people and their 'aina leads to an understanding of the strength that drives these women. The findings require us to rethink the support of families and the intergenerational transmission of culture, tradition and values that pass through the family. With these kupuna we learn that through the family (biological or acquired), these women were able to transcend what some would see as barriers, (gender, social economic status, education and ethnicity) to achieve the status of Nā Wāhine. In spite of cultural commercialization and denigration, they are able to maintain a shared system of values and a distinct worldview that indicates tough cultural resilience. This study adds to and expands the knowledge of indigenous leadership.