Mahana’s message reflects in life, accomplishments of performer 30 years later

SPOKANE, Wash. — Remember Mahana?

You know, she hid in a tree from Johnny Lingo?

If you grew up in the 1980s or later or joined the Church during that time, you probably won't remember. But to the rest, she's an example — not only of earlier BYU Motion Picture productions but also of a message that remains true today: You are what you think you are.

Mahana is still spreading that message. Only her true name is Naomi Kahoilua Wilson — a wife, mother of three, concert piano teacher and a member of the Indian Ward, Spokane Washington North Stake. You would easily recognize her. Her hair is still long, thick and black. Her smile as bright and quick as ever.

"I would be less than honest if I said that the experience [of portraying Mahana] has not had a lifelong effect on me because in many ways I think I have become Mahana to myself and because the message was so strong," she told the Church News while sitting on the bench of a grand piano in her Spokane home.

Mahana's message, she continued, is "what's most important is what we think about ourselves and what we can become when we believe in ourselves, because the Lord knows us best and knows the talents He gave us."

For those who have never seen "Johnny Lingo" and to refresh others' memories: The Church film was produced in 1968 near BYU-Hawaii (then Church College of Hawaii) on the island of Oahu. Naomi Kahoilua, then a 19-year-old drama and theater arts major at the Church College, played the role of Mahana, a shy, timid, stringy haired girl considered "ugly" by even her father. As the film begins, the island village is buzzing with news that Johnny Lingo, played by Blaizdel MaKee ("Star Trek" fans will recognize him in original episodes of that series), is coming to "trade" with her father for her hand in marriage. A high dowry for a "superior" wife was about five cows, as explained by other women gathering to watch.

But they are laughing. How many cows could Mahana be worth? Her father, off to one side, is muttering that he'd be lucky to receive "a cow that gave sour milk" for her. Suddenly, Johnny appears, and one by one, eight cows are presented. Mahana's father is speechless, others just gasp, and the groom takes his stunned new bride away on their honeymoon.

Six months later, the local white trader, played by Francis Urry and known by many as Lorenzo Snow in the Church film "Windows of Heaven," arrives at Johnny's hut with a new beautiful mirror Johnny had ordered for his wife. The trader gives the mirror to Johnny, who calls to Mahana. From behind strands of beads comes a beautiful and graceful woman. Johnny explains to the trader that people appear as they are treated by others and by how they see themselves.

More than three decades have passed since "Johnny Lingo" was featured at Sunday School regional conferences in early 1969, but for Sister Wilson, Mahana's message has played a large part in shaping her life. "I have learned over the years that the message was one of self-esteem, but I have also learned that if one follows the commandments of the Lord that self-esteem is a natural extension."

This is apparent in Sister Wilson's life. After graduating from the Church College of Hawaii, she married her husband, Brent Wilson, in the Hawaii Temple (now called the Laie Hawaii Temple) in 1971. They soon moved to Washington state, where Sister Wilson earned a bachelor's degree in music pedagogy (teaching) from Eastern Washington University. Today, they have three children, Brent, 26, who is preparing for law school; Matthew, 22, who is at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, in pre-dental; and Melanie, 18, who is a freshman at BYU in Provo, Utah, in pre-med.

Sister Wilson is also a former member of the Music Advisory Board at Gonzaga University and is a member of the National Music Teachers Association. She is a former ward Relief Society president and stake Young Women president and ward organist, and continues giving firesides to various Church groups, in particular Young Women gatherings. Along with teaching music, she still performs when she can, including at the Met in downtown Spokane.

But Mahana never seems far away. "The role of Mahana seems interwoven into my whole life," Sister Wilson said. She related how she grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii, the youngest of 10 children. Her parents may not have had much material wealth, she continued, but they instilled in their children a strong work ethic and a love for the gospel. Sister Wilson is a fourth-generation Latter-day Saint whose great-great-grandfather was among the first baptized in 1850 on the Big Island.

And she never forgets her heritage. After she graduated from the Church College of Hawaii, she became a flight attendant for Hawaiian Airlines. As such, she was chosen to represent the airline in photo shoots in inaugurating a new line of DC-9s. She was also asked to christen the new plane. "I did not understand christening then," she recalled. "Everything went well until I saw the champagne bottles."

She realized she was to pose with a champagne glass and break the bottle over the nose of the plane. She told the airline public affairs director she couldn't do it. "In my eyes, I saw that as something that I didn't want to be associated with. Mahana couldn't say yes to that. It just didn't feel right."

Having stood her ground, she prepared to lose her job. However, not only did she remain employed, but a year and a half later, they called her for another photo shoot, this time for the logo to be placed on the tail fins of all Hawaiian Airline jets. Many of those jets today still bear her image, a silhouette of a Polynesian girl.

"That's Mahana," Sister Wilson said, smiling.