Sunday, January 30, 2011


In native Hawaiian culture, there is a word and a concept that seems universal to me. Honai (Ho [long o] ni [long i] loosely translates as a foster child. Yet, it means much more than that, and includes a state of mind, a state of culture.

Ancient Hawaiians ventured forth from Polynesia to settle the Hawaiian Islands, in a series of migrations, ending about 700 years ago. Voyages lasted about a month, in long double canoes, equipped with sails and cargoes of native plants and animals, so that the voyagers could establish new villages and escape from the famine and overcrowding of their home islands.

The voyagers knew Hawaii existed, because of previous voyagers, and because of their intuitive navigation, which included observations of birds, ocean currents, clouds, and winds. They timed their voyages with the seasons, to take advantage of seasonal currents and winds. In Maori culture, in New Zealand, the word for the ancient ones sounds much like the word Hawaii. There is genetic evidence that Hawaiians are genetically linked to the native Taiwanese.

Coming from close knit villages and cultures, they bonded closer together, given the perils of a long ocean voyage and the vital importance of each person on board. When they arrived in Hawaii, they planted their precious cuttings of plants and tended their domestic animals. Fishermen fished and farmers farmed, and they build their villages in valleys, next to their fields, a stream, and the rich ocean.

Each community depended on every member of the village. The boundaries of the community were determined by the mountains, the ridges coming down to the sea, the existence of abundant fresh water, farming land, and a beach from which they fished and harvested the abundance of the sea. They traded with adjoining villages for stables and surplus foods. They build large community shelters for extended families. They build temples to honor their gods, and places where young people could meet with their elders, and be mentored and learn the ways of the community.

And, in all of this was a sense of honai, a sense of the value of each person. It was customary for the extended family to help raise the children and mentor the youth, and honai was an accepted practice, where adults would take in a child and raise them as their own.

In ancient Hawaiian law, a honai child was also legally your child, and it was simply accepted. The chief did not have to decree that fact, it simply occurred when the child began living with the adult.

In Hawaiian culture, there was usually enough food and providing shelter took little work. There was time left for the arts. People adapted the bounty of the forest, the coconut tree, and the sea to create works of art, and to beautify the daily implements of their lives. Chants and music were essential, and the hula developed as an art form to communicate community values and to express emotion and values.

The spirit of honai also was present in the hula and in the chants and in the way people worked and played together. Everyone was important, every person had value, because they all depended on each other for their existence, their nourishment, and their safety.

The other day, someone remarked about the “primitive” Hawaiian culture. Yet, today, in this culture, we struggle to extend even minimal humanitarian concern to each other, and there is a crisis in the social services sector because there are not enough foster parents to care for children in crisis. We may want to think that the Hawaiian culture was primitive, which it was not. They sailed the Pacific long before Europeans, they prospered and lived a rich, artistic interdependent life, and they lived the spirit of honai.

We have much to learn from the Hawaiians. And, we have much to learn about ourselves.


Wanda said...

We have so much to learn about aloha.

Unknown said...

Indeed. You are right, I did like it.