Hawaii Through the Looking Glass: Ancient Manners & Customs
As a hack historian, it is perhaps fortunate that the very first thing I learned in my early studies of history is that there is absolutely no such thing as actual, factual history. Everything we know today about what went before us has been handed down to us as a highly personalised interpretation of events. As with any interpretation, this information has been filtered through ordinary human bias, altered by belief, and reshaped by the interpreter into its final form, for even the most astute, most objective, and most academically disciplined person retains personal bias of some sort or another. No one, in other words, is absolutely objective and unequivocally neutral in their perception (or recording) of events that occurred before their own time. In reading any history—all histories—one must not only be mindful of this fact but constantly ask the question “How partisan (towards or against the events being described) is the historian?”
With regard to Hawaiian history, there are exceptionally unique handicaps that further interfere with our learning of the factual past in the Hawaiian Islands. Chief among these is the fact that the ancient Hawaiians had no written language, other than a system of pictographs that could convey meaning only in a most rudimentary and very limited manner. For the most part, historical events and accounts were preserved in the form of oral histories, the referent term in Hawaiian being ‘mele’, or chants relayed by oral recitation in the form of ‘songs’ (accompanied by traditional Hawaiian musical instruments, such as the drum or gourd).
To the ancients, the most important historical information above all other types was the personal or family genealogical history, taking its highest and most meaningful form in the accounting of the lineage of royal persons (Ali’i), starting with the Ali’i Nui, or ‘High Chief’. Since the ‘Ali’i Nui Loa’ (Highest Chief) was presumed to be a semi-god from whom all others descended (both figuratively and literally), all other orally transmitted ‘histories’ took lessened precedence, although after the abolishment of the traditional ‘kapu’ system in 1819, other more generalised common social foci of Hawaiian society (such as individual and family histories) gained importance and renewed prominence.
Before delving into the somewhat obscure subject of traditional Hawaiian manners and customs—on a regrettably diminished and considerably condensed scale, out of sheer necessity and economy of scale—it is useful to remind ourselves exactly why human societies and cultures have such behavioral institutions as are traditions, manners, customs, and the various forms of etiquette, since we live in today’s modern, highly Westernised world of clashing cultural values euphemistically known and characterised (by the politically correct pedants among us) as ‘diversity’.
Manners, customs, traditions, and systems of etiquette are all intended to achieve a single common objective: to permit the stable perpetuation of any given society or culture, with the least permissible amount of disharmony and disruption. It was as true of primitive, rudimentary prototypic human cultures as it is today, although with the establishment of what I call the ‘Great American Experiment’ that is the United States of America, an entirely new and potentially destabilising dynamic came into existence (with the rise of the American capitalistic enterprise economic model) that threatens to destroy whatever blessings of modernity our system of democratic freedom has conferred upon us.
With regard to this last mentioned effect, the culpable operative mechanism of social degeneration within the American capitalistic economic model is the tendency for powerful corporate business interests to exploit that element of modern American society least capable of or prepared to defend itself against economic exploitation: youth.
Traditionally, social systems of etiquette, manners, courteous behavior, and customs were dedicated in no small part towards the task of helping prepare immature, youthful members of society to gain the personal maturity, wise insights, and skilled behavioral resources required to assume a meaningful, responsible, and productive place in one’s own society. This was the model more or less in existence from the very establishment of the United States of America in the late 1700s, right up through the early 1950s.
With the simultaneous disharmonious convergence of several aspects of scientific technology (television and the subsequent reinvention of capitalistic marketing technology permitted by the new communications medium) in the 1950s, a sea change began to occur that would have profoundly far-reaching effects on just about every aspect of modern American culture. Consequent to the massive youthful backlash that characterised adolescent resistance to the American war in Vietnam, at first fiercely dismissed by the traditional capitalistic business world (that saw it as potentially destabilising and a threat to traditional business paradigms), it was not long before the hard-edged, philistine spirit of flinty ‘Yankee’ entrepreneurial enterprise recognised in those millions of rebelling adolescents a vast and untapped market of potential materialist consumers: youth.
Beginning with the morally amorphous and ethically ambiguous entertainment industries in Hollywood, American commercial enterprise began to cleverly co-opt popular symbols of youthful dissent and cultural ‘contrarisms’ for the purpose of selling material goods, services, and related consumable material products. In this manner, the entire movement of youthful rebellion (prior to the rise of television a highly contained and localized phenomenon) was seized upon by commercial businesses to produce products identified with social rebelliousness that could be sold to the legions of disaffected (and intellectually immature) youths. Youthful naïveté was about to be actively ‘mined’ by commerce on a scale of potential profits previously not even conceived of!
Before the end of the 1960s, sub-cultural ‘rock & roll’, Black ‘blues’ and jazz traditions were all being heavily promoted by these clever (if somewhat amoral) commercial marketers to the tune of multiples of millions of dollars of profit each year. All of these now highly comercialised anti-social dynamics were in effect almost entirely taken over by crass commercial enterprise and exploited for profit. Since much of the zeitgeist of the youth movement involved rejection of norms, customs, etiquette, manners, and in fact anything the traditional culture embraced, rudeness, discourteous behavior and ‘bad boy’ attitudes formed the spiritual core of much of this exploitation by business interests. This may be seen and marked as a key factor in what sociologists today refer to as the continuing ‘trivialisation’ of American consciousness, a broad reduction of social concern and awareness that has contributed greatly to the ‘dumbing down’ phenomenon in America. It is catastrophically perpetuated today in the glorification by youth of gang and street culture that promotes violence, misogyny, and substance abuses.
This devastatingly destabilising dynamic continues with full strength in modern society, with the signal qualifier being that in the years since the early 60s, the power conferred by psychological and economic marketing forces upon commercial business has simply grown logarithmically, fueled and powered by irresistibly powerful elements of science and technology (much of it in the communications arena), itself supported by the co-dependent efforts of the alluringly pervasive advertising industry.
The overall functional impact of this near-overwhelming assault on collective American social consciousness has been to codify antisocial behavior and attitudes into unspoken statutory law throughout the entire subculture of modern youth. Thus generalised rudeness, lack of concern for others, intentional irresponsibility, and deliberate abject disregard for anything that smacks of conventional social etiquette have become the norm blindly hewed to by both adolescent youth and that large percentage of the general population who lead puerile lives of immature, arrested-adolescent awareness (one is tempted to say those of low or limited intellectual and social intelligence, or awareness, but I’ll refrain from that blanket condemnation for the sake of simplifying the argument).
In terms of diversity, one of the principal underlying currents of change that have abetted the rise of fashionable youthful antisocial behavior, the demographic nature of the United States has undergone a similar sea-change since the end of the Second World War, in that although Caucasians used to constitute the primary majority of Americans, the massive influx of individuals from other cultural backgrounds to the United States has now so changed the basic American demographic dynamic that there is absolutely no ‘traditional cultural hegemony’ at all remaining. This is, of course, more than somewhat ironic in a nation that traditionally prided itself in welcoming unfortunate or disadvantaged members of divergent cultures, creeds, faiths, and beliefs to its fold, for this very process has now advanced to the point where cultural diversity threatens to tear the entire nation apart instead of strengthening it. Among those afflicted with the ‘political correctness’ virus, ‘diversity’ is still a hallowed and iconic word, noisily embraced and promoted as a positive social process, when sadly enough, it shall likely inevitably destroy us entirely as a nation of ‘united’ states.
The fact that it (diversity) could be (a positive and invigorating demographic force), if only those immigrants from other cultures wished to become strongly acculturated in the ways and customs of their new American homeland, is moot, since instead of wishing to embrace ‘traditional’ American values (read: a heritage largely of White, Anglo-Saxon and Christian origins), many of these new arrivals show strong signs of wishing to remain tightly clustered in their subjective ethnic enclaves, once they have entered the United States. The result, entirely predictable by even the most amateurish and unrefined sociologist, is what we have today: a culture of radically diverse racial and ethnic antagonisms, sub-cultural distrusts, antipathies, and social class shear-forces. Above all the potential social disadhesiveness that modern American diversity threatens is the highly manipulative commercial power of corporate business marketing and advertising, an unholy symbiotic conglomerate totally without moral rectitude, that exists solely to exploit the cultural chaos by co-opting symbolic angst and converting it into marketable products for profit.
The above is a model worth being mindful of as the subject turns now to traditional Hawaiian manners, customs, models of behavior, and social etiquette. In many ways, given the headaches and stress that this referenced social degeneration of ‘diverse America’ entails for those of us who still retain a strong sense of social responsibility, a study of the ancient Hawaiians is a worthy exercise in refreshing renewal of hope for reestablishing social harmony. Although there was much about the ancient (Hawaiian) society that was imperfect, so too was there much to be said for it. The one thing that one needs to keep clear on is that ancient Hawaiian society was the antithesis of diversity; that is, there was a strong and pervasive cultural and social hegemony extant throughout…at least prior to the concurrence of the ending of the kapu system with the (unfortunate) arrival of the evangelical Pentecostal Christian missionaries! Of equal misfortune (in all fairness), even if the effects of Christianity are factored totally out of the Hawaiian social formula, were the nearly as devastating cultural depredations of Western commercial enterprises (in the form of trading and whaling) that preceded the Christian invasion, and continued after its establishment.
Sadly, in the past hundred years or so of ethnic and racial intermixing, outside exploitation of the islands by Western commerce, and most recently the pervasive intrusion of the worst aspects of American pop-culture, we are now limited to studying this subject under a microscope, since these details characterise a past that is now (if not entirely dead) endangered to the point of extinction.
And with these sad facts stated, let’s look at some traditional Hawaiian forms of social behavior.
An overview of ancient Hawaiian behavioral norms
As mentioned in an earlier article on Hawaiian culture in which the family structure of Hawaii was examined in some detail, the ‘ohana (family) has formed the traditional matrix of the collective social structure that originally characterised all life the Hawaiian Islands. The root term ‘oha’ in the spoken Hawaiian language literally means ‘offshoot’ or sprouting branch, and was a reference to the life sustaining Kalo (Taro) plant that formed the central core of the traditional Hawaiian diet. ‘Ohana’ therefore means the collective form of these offshoots or offspring, symbolized by the family of related individuals. ‘Ohana lived in small, localized clusters of dwellings known as kauhale, effectively constituting extended family communities wherein related individuals existed in a socially collective manner, sharing, exchanging, and generally looking out for one another’s welfare. The contrast between the traditional ‘collectivity’ of ancient Hawaiian culture and modern imported ‘individualistic’ American culture could hardly be more drastic, constituting a paradoxical effect of greatly adverse effect that has contributed substantially to the disintegration of traditional Hawaiian culture over the past hundred or more years.
Unlike most modern ‘Heinz-57’ Americans (the Hawaiians would in all likelihood refer to the unaware malihini as aesthetic ‘poi dogs’, or mutts), the ancient Hawaiians were exceptionally keen observers of mental, physical, and temperamental nuances in others. The range of subtleties discerned by Hawaiians in their songs, personal interactions, and aphoristic proverbs is enormous and immense, and these observations often found expression in mele chants where they may still be discovered by the culturally astute observer today.
One of the many misapprehensions maintained by cultural outsiders (malihini) who have yet paid some small attention to modern Hawaiiana is that the ancients were sexually promiscuous to an extraordinarily high degree. Perhaps this attitude came originally to us from the rigidly proprietary and religiously conservative missionaries, whose ideas of sexual promiscuity varied radically (by at least an order of magnitude) from today’s more liberal definition of the term. The concept definitely gained strength as a result of the whoring tendencies most foreign sailors had upon making landfall in the islands, back in the 1700s and 1800s, finding island girls nubile, enticing and eager. But for whatever reason, the average Westerner regards the Hawaiians today as sexually ‘loose’ by custom. In fact, this is a distortion of fact, and permanent unions between man and woman were the norm among that larger element of ancient Hawaiian society known as ‘commoners’. Even among the Ali’i (royalty), the sexual norm was not broad sexual promiscuity, but formalized, ritualised polygamy. The majority of ancient Hawaiians regarded loose sexual promiscuity with disdain, viewing those who engaged in casual sex as morally dissolute, holding such relaxed attitudes in general contempt.
Mindful, however, of the absence of any such institution in ancient Hawaii as Christian marriage (with all its stuffy sexual and moral baggage), courtship and mating customs favored freedom of choice, spontaneity, and passionate attachment as acceptable preludes to permanent mating among those who were of sufficient age to enter into such an adult relationship. The serious responsibilities of kane (man) to wahine (woman), and vice versa, never escaped the awareness of prospective mates, since although there was much freedom of choice in terms of selecting a mate (among commoners), elders (kupuna) provided beneficial advice and wise admonishment to youths of mating age. It is safe to assume that although sexual desire was perhaps a very, very strong factor (as it would naturally be) in the selection of a suitable mate, eligible youths were always aware of the greater, practical, and enduring aspects of any potentially suitable pairing.
Although there was no sense of shame implicit in either nakedness or sexual expression, in contrast to attitudes common to Christian beliefs, there were proscriptive norms (kapu, or forbidden) that governed certain behavioral acts involving clothing, personal drapes and sleeping mats of tapa (bark-cloth). As an example, individuals would not share their intimate apparel, such as the malo (loincloth), nor would women wear clothing intended for wear below the waist above the waist (as over a shoulder) at any time. In this connection, the Christian manner of sleeping between sheets struck the ancient Hawaiians as markedly wrong, since one did not sleep under covers per the Hawaiian custom: sleeping mats were only for sleeping on, and when not in use in that context, they were hung up where there was little chance of stepping on them.
There was no exchange of clothing between the genders, either, except in deliberate, exceptional circumstances involving mahu roles (transgender sexuality) and only rarely were garments worn by one family member worn by another of the same gender; almost certainly they were never worn by same gender individuals outside of one’s immediate ‘ohana.
Since a woman’s menstrual outflow was considered unclean by the ancient Hawaiians, only very old and soon to be discarded, below-the-waist garments were used as pads and drapes for the lower body during the monthly period. Once they had been so used, they were destroyed by wetting them (to hasten disintegration) and burying them (to lessen the chances of their being found and used by practitioners of Kahuna sorcery in a harmful manner). Garments worn above the waist, no matter how old and used, were further not worn below the waist at such times. A Hawaiian phrase references this custom in its generalised sense: “Ko luna, no luna no ia; ko lalo, no lalo no ia” (“What belongs above should stay above; what belongs below should stay below.”)
Greetings and welcoming were a very important (near ritualized) aspect of closely supportive, collective societies like that of ancient Hawaii. The common Hawaiian expression of warm personal greeting was known as the honi. This involved placing one’s nose side by side to that of another, performing the symbolic act of breathing in the other’s ha (or life breath). The nearest thing to the honi found in the west would be the chaste, platonic kiss, delivered to the cheek of another (as in the common practice in Europe), or the nose-rub engaged in by Inuit Eskimo peoples. [It may be of interest to note that of the many possible explanations for the source derivation of the Hawaiian term for ‘white foreigner’ (haole), one likely definition stems from the Hawaiian observation that the white outsiders lacked the ‘breath of life’ (ha-ole, or ‘no breath’). The obverse word (‘Aloha’) has a meaning that may be reasonably guessed at, even if one is not familiar with Hawaiian terms, when it is broken down into its component parts of ‘Alo’ and ‘ha’.]
In passing, it should be noted that public expressions of affection and love were, under the ancient culture, subtle and discreet. Lovers or mated couples never held hands, walked arm-in-arm, made love in public, or even kissed in the presence of others; such physical declarations of special affection were transmitted quite adequately in public via certain turns of speech, acts of kindness, and perhaps even by special looks or subtly nuanced glances.
All collective societies and cultures generally recognise the interdependency of all members of the local community (either the ancient kauhale or the modern rural Hawaiian community in Hawaii). A very important part of the ancient local Hawaiian collective custom was reciprocity and/or obligation. Known by various terms in different collective societies (for example, in Japan: ‘Giri’), in the extended family that was the greater kauhale of the ‘ohana, it was expected that (in the idealised model, at least) there would be giving and taking freely. This custom goes to the very deepest and most central core of Hawaiian culture, finding expression in the uniquely Hawaiian concept of ‘Aloha’. Aloha, a word that is widely recognised but poorly understood (by non-Hawaiians) has a great number of possible meanings, but in its simplest form, it may be understood (as famed Hawaiian waterwoman Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn once so beautifully described it) as “…giving and giving some more, from the heart, until there is nothing left to give.” Aloha is therefore the very essence of the ancient collective Hawaiian culture.
As practically translated into everyday old Hawaiian life, the custom of reciprocity and obligation meant that every gift, although given freely and without strings attached, was expected to be met with an offering of equal use or value. A gift from a fisherman, for example, of a beautiful Mahi-Mahi, might be met with a gift of mangos by someone with fruit trees. Since different members of the extended family specialized in different activities (e.g. cultivation of Kalo, fishing, wood-working, etc.), one gift would be equaled by another in such a manner that all benefitted, despite the diverse activities of daily work. When everyone observed the protocol, it was a pleasant and fundamentally useful aspect of kauhale life.
The individuality of each person might, however, alter or distort that ‘perfect’ arrangement of mutual intersupport that this custom provided, and improper observation of the unwritten rules could create stress. A gift should be given freely, with no expectation of immediate return, but if the gift were returned too soon, a somewhat burdensome cycle of forced reciprocity might develop that could become onerous. Thus, an important part of the custom was knowing and understanding the appropriate timing required by the etiquette of such exchanges.
With the influx of white outsiders, subsequent to the ‘colonisation’ of the islands by the Christian missionaries, severe cross-cultural stress imposed itself upon the ancient custom of reciprocity and obligation, since America is a society that emphasises rugged individualism and which rewards self-enhancement and self-promotion, rather than collectivist interdependence. To its immense credit, however, the importance of traditional ‘aloha spirit’ is still so strong in the islands that it refuses to become extinct…even in the face of the incredible self-centeredness and selfish acquisitiveness that characterises so many of today’s non-Hawaiian immigrants.
Despite the fact that the ancient Hawaiians could be and were incredibly fierce and unmerciful warriors when the occasional required them to be, one of their strongest and most illluminating virtues was the concept of forgiveness. As strong a custom as the Christian admonishment to forgive others for ‘sins’ and offenses, the Hawaiian term for forgiveness was ‘Kala’ (‘to forgive’). Literally interpretable as ‘to untie, unbind, and set free’, the reference is to a concept that an offense or act of wrong-doing (‘hala’) is attached to the one who commits it by a figurative cord that is also tied to the offended party, at its other end. The kala involves both parties, the offender and the offendee, in that the offended party not only frees the perpetrator of the wrongdoing by forgiving him, he also frees himself of the associated burden of having been offended. In its ancient form, the kala involved ritualistic prayer and symbolic acts, but once performed, both parties were entirely absolved of any untoward effects the original act may have created. An associated term, ‘Huikala’, means ‘all together freeing’, or the simultaneous release of all faults, past and present, secret and/or open, and getting beyond them entirely. Nothing, no act of any sort, no matter how serious or dreadful, was beyond the forgiveness of the kala…a concept that is remarkably enlightened for a society once considered (by Westerners) to have been so heathen and primitive.
Since collectivity presupposes the burden of useful interaction upon all in a collectivist culture, ancient Hawaiian etiquette placed a high importance upon what we would regard as the ‘common courtesies’ (today so sadly lacking in our modern world of contrasting, frequently clashing ‘diversities’). As might be expected in any highly collectivized culture, the greeting of visitors, passers-bye, or even of complete strangers extended to inviting them to share food and refreshment. An ancient characteristic greeting phrase expressing this was: “E komo mai. E kipa maloko e hanai ‘ai, a hewa a’e ka waha; a eia ka uku, ka leo” (“Come home. Eat until the mouth can have no more. My reward? Your voice!”). Another greeting used commonly, although not as polite, was: “E komo mai. Ma’ona ‘oe? E hoi kakou i kauhale e ‘ai ai!” (“Come in! Have you eaten? Let us go home and have something to eat!”). Although such a forthright invitation to dine with strangers can sometimes startle a recent visitor to the islands, it is not all that uncommon even today—particularly if one comes across as a well-intended, fair-minded, and polite individual from outside the islands. Other phrases were used that emphasised the welcome nature of the guest’s visit (“Nou ka hale” , or “The house is yours”, and “Mai ho’ohilahila!”, which translates to “Don’t be bashful!”).
Hospitality was therefore an ingrained and permanently fixed custom observed by all Hawaiians on the islands. Whether family, friends, or total strangers, all were invited to share what there was, large or small. The best place to sleep was always offered to the guest. Passers-by would sometimes drop by at times when least expected, or when it was especially inconvenient, but that never deterred their impromptu hosts from insisting upon giving them the last bit of Kalo, the final piece of salted meat, or the final few mango fruits that remained from the day’s provisions. There was never, under any circumstances, any grumbling or complaining by the host and his family over the inconveniences an unexpected guest’s visit might pose.
This traditional custom of extreme hospitality suffered greatly with the intrusion of the American haoles of the 18th century, since it was the Hawaiian custom to give everything with no expectation of reward and the custom of the American visitors to take everything, with absolutely no or little expectation of reciprocating compensation! This extreme clash in social values figured extensively in the ruination of ancient Hawaiian life after the islands were ‘opened up’ by westerners, as virtually everything not taken from them by imported diseases and sicknesses was lost to the extreme avarice and greed that characterised the new haole intruders (esp. property).
As in many other cultures (a good example being that of the Japanese), lack of a good knowledge of local etiquette could create much embarrassment for some in ancient Hawaii. In keeping with the distinctly Hawaiian character traits of humility and refraining from boastfulness, polite interactions required very specific knowledge of appropriate and inappropriate words and phrases, since the Hawaiians regarded spoken words as having a near-holy nature; at the very least words were regarded in ancient Hawaiian culture as having great power and potential, both for good or for evil, so it was thus even more important to understand the subtleties and smallest of nuances in conversational exchanges.
Admonitions, rebukes, behavioral correction delivered by older kupuna (elders) to the younger members of Hawaiian society were invariably subtle and seemingly indirect (by western perceptions), but were often in fact quite direct by ancient Hawaiian standards. An example is found in this admonishment to a small girl, whose sitting position exposes her private parts to onlookers: “Keke!”. Literally meaning “The teeth are exposed”, it is a warning to change one’s sitting position so as to maintain modesty that was instantly understood by the child.
Observation of proper etiquette was demanded even on the beach, whereby a passer-by would stop to talk with a fisherman. If the fisherman were sitting on the ground, working on his nets, a passer-by would invariably also sit and help him while talking. It was considered not just bad manners, but extremely unlucky to ask the fisherman where he was going to fish: simply another of many examples wherein knowledge of the right exchanges with a particular individual was critically important for daily maintenance of social harmony.
Knowledge of language, skill in speaking, and intelligent humor in speech were all greatly prised values among the ancients. Aside from being skillful in conversation, possession of exceptional linguistic merit frequently marked one out as a talented adept. Individuals who had a keen memory and obvious rhetorical eloquence often trained to become kahuna of a literary sort, memorizing royal lineages and relaying these personal histories on to others in the form of mele. Today, given the lack of a written language (one of the few unequivocally positive things the Christian missionaries DID do, to their credit, in devising a written alphabet for Hawaiian), we have largely the skilled mele chanters, whose knowledge of Hawaiian history was passed down to them by their equally skilled kupuna (elders), to thank for our fragmentary understanding of the Hawaiian cultural ways that have today become increasingly lost.
Fortunately for those of us who maintain a deep seated interest in the old ways, there are also extremely valuable works consisting of collected ancient Hawaiian aphorisms, proverbial sayings, and poetic allusion to complement what we have learned from these exceptional bearers of the old cultural ways (I refer specifically to gifted individuals such as kanaka maoli David Malo, Fornander, Te Rangi Hiroa, and Mary Kawena Pukui particularly, whose efforts to record and preserve have proven invaluable towards furthering our understanding of the old culture).
Despite the strong emphasis in ancient Hawaii on maintenance of good manners and proper etiquette, there existed (as in all civilisations and societies) an element whose behavior was characterised by rudeness, inhospitality, and ill manners. Fortunately, in a highly hegemonous society such as was Hawaii’s, there was usually a highly active effort made by others to shame the malefactor and/or to pressure him into behaving less improperly. Contrast this state of affairs with today’s modern American society wherein no one wishes to call out a person’s lack of manners by rebuking them openly, for fear of instigating a possibly violent and highly reactive confrontation.
Examples of behavior considered extremely rude included the following. Standing in doorways so as to obstruct it was bad manners, for to do so was to block the entrance and departure of the ‘ohana’s aumakua (or familial spirits). Standing with hands on hips (akimbo) was considered a sign of boastful superiority in the presence of others. Breaking wind (farting), was never in good taste and was almost always considered highly insulting. Blunt outspokenness and making rude remarks were traits regarded as highly undesirable. Touching a person’s head was also considered ‘kapu’, since the head was regarded as being sacred by Hawaiians (this lack of understanding invariably created bad feelings in the missionary schools when a teacher might touch a child’s head, however innocently). Comparing people to animals was very bad form, as was breaking the peacefulness or serenity of a moment by making a loud, obnoxious noise or remark.
There were a great many forms of behavior that were considered rude, insulting, or even inflamatory to the point of possibly provoking violent physical retaliation, and I will end the article with several examples worth noting. One was to bend over and thrust the ‘okole (literally, one’s ass) at someone (known as the ‘ho’opohopoho’)…a gesture having a quite similar meaning in modern American culture (e.g. ‘mooning’). Another gesture was the ‘ho’opu’ukahua’, or inserting the thumb between the index and the middle finger to convey contempt (the gesture signified the female genitalia). Doubling up the fist and pumping it with a crooked elbow was the symbolic equivalent of the male sex sign, conveying the same contemptuous meaning as the female genitalia gesture. Any of the foregoing were often considered so remarkably offensive that a kahuna might be sought out to work an act of dire retributive sorcery on the offender. Given the fact that ancient Hawaiian huna (sorcery and spells) was regarded as extremely powerful and much to be feared (on Molokai, ‘dark kahuna’ were reputed to be so powerful that they could literally ‘pray’ a person to death, whence comes one of the ancient names for the island of Molokai: ‘Molokai of the powerful prayers’ or ‘Molokai pule o’o’), keiki (children) were taught that such extreme gestures, beyond being rude and impolite, could on occasion even result in death!
Viewed overall, these small and necessarily restricted glimpses into just a few limited areas of ancient Hawaiian manners and customs should be viewed as an incentive to research the subject for one’s self. There is, after all, a fascinating (if somewhat limited) amount of information out there on this subject with which to gain greater understanding into not just the ancient culture of Hawaii, but from which to pull many valuable social insights through which to gain clearer awareness of exactly how far the popular culture of the modern United States has fallen through the chinks of the flimsy social web of basic civility (that keeps us from ripping each others’ throats out over the smallest perceived insults and indignities).
Aloha mai e! (‘I invite aloha upon you!’)
[Please note: this is a work in progress, with much work left to do in terms of proofing and rewriting, so bear with me as I continue to make corrections and alter the present preliminary draft. Mahalo. Plus, it’s time to go have some wine and watch the muted gold of the sun sink into the Kaiwi Channel. Li’dat, eh!
-Kalikiano, August 15, 2009]