Ho'ao a'a and
Marriage and the Family
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
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
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
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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