A sense of connectedness has been repeatedly shown to be among the most basic and critically important formative influences on all human development, from earliest childhood through mature adulthood. As mainstream American culture continues to fragment, due to the accelerated pace of life forced upon us by our highly mobile economic system (capitalistic materialism), 'family' has become one most critical casualties of our modern culture. It would be to everyone's benefit, therefore, to pause briefly in our frantic rush to pursue jobs, incomes, and careers, to consider the care matrix of ancient (and modern) Hawaiian culture: the 'ohana. Ironically, as much as I loathe anything produced by the Walt Disney Company, Lilo, the little cartoon character in the Disney movie 'Lilo and Stitch' puts it into crystal clear perspective with the phrase "'ohana means family, and family means no one left behind." Anyone who remains unfamiliar with that brilliant little gem of an animated film should see it, for under its wonderfully written whimsy lies a core of truth about the importance of family to all of us.
‘OHANA—THE HAWAIIAN FAMILY
In an information age filled to capacity with an unending stream of random words and allusional references, modern life is concomited to suffering a continuous barrage of inputs and stimuli that somehow fail to enhance our awareness. Instead they more frequently have exactly the opposite of their intended effect: they overwhelm our senses, leaving us with only a bare recollection of a word or a barely focused definition of its precise meaning.
Such is the case with two uniquely Hawaiian words: ‘ohana and ‘aina. While most Hawaiians are familiar with the two words, their use or application among locals is fairly broad and somewhat generalized. Mainlanders (malihini) usually have an even less precise awareness of the words and frequently a fuzzy understanding of their actual meaning.
In a delightful 2004 Disney Films release ‘Lilo and Stitch’ (an animated film that is really all about family and the importance of it in our lives, despite the clever science-fiction touches in its plot), Lilo, the little island keiki wahine (girl-child) whose parents have been killed in an auto accident states “’Ohana is family, and family means no one left behind.” Ironically, the extraterrestrial character ‘Stitch’, an artificially created life-form who has escaped to Earth, begins to develop a rudimentary understanding of exactly what ‘family’ is when he reads one of Lilo’s story books (Hans Christian Anderson’s tales) about the ‘Little Lost Duckling’. Stitch sees in the little lost duckling a parallel to his own fate as a solitary lifeform, marooned on a strange world.
All anthropomorphistic artifice aside, this recurrent thread of provocative sentiment forms the underlying plot of the Disney movie, thereby making it not just a very entertaining film for all ages on one level, but one that has some substantial deeper meaning of benefit to all of us on another. At the end of the film, Stitch find the family he feels he wants so badly in Lilo and her older sister, but more importantly all the characters in the film assume a greater family or ‘ohana that provides fulfillment for them all. Animated children's film (the music alone is wonderful, especially the theme of ‘Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride’) or not, ‘Lilo and Stitch’ remains one of my favorites for several reasons, not least of which is its focus on ‘ohana.
One of the most serious problems Hawaiians face today, aside from the pressing economic issues concerning all native Hawaiians, is the rapid loss of awareness of the old, traditional ways and a fading recollection of the ancient customs and knowledge. Due to the fact that before the arrival of the first missionaries in 1820, the native Hawaiians had no written language, all of their entire recorded history was transmitted and preserved entirely by oral tradition. Passed along in the form of chants, stories, and the spoken word (‘mele’), Hawaiians relied upon selected members of their society to memorise and relate important information to their progeny. In this manner, family and personal genealogies, legends, tales of daring, and collective histories survived each generation to be taken up by the next and perpetuated in this manner.
Such masters of the spoken word had to have prodigious memories and the ability to articulate large bodies of information when called upon. The skills of these individuals were such that they were regarded as kahuna (usually defined as a person possessed of mastery of some subject, but also possibly as a priest of the ancient religion). Since the ancient Hawaiians believed that in order for their ancestors (aumakua) to be properly venerated, spoken chants using the specific names of the departed were extremely important; communication with the aumakua therefore required elaborate spoken chants and precise recitations of events, names, places, and circumstances in order to be received properly by those who had departed this world.
For this reason chiefly, the ancient Hawaiian people placed an extremely high value on the spoken word and individuals blessed with exceptional memories, speaking voices, and the ability to use words intelligently were highly regarded. Ancient Hawaiians were very fond of subtle allegory and humorous allusions in their poems and tales and thus those with a literary ability were valued members of Hawaiian society.
Today, and since the arrival of the missionaries, various attempts have been made to record and commit to paper as many of the old oral traditions as possible, but for many reasons, these attempts have only been partly successful. Thanks to uniquely gifted individuals like John Papa Li, David Malo, Abraham Fornander, Craighill Handy, Mary Kawena Pukui, and even the journals of early visitors like Captain Cook, we have a modest body of preserved knowledge that forms the core of a general history of ancient Hawaiian Society. Despite this fact, there is much that has been lost forever, as the older members of native Hawaiian society (kupuna, or honored elders) inevitably pass away, taking important family memories and personal recollections with them.
Compounding the problem in present-day Hawaii is the harmful intrusion of what I call ‘mainland pop-culture’ in the islands, as the younger generation embraces the ‘throw-away’ vicarious thrills and superficial, self-gratifying sensations of heavily commercialized American society. As modern Hawaiian youth gravitate more and more to the contrived youth sub-culture that typifies the mainland’s pop-music economy, concern with the traditional culture of the islands has fallen sharply off and continues to fade away at an alarming rate. Thankfully, a small but dedicated group of cultural activists have taken on this issue with gratifying results. So-called ‘Hawaiian Immersion Programs’ have taken root in several places throughout the islands in which almost all learning, studying, and educational instruction take place within a strong central structure of subjects like Hawaiian language and heritage.
Despite these efforts to reverse a trend among youth to gravitate away from their cultural roots (and towards vacuous mainland youth pop-culture, with its unhealthy emphasis on violent escapist gaming, substance abuse, and selfish, personal gratification), more and more of the old culture falls away with each passing year.
The foregoing information is presented more as context within which to understand the fact that although many uniquely Hawaiian words are today tossed about casually (by both locals and mainlanders), with little reflection on what some of those words actually mean, under the strictest of interpretations. ‘Ohana and ‘aina, are two of those words, and two words that have some of the most importance to both native Hawaiians and all who take an interest in Hawaiian culture.
In 1958 a collaborative work appeared, authored by distinguished historians Dr. Mary Kawena Pukui and Dr. E.S. Craighill Handy, that has proven to be one of the most valuable compilations of knowledge on traditional Hawaiian culture yet produced. Titled ‘The Polynesian Family System in Kau’u, Hawaii’, and the product of intensive, grassroot fieldwork done by both of the authors among actual kanaka kama’aina (long-time native locals), the 260 page book represents one of the best resources to be found on traditional Hawaiian life and the ancient society. Dealing with manners, customs, birth, death, mating, marriage, religious beliefs, sexual practices, and social mores of ancient Hawaiian life, it remains one of the most important references to be found on that core of all Hawaiian culture…the ‘ohana.
Before I continue along that thread of thought, it is of substantial interest to me, and I would imagine to many others who understand and appreciate the profound effects of intracultural mixing that today characterises modern Hawaii, that Dr. Handy’s co-author, Mary Kawena Pukui (born in 1895) had a New England (American) father and a full-blooded native Hawaiian mother. Dr. Pukui, whose name is almost synonymous with serious Hawaiian cultural study, was for several decades associated with the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu as a staff member, Hawaiian language translator, and researcher. Her name appears on a great number of important works dedicated to Hawaiian cultural studies, including several English-Hawaiian dictionaries and collections of traditional Hawaiian stories, poems, and prose.
As some of you know, ‘diversity’, a subject that receives great lip-service from many today, can be and usually is a mixed blessing. In its larger context, clustering diversely differing ethnic groups together (as in the ‘melting pop’ example of American diversity), diversity may frequently prove to be acutely problematic, when there is a resistance to acculturation present. On a personal, individual level, however, as in the instance where two people from widely differing ethnic backgrounds fall in love and marry, the result is more often a genetic marvel of human biology, with the best and most admirable genetic traits and abilities of both parents coming together in the progeny produced by the union.
Such was the case in Mary Kawena Pukui’s ancestry and such is also the case all over modern Hawaii today, as the islands contain more racially mixed couples than anywhere else in America. With the best ethnic characteristics of Japan, China, Hawaii, the Filipines, and Anglo Europeans all merging into a confluence of widely varying genetics, Hawaii produces a rich blend of talented individuals who continue to contribute to the overall benefit of Hawaiians everywhere.
Regardless of the tendency towards embracing racial diversity that most perfectly characterises today’s Hawaii, and notwithstanding the tendency for Hawaiian life to become more and more homologised with that of the mainland, the single most important aspect of the ancient and traditional culture remains the Hawaiian ‘ohana, or ‘family’. It is the ‘ohana that the Disney cartoon ‘Lilo and Stitch’ refers to, but it is also the broader definition of ‘family’ that concerns all Hawaiians and helps define Hawaiian culture as a whole. Stayed tuned as we explore this concept a bit in the following paragraphs.
Understanding the Hawaiian ‘ohana requires some understanding of many things, not least of which is the physical geography of the islands, which are the result of active volcanism through mid-ocean riffs in the Earth’s sub-oceanic mantle. Over the past millenium, continental drift has resulted in a progressive shift of the islands eastward, away from the active volcanic riff that now underlies the ‘Big Island’ of Hawaii. Thus the eastern-most islands of Kauai and Ni’ihau are among the oldest of the island chain and the big island of Hawaii is the newest (and still actively growing). Because all the islands originally occurred as a result of active volcanism, all are dominated (more or less) by central internal volcanic mountains that descend to the ocean shores.
The traditional Hawaiian land distribution under the ancient Chiefs (Ali’i, or royalty) consisted of the Ahupua’ha, a parcel of the Moku (island or larger district) that was pie-shaped and stretched from the highest point on the island to the shoreline. This parcel consisted of varying terrain that included very wet forested areas at the highest points, down to middle elevation flora, and downward to the shore areas. Each was suitable for different types of activity. Forests would provide wood, while middle elevations were often more suitable for growing crops, and shore areas supported fishing and ocean-related activity. This type of geographic diversity supported what we call a ‘dispersed pattern’ of human activity, with some groups living higher up on the slopes of the vcolcano, while others lived in the middle elevations to cultivate crops, and others lived at the water’s edge, where their natural activity would consist of cultivating resources found in the ocean.
Unlike other parts of Polynesia (such as Samoa), Hawaii lacked discrete villages. Rather the norm incorporated this dispersed pattern of population distribution alluded to above not as a discrete ‘community’ in the conventional sense of a village, but a dispersed community regarded as ‘ohana. By this term one understood that all the members of the dispersed community were relatives by blood. That is, individuals by birth, marriage, sentiment, or adoption who were tied to a particular local area known as the ‘aina. In today’s modern Hawaii the terms ‘ohana and ‘aina have come to be regarded more loosely and generally as ‘immediate family’ and ‘native land’, but in ancient Hawaii, ‘ohana meant those who were located in a particular area and related and ‘aina was defined as the local area one came from (not the greater concept of ‘the motherland’).
Thus, the fundamental unit of all Hawaiian social demographics was the ‘ohana, or dispersed, greater family of related individuals who cam from one particular area (the ‘aina), and not a village (as was the case in Somoa, Tahiti, and on other Polynesian islands). The extended and all-inclusive family (‘ohana) and the ‘local area lived in’ (the ‘aina) thus both constituted the Hawaiian model of community. The origin of the two distinctly Hawaiian words, ‘ohana and ‘aina bear some further reflection, for both came from an agricultural setting. ‘Ohana is comprised of the Hawaiian word that mean ‘to sprout’ (‘oha) and the suffix ‘na’. Together, ‘oha and na mean ‘off-shoots’ or ‘sprouting from’, and came originally from their association with the growing of Kale (or Taro, as it is more widely known). The use of the term ‘ohana therefore has a meaning that derives from the cultivation of Taro and is broadly understood as ‘off-shoots of a family stock’.
The term ‘aina, in a similar manner, which means ‘native area’ or locale, is comprised of the two words ‘ai, which means ‘to feed’, and the suffix ‘na’. Used together, they came to be understood as ‘that which feeds’ or ‘feeder’. Thus, the Hawaiian regard for the ‘aina originally represented the native Hawaiian’s regard for the soil which supported him and his ‘ohana. In today’s modern Hawaiian culture, the term ‘aina has popularly come to mean the entire state of Hawaii, consisting of all its island lands, through common usage.
Evidence of the principal cultural importance of Taro as the native Hawaiian staple food is found in the terms ‘ohana and ‘aina in that the entire ancient Hawaiian diet was formed around the cultivation of Taro. Taro, a starchy vegetable that is rich in nutritional value, is what botanists call a ‘corm’ and not a root or a tuber, as is popularly thought. The starch filled bulb at the base of the Taro sprouts leafy off-shoots, which may be cut off and replanted, thereby growing more Taro. Although the Taro’s starchy bulb, lying below the surface of the watery field it is grown in, is itself harvested and used to make poi, the leaves are also very edible and are reported to be even tastier and more nutritious than spinach.
The planted and re-planted Taro ‘oha (off-shoot from the Taro ‘parent’) thus propagates and formed the staple of life (the ‘ai) on the land (‘ai-na) for the ancient Hawaiians. As generation after generation repeated this cycle of Taro growth and cultivation, the terms ‘ohana and ‘aina came to become identified figuratively, psychically, and physically with the Hawaiian extended family.
Of further interest is the fact that the Hawaiian ‘ohana consisted not only of its living members, but also of its departed ancestors and forbears who were described as ‘kupuna’. The word Kupuna is also a uniquely Hawaiian agricultural term that is made up of the Hawaiian verb infinitive ‘to grow’ (kupu) and the suffix ‘na’, which together comprise the word that is today most commonly used to refer to honored elders, but traditionally was a common term of reference for both living elders and deceased ancestors. The commonly used Hawaiian term ‘Aumakua’, is most commonly employed to refer to the spirits of departed ancestors or deceased kupuna.
A further concept that bears directly to the vertical geographic nature of the dispersed Hawaiian family unit that was ‘community’ is based on the ‘upward land’ (lying higher up the volcano’s slopes) and ‘lower land’ (lying further down the slopes, to the ocean’s edge). The Hawaiian word for ‘upland’ is ‘uka’, while the word for ‘seaward’ is ‘kai’. Thus we have the present general usage Hawaiian word that is commonly used to describe locales that are higher up, or away from the shore, as ‘mauka’, and its counterpart that is used to describe seaward directions, ‘makai’.
It is important, in understanding the present day dilemma of many native Hawaiian’s not possessing land, to realize that in ancient Hawaii the land was not privately owned by individuals. All land in Hawaii prior to the arrival of the first Christian evangelical missionaries belonged to the royalty (Ali’i). These local chiefs depended upon the greater chief under whose rule the smaller, feudal chiefs thrived. Thus the concept of privately held property in the western sense was entirely foreign to the people of Hawaii. When the ‘Great Mahele’ (land redistribution) of King Kamehameha III took place in the mid-1800s, one of its avowed purposes was to allow the individual, common Hawaiian to own his own land. However, so unfamiliar were the people with the basic concept of ‘private ownership’ that many (most all) failed to file for their property and thus lost all legal rights to their property to western malihinis (mainlanders) and the offspring of the original missionaries (who in many cases ended up with vast tracts of Hawaiian land as their own private property).
Returning to the concept of ‘upland’, or mauka areas within a specific auhupua’a, (land division) and ‘shoreward’, or makai locales, since people in each of these regions would cultivate, hunt, trade, and interact, it was natural that marriage partners would also result from these interminglings. This, over a period of time, would expand the ‘ohana throughout the entire apuhua’a, further expanding the traditional ‘ohana as a dispersed community of related individuals.
The basic unit within the greater dispersed community, or ‘ohana, was the household. A number of words were used to describe the household, but perhaps the most common one used today is ‘hale’ (or ‘house’). There were, within the greater ‘ohana, several subcategories of individuals that included ‘Ohua (dependents or retainers, unrelated by blood), individuals who might be adopted as sons, daughters, or elders, and those who lived and worked with the ‘ohana who might eventually intermarry and become blooded family members. The overall head of the household was not necessarily the senior elder, but an adult who was charged with responsibility to make decisions and administer daily affairs; this person, who could be somewhat younger than might be expected for someone in a position of authority in the west, was called the ‘po’o’. The senior head of the greater dispersed community (‘ohana) was known as the haku, a term that can mean ‘master’ or ‘director’. His was the senior voice of leadership for the greater ‘ohana and although the respected elder members of the ‘ohana (kupuna) were listened to respectfully and looked to for moral and social guidance, the Haku’aina (or master of the land) of the greater ‘ohana was in overall charge of the ‘ohana’s affairs.
Because various economically important activities occurred in the different mauka (upland) and makai (seaward) areas of the apuhua’a, a system of obligatory giving developed among those who hunted, those who cultivated, and those who fished. This was the ancient origin of what is today referred to as the ‘Aloha Spirit’ of giving freely, although in those ancient days, the well being and welfare of all the members of the dispersed ‘ohana community relied upon this system of free exchange of goods and foodstuffs. When a a household that produced tapa cloth (processed treebark fabric) needed food, he or she would make a gift of tapa fabric to a household that cultivated Taro, or to a fisherman living in the shoreward area. These households would then respond with an equal gift of food, fish, taro, fruit, or whatever they produced in their part of the apuhua’a.
At certain times of the season all households within the greater dispersed community of the ‘ohana would gather together and share things as part of a celebration that could be as small as a local marriage or as large as a major festival (an example of the latter would be Makahiki, which although a sort of annual ’New Year’ festival lasting 4 months, was also a religious celebration of the return of the deity Lono). Thus, the overall social norms of the ‘ohana presupposed a strongly reflexive giving towards the betterment of all members of the ‘ohana. While the lands were not ‘owned’ as they would be in any western sense, the members of the ‘ohana regarded it as their duty to cared for the land and be its custodian—a reflection of the fact that they depended upon the land (‘aina) for their survival, health, and basic well being.
This archetypal regard for the land exists to this day in the form of traditional Hawaiian respect for the Earth as the mother of all life and it helps explain why the ancient Hawaiians were therefore among the earliest environmentalist and protectors of the Earth’s ecology. This trait contrasts greatly (and it should be noted, not without substantial irony) with America’s materialistic western regard for the earth as merely a convenient repository of readily convertible raw resources that may be reclaimed and turned into consumer products for economic gain.
In ancient Hawaii, each household consisted of a number of separate, but associated houses that together comprised what was called the ‘kauhale’ (‘dwellings’). Thus, each household could have several houses in one area, as well as a different cluster in another area, and the ‘kauhale’ were frequently separated by some distance. A kauhale could consist of a cluster of dwellings in the mid-elevations for cultivating food, another cluster of dwellings on the shoreline for fishing, and perhaps even more higher up on the volcanic slopes for hunting and harvesting wood products.
Further, there were specific functions assigned to various houses in each cluster, with certain dwellings designated as sleeping huts, others for eating (men ate separately from the women and children, for their eating hut was regarded as a religiously significant place in which food offerings were made to the gods and ancestors), cooking huts that consisted of stone walled areas with thatched roofs for food preparation, and even a hut in which women who were menstruating (and thereby considered ‘unclean’) would stay until their period had concluded. There were other huts within the kauhale that were task specific, such as those for canoe makers and others used to house fishing gear.
Traditionally, the term ‘kauhale’ referred to these clusters of dwellings or huts that people would occupy as part of the dispersed community of the ‘ohana, although in more recent times, with the change from clustered dwellings to a single home, the term was changed to ‘Ka Hale’ (meaning ‘the home’). The modern Hawaiian word for ‘village’ or ‘community’ is ‘kaona’, an anglicized word derived from the word ‘town’.
There were other habitations used as dwellings on the apuhua’a, such as large trees, part of which would be cut away to made a sort of protective room. On the beach areas by the shore, caves (known as ana or lua) would also occasionally be used as living areas, since they were cool during hot summer periods and were also a convenient refuge to take shelter in, should neighboring Ali’i declare war on other chieftains. Since the volcanic activity on the islands left many lava tubes and other subterranean passages in the land that were by nature cool and dry, these were convenient and used for a number of purposes (no least of which was the burying of ‘iwi’ (literally: bones), or remains of higher ranking members of the community).
In the times since the precipitous abandonment of the ancient religious system of Kapus (‘taboos’) in 1819 and consequent to the severe impositions made upon traditional ways by the Christian missionaries, with their markedly different system of morals, social behaviors , and cultural practices, the ancient ways have been subject to continuing deterioration. Another influence that has had considerable impact in progressively deteriorating the ancient system of ‘ohana and ‘aina has been intermarriage of native Hawaiians to foreigners such as the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Western Europeans.
Today, there are generally two broad classes of attitude in this matter. One group remains closely tied to the old Hawaiian ways and customs, but the other has adopted western ways and customs in the prevailing and predominant American mainland manner. Families that have racially mixed ancestry have adopted and incorporated customs from their husbands’ or wives’ cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Filipino for the most part), and this has also resulted in a considerably change to the traditional precept of the Hawaiian ‘ohana. Most families today accept a mix of customs from all their ancestors, while still holding to a generalized concept of the family as a smaller variety of the traditional ‘ohana.
The changes in agriculture that characterise Hawaii’s economic development in the past century have also had a profound effect on the traditional regard native Hawaiians have maintained for the ‘ohana and their ‘aina. As the basic foodstuff of native Hawaiians has changed from Taro to rice, this has further distanced native Hawaiians from their roots.
Today, the changes wrought in Hawaii since the time of the missionaries have forever changed the strict observance of the old customs of ‘ohana and ‘aina, most notably in the cities and major westernised urban areas. In the rural areas of many of the islands, and particularly in such places as Molokai, where the majority of the people are native Hawaiians with 50% or more Hawaiian blood, the old spirit of the traditional ‘ohana and ‘aina values still exist to a substantial degree.
In a modern and greatly broadened sense, the definition of ‘ohana and ‘aina in the islands has grown to embrace a humane regard for the islands as a whole and the mother earth itself, and who is to say that is not appropriate and fitting? Although change is inevitable and there is no reversing or stopping change, once started, change doesn’t have to isolated and separate us from the knowledge that we are all members of the greater family of man. We cannot let the quality of our lives be dictated by the need of economic interests to profit from our exploitation.
All of us may learn from the example of traditional Hawaiian regard for the ‘ohana and the ‘aina, for it is those giving, cooperative, and sharing customs growing out of the old ways that are most needed in today’s selfish, narcissistic, and obsessively self-preoccupied American culture. The best aspects of the old, traditional ways are a valuable and near-priceless heritage that we have received from the old culture of ancient Hawaii and that in many ways far surpass the hypocritical morality and often deceitfully exploitative ethics that institutionalised western Christianity and American capitalism has imposed upon the Hawaiian people since 1820.
In my opinion, as one who has studied many different cultures, there is much to reclaim from ancient Hawaiian culture and perhaps most of all is that spirit of endless, kindred sharing of self and possessions that characterised the original Hawaiian culture. In our coldly callous and narrowly selfish American culture, despite all of our immense material resources, we Americans have forgotten the importance of shared concern for all humanity and for the welfare of our neighbors. It shouldn’t require religions, churches, and priests to remind us that we all share the planet much as the ancient Hawaiians shared the islands, as protectors of the Earth and caretakers of all life. All we have to do is look back to Hawaii of the pre-Christian era to receive inspiration from the old ways that have now become so threatened by crass, modern American capitalism.
In the overall view, however, it is the sense of cooperative interreliance, shared concern, and mutual support exemplified by the traditional Hawaiian ‘ohana that is most conspicuously absent in our culture. Given the highly technologised, hyper-mobile nature of America’s economic system, any prior sense of regionality, of localized empathy, cultural congruency, or belonging has long since departed the scene. Whatever sense of ‘family’ or kindred belonging found in the ancient Hawaiian culture that America may have once had has now largely vanished. One of the most profound results of this dynamic is a widespread sense of social anomie and bleak feelings of utter social isolation that exist within many individuals in America.
Although the mainland can never connect with that spirit of sharing and giving that characterised the ancient Hawaiian ‘ohana spirit, we may still learn from the traditions of old Hawaii’s example. ‘Family’ and a sense of benevolent commonality (with its consequent sense of 'connectedness' and congruent interest are what most of us miss most in our lives today. Perhaps in reflecting further upon this stark emotional vacuum felt by so many on the mainland, more of us will reject the philistine example of rampant, crass and selfishly impersonal American commercialism that dominates our society and actively search for circumstances more closely aligned with those deep human needs for ‘community’ that are locked away inside all of us. It may still not be too much to hope for.