Cover Story

Kenneth and Joan Brown with their children, from left to right: Frances, Bernice and Laura.
Image: photos courtesy of brown family

Beginning with the Hawaiian cultural renaissance in 1978, Kenneth Francis Brown, a middle-aged executive who is one-fourth Hawaiian but passed for pure haole, reclaimed his identity as a native son and forged a working plan for a sustainable future based on traditional mores.

Because it was in his nature and, some say, his kuleana as a descendant of alii to pursue the common good, Kenny Brown’s voyage of self-discovery grew into a series of cooperative enterprises that, for more than 40 years, have worked to protect Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources and to restore community health.

“He was very much saying that Hawaiians were the most ancient and primal group still here,” says his wife Joan, explaining Brown’s belief in native Hawaiians’ potent and comparatively recent connection to place and native culture that the rest of the developed world lost long ago. Now, as Oahu’s fertile farmland at Hoopili faces rezoning for urban use with the blessing of the state’s Land, Natural Resources and Ag boards, revealing the emptiness of our government’s sustainability talk, we need viable alternatives. Because of Kenny Brown, there’s a working plan and network already in place, says Maile Meyer, a member of the environmental non-profit Malama Hawaii, which will present Joan and Kenny Brown with an award in their name on March 21.

Kenny envisioned a five-part model, a code of conduct for communities, that integrated social justice, environmental protection, health and wellness, business and education,” Meyer says, noting that Kenny Brown put this holistic approach into action with his leadership of institutions as seemingly diverse as Mauna Lani Resort, Bishop Museum, the East-West Center and The Queen’s Medical Center.

“In all these areas, Hawaiians can help others learn,” Kenny Brown says when asked about his holistic vision, raising a shaky hand and waving it gently, as if in a seated hula. At 93, he is wheelchair bound in his living room overlooking the sea, and his voice, always soft, is now so tremulous that it is an effort for him to speak. Yet, with wide, bright eyes in an animated face, he tries. The eyes say more, of course. They always have.

“He’s very modest . . . very quiet, but you know that he’s always listening,” says Danny Akaka, son of the senator and director of cultural affairs for the Mauna Lani Resort at Kalahuipuaa on the Kona coast, a place rich with sacred sites and fishponds that formerly belonged to Francis Hyde ‘Ii Brown, Kenny Brown’s uncle. “And even now, when he cannot move around too much, yet his mind is still going,” Akaka adds. He and Meyer were co-founders of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association (NHHA), which grew out of a group of young Hawaiians’ talk story sessions with Kenny Brown throughout the 1970s.

On the dining room table, Joan Brown has set four immense scrapbooks filled with press clippings about her husband. As we leaf through them, she stands at my shoulder, adding reminiscences. Through the glass doors you can see the waves raking over coral heads at the surf spot known as Brown’s. When she takes a break for a moment, Kenny Brown and I happily watch, on television, a mega-pod of more than 1,000 dolphins plying the waters off the Southern California coast.

I remember my first visit here, as a timid 11 year old. Kenny Brown was very tall and lanky, with a remote but kindly look. He asked me who I was, and when I blurted out my name (full disclosure: This writer has long been friends with Brown’s daughter Frances), he repeated it and said, with feeling, “Welcome.” And I’ve felt that way ever since in their home, filled always with the sound of the waves.

Curving water

Born in 1919 at Ainamalu, his parents’ home at Kaalawai on Diamond Head beach, Brown has learned from personal experience how irreplaceable lands can be lost. Until 1950, his family owned Waipio, a fertile segment of Central Oahu stretching from Pearl Harbor to the Koolaus. Brown used to sing, in Hawaiian, the haunting song written about the home of his grandmother, Irene Kahalelaukoa ‘Ii Brown.

“I sing the praises of Waipio

Of Kahalelauokeokekoa

Where the fragrance of the flowers

Fills the air and bids thee welcome.”

Waipio means “curving water,” and the Big Island valley that shares the name was ruled by Brown’s ancestor, the 17th-century warrior chief Umi, who invented the concept of ahupuaa as the guiding principle for land use, according to Frances, who has been researching family lore. Brown’s great-grandfather, John Papa ‘Ii, a childhood friend of Kamehameha II, who went on to advise Kamehameha IV and help draft the Constitution of 1852, was born in Waipio, Oahu. When the family sold their 16,300 acres to Hawaiian Pineapple Co. in 1950, it was expected that the land would continue to be cultivated. Now, of course, it has all become suburbanized.

It’s little wonder that, in the 1990s, Brown worked with Friends of the Future to preserve long-term leases for taro farmers in Waipio Valley.

It’s also not surprising that Peter Apo, a cultural tourism consultant and alumnus of the “talk story” group with Brown, testified in Hoopili hearings last week that the farmland’s conversion to housing subdivisions will have a negative impact on tourism. “But we also shouldn’t do it because it takes Ag land out of production, and local people will lose that last bit of view corridor and open space,” Apo says. Yet what Apo, Meyer and other members of NHHA see as Brown’s legacy had to be consciously rediscovered and relearned by him.

Change of heart

A Princeton grad and architect by profession, Brown spent much of his career as a businessman and developer, serving on the boards of Amfac and Hawaiian Airlines. He was a commissioner of the Honolulu Redevelopment Agency from 1962-65. In 1966, at the urging of Gov. John A. Burns, Brown ran as a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, “publicly repudiating his own family’s traditional affiliation with the Republican party,” his daughter Laura wrote in a 2004 NHHA booklet published in Brown’s honor. After losing to Tom Gill, Brown became a special adviser to Burns at a salary of $1 a year, and served from 1968 to 1974 in the state Senate, where “he pushed through a substantial package of environmental legislation,” Laura wrote.

In the late 1960s, Brown was part of the Diamond Head Improvement Association, a hui backed by financier Chinn Ho that sought rezoning for luxury high-rises on the makai slopes of Diamond Head. During Duke Kahanamoku’s funeral in Waikiki in 1968, Brown decided against the development. Instead, he asked that the area be turned into a memorial park in honor of the great waterman. Although the park never happened, neither did the high-rises, and Brown helped to secure Diamond Head’s protection as a Registered National Landmark.

In 1973, along with Myron “Pinky” Thompson, Brown helped to support artist Herb Kane, waterman Tommy Holmes and anthropologist Ben Finney in founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society. As a board member of The Queen’s Medical Center, “his definition of wellness [included] funding Hokulea,” Meyer says, explaining that for Brown, who grew up swimming and surfing, wellness meant strong spirits as well as bodies, “and that was health, being fearless on the open ocean, wind in your hair.”

Malama honua

Since the early 1970s, observing that the western models of medicine and economics weren’t staunching the tide of loss for native Hawaiians, Brown has tirelessly advocated a return to the priorities of “Hawaiian society, with its conservation imperative,” as he put it 39 years ago in a widely quoted speech that defines the Malama Hawaii mission.

It may seem like common, accepted wisdom these days, when even Disney’s Aulani resort pays lip service to the ahupua’a, but Brown was one of the first to go back and tap the source in his quest to save the Hawaiian people’s health and our fragile native ecosystems. For him, it all came together on a voyage to the Hawaiians’ ancestral islands in the South Pacific.

Going back

In an oral history recorded by the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1999, Brown remembers watching his grandmother teach her parrots to speak Hawaiian, a language he never learned as a child.

“I didn’t even know my father could speak Hawaiian,” he remembers. “[George ‘Ii Brown] wanted us to grow up like haoles.” He recalls seeing his dad at parties gravitating to the Hawaiian musicians and looking at them. “There was a huge poignant feeling of pathos there.”

Having sung Hawaiian lyrics by rote, Brown began to learn the meanings of the words. In 1981, the Browns and the Thompsons went with scholar George Kanahele to New Zealand, “where he got his Hawaiianness back,” Joan Brown says. Seeing how the Maori had preserved their cultural institutions and moved by the close similarity in the languages, “[Brown] finally sat in his skin as a Hawaiian,” Meyer adds.

Ku kanaka

The trip to Aotearea inspired Kanahele’s authorship of the groundbreaking Ku Kanaka: Stand Tall, a Search for Hawaiian Values, funded in part by NHHA. The 1986 book, for which Brown wrote the foreword, served as a blueprint for incorporating traditional culture and preservation ethos–as well as new Hawaiian leadership into the visitor industry, something Brown had pioneered at the Japanese-owned Mauna Lani resort after his uncle Francis’s death.

Before the phrase “sustainable tourism” was coined, Brown was working towards it. “One guy wanted to put a big hotel right in the middle of the [fish] ponds,” with bungalows rimming the shores, Joan Brown remembers. Kenny Brown insisted that the estuarial ponds, which had existed at the time of Kamehameha I, be preserved and protected with a buffer zone of open space. He ensured that the main hotel was set far back from the sea and built low to blend in with the landscape.


“I am the first part-Hawaiian to become chairman [of Queen’s] since [King] Kalakaua,” Brown said in his oral history. He was “transformative,” remembers Mele Look, a former medical researcher who is now director of community engagement in the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the UH School of Medicine. Brown was “one of the first to take an integrated, cross-disciplinary approach to healing,” Look says, including preventive care and incorporating hula and laau lapaau (herbal medicine). He also understood how “Queen’s as a first-class Western med center could be [perceived as] unfamiliar and non-welcoming to Hawaiians: individualized not family oriented, formal versus informal, antiseptic vs comfortable . . .” Brown set about changing that.

Brown saw potential “for healing with natural elements, the power of healing places, not just treatment,” says Dr. Emmett Aluli, a physician and medical director of Molokai General Hospital. A member of the Protect Kahoolawe ‘Ohana, whose commitment to heal the bombarded island gave birth to the Hawaiian Renaissance, Aluli has just been at the state Capitol protesting a bill that would relieve the ‘Ohana from responsibility and transfer oversight to the state.

Brown was “so far ahead of his time in recognizing the disparity of health for Hawaiians . . . back in the ‘90s nobody was talking about it,” Look says. “He had the sensitivity to say there is this native Hawaiian group we have a special obligation to serve and assist.”

Brown directed a return to serving Queen Emma’s intent, feeling acutely his responsibility to the woman who founded her hospital during a time when nine out of ten Hawaiians were perishing in epidemics.

Talking with his queen

During his tenure, Brown established regular meetings of the board at Queen Emma’s tomb in the Royal Mausoleum, to visit with her and listen to her counsel. He gave a playful summary of this ritual to The Honolulu Advertiser’s late columnist Bob Krauss:

“Queen Emma: How are [the Hawaiians] doing?

Brown: I’m afraid they have the lowest health indicators of all the ethnic groups in Hawaii.

Queen Emma: So what are you going to do about my mandate to stay the wasting hand?”

One thing Brown did was to reset the values that govern doing business at Queen’s, continuing to invest in rural hospitals and community centers even though they were unprofitable. “He was our Papa ‘Ii, this amazing, incredible visionary,” Aluli says of Brown. “He looked at us as his warriors I think, to put together Molokai being a model for what could happen in a rural area which was basically native Hawaiian.”


After George ‘Ii Brown’s early death, his brother Francis, a legendary golfer and bon vivant, took Kenneth and Joan Brown under his wing, welcoming them frequently to his oceanfront home at Keawaiki, now part of the Mauna Lani. “Uncle Francis took to heart hookipa, hospitality,” Akaka says. “He was a very gracious host, and a lot of this rubbed off on Kenny.”

At the end of our visit, I tell Kenny Brown I’ve been learning from others about how much he inspired them. “Tried to,” he says.

“Aloha,” he adds as I take my leave. “Come back soon.”