Ho'ao Pa'a And The Ohana Marriage And The Family
photo credit: Herb Kawainui Kāne
In ancient Hawaii, marriage between a man and a woman, called ho'ao pa'a, was a lasting relationship. A man did not leave his wife nor the wife her husband. This form of marriage in which each took a single mate originated as a command from the god to Hulihonua and his wife Keakauhulilani and lasted for 27 generations. The parents of the boy and the parents of the girl discussed the idea of marriage and then asked the couple if that suited them. If so, the couple began a period of preparation for marriage, learning skills and the value of work to prepare them for living together. When that was completed, the parents of the boy and girl commanded them to take care of each other, they embraced (honi), and they became husband and wife.
Sometimes marriages were arranged for a boy and a girl who lived in different places. Gifts of feathers, ivory, pearls or other valuable gifts were sent to the girl and her parents by the boy's parents. Likewise the girl's parents sent similar gifts to the boy and his parents. These gifts were called lou (hooks) or lou 'ulu (breadfruit hooks), which symbolized a binding marriage.
Wakea introduced the "sin" (hewa) of mating with many women when he took three wives, and his wife Papa in revenge took eight husbands. After this time unions took two forms, one in which men and women took many mates and one in which they had only one mate. It was primarily the chiefs and wealthy people who took many mates.
In old Hawaii, life revolved around the extended family and the clan; it was an 'ohana' (family) society (a group of both closely and distantly related people who share nearly everything: land, food, children, status, and the spirit of aloha.) Hawaiians viewed family as relatives as well as people who they loved or people who joined them in cooperative actions. They had a great deal of respect for their elders. There was no such thing as an unwanted child within this system. In old Hawaii children were told that they were bowls of light, put here to shine spirit greatness. A kupuna (grandparent) carved a bowl for each keiki (child). Children were expected to put a rock (pohaku) in that bowl whenever their behavior would dim the light of that bowl. This was self-directed and done on an honor-basis. Pohaku represented an experience that could be used as a lesson for living. Regularly keike brought their bowls to meet with the kupuna to review their conduct.
Hawaiians loved their children, but had a different view from whites in raising them. Hawaiians believed children were given for enjoyment, and they allowed them all the freedom of action which the adults wanted for themselves.
Children were raised by, not only their parents, but by grandparents and other relatives. Hanai was the kanaka maoli custom whereby a family adopts a child given by someone else and raises that child as a family member. No written records were necessary. (In old Hawaii there was no writing.) No stigma was attached to being "hanai." The practice of hanai was used to ensure that the Hawaiian culture was passed on to the younger generation. The claim of the grandparents upon their grandchildren took precedence over the claim of the parents who bore them. The parents could not keep the child without the grandparents' permission. A male child was offered to the parents of the father, and a female child was offered to the mother's parents. Parents would offer their children out of respect, as a gift of the greatest possible value. If the child were not offered, the grandparents would ask for the hanai privilege; they could not be refused. This practice extended into the community so that if the biological parents were unable to adequately provide for the needs of the child, someone else would be chosen to be the hanai parents. Children were also passed on to relatives or friends who had no children.
Hanai was practiced by the alii too. Liliuokalani was the hanai child of chiefs of higher rank than her parents. In her biography she reports that hanai "is not easy to explain... to those alien to our national life, but it seems perfectly natural to us. As intelligible a reason as can be given is that this alliance by adoption cemented the ties of friendship between the chiefs."
Later on, when other nationalities took up residence on the islands, there was ready acceptance of non-blood "kin." John Young, an English boatswain of a small American fur trading vessel, and Isaac Davis, a member of the crew, were hanai into Kamehameha's family.
The custom of hanai was strongly condemned by the missionaries. They couldn't understand the looseness of natural family ties. They were influenced by their concept of the "immediate family."
Hanai exists today, but not always for the purpose of maintaining the Hawaiian culture. Kailua-Kona "Mother of the Year 2002" had five children, three adopted children, six hanai children, twelve grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. I have heard of a person who was brought into a Hawaiian family at the age of 50, a definite expression of aloha. The term "hanai" is still common today; you may hear people referring to their "hanai Mom" or their "hanai sister." Listen. Would you want to become a hanai child of a warm Hawaiian family?
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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.