‘Aunty Deva,’ bringer of aloha spirit to Vancouver, dies at 62

Hawaii native, Ke Kukui Foundation creator, passed away Monday

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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Deva Yamashiro, the Hawaiian native who embodied aloha spirit in her adopted home of Vancouver via dedicated cultural education and joyous celebration, died Monday after a long battle with cancer. She was 62.

“We’ve all been blessed and impacted by this larger than life person,” Yamashiro’s son, Kaloku Holt, posted on Facebook. “We ask that you remember all the great times … and make her proud by carrying on and staying strong. We will continue to be inspired by her.”

Yamashiro’s family and fans were thrilled to swarm Vancouver City Hall during a council meeting last month in order to accept the honor of having her birthday, Sept. 15, declared Deva Leinani Aiko Yamashiro Day in Vancouver. But “Aunty Deva,” as everyone loved to call her, could not attend because of her declining health.

That same week she also learned that she’d won a 2017 Governor’s Heritage Award from Gov. Jay Inslee for her contributions to culture as a “master traditional artist” and a recognized “tradition bearer,” according to the nomination criteria. Her family had hoped to see her attend the Nov. 14 award ceremony and dinner at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

Still, “It’s a blessing that she was able to see for herself” that she’d won these honors, said longtime friend Rhona Sen Hoss. Sen Hoss, who said Yamashiro was her childhood neighbor and elementary school classmate, was astounded to run into her one day, about 25 years ago, at a riverside concert in Vancouver.

“She lived aloha,” Sen Hoss said. “She was caring and open, and her spirit was so gentle and loving. That’s what aloha is all about. I love her not only because she really brought aloha to this community, or wherever she went, but because she truly lived it.”

Way of life

Yamashiro grew up studying hula under prestigious teachers and participating several times in the Merrie Monarch Festival — the premier hula festival in the world, often called “the Olympics of hula.” But she was the single mother of two young boys when she moved to the mainland — to Nashville, Tenn., where she had family — in search of greater opportunity.

But it remained a hardscabble life, her sons told The Columbian in September. “I don’t know how she did it,” Keawe Holt said.

Eventually she moved again, to Vancouver, where her dedication to teaching hula blossomed into the Ke Kukui Foundation, a multifaceted educational institution that works to keep Hawaiian and Polynesian culture alive through music, history, language, cooking and other lessons as well as the annual Three Days of Aloha in the Pacific Northwest, a huge summer festival in Esther Short Park that draws participants from as far away as Hawaii itself. 

“Aloha” has been repurposed as a simple friendly greeting in recent years, but its original meaning is deeper and subtler: it’s “the breath of life,” “love and respect,” “peace,” “compassion” and “mercy.”

“It’s a way of life,” Yamashiro told The Columbian in 2015. “It’s in your spirit and your being. If the world had more aloha, we wouldn’t have all these problems.”

No plans have yet been announced for a memorial service.