Mother’s Day, a holiday designated to honor the definitive nurturer in a family, hardly sums up the concept from a Hawaiian perspective.
“It’s not about mother or father — it’s about ‘ohana,” said Kaua‘i Museum volunteer and fourth-generation Kaua‘i resident kupuna Sylvia Akana.
Loosely translated, ‘ohana means family. From a richer cultural context, the word extends further than blood relations.
When asked to speak to the subject of an archetypal Hawaiian mother figure, Akana prefaced the conversation with an introduction to genealogy.
“In the olden days, to be accepted into a ahupua‘a or village, you called your genealogy from the edge of the property,” she said. “You would tell who you are, where you’re from and who your ancestors were.”
She said if a family member misbehaved, you’d be judged by that person’s reputation. Coming from a family of 17 siblings, Akana can appreciate the gravity of such a custom. Akana can count back seven generations.
“I was blessed with only four children,” she said. “So I became a foster parent.”
That is one example of how ‘ohana branches beyond the immediate family tree. Mary Kawena Pukui wrote in her book “‘Ohana” that members of the ‘ohana, just like taro shoots, are all from the same root.
The term ‘ohana includes not only blood-related family, but also the concept of an adopted family.
“Our word for foster parenting is hanai,” Akana said. “Hawaiians had it from when they came from the Marquesas Islands.”
Kaua‘i Museum Collections and Exhibit Curator Chris Faye said, “‘Ohana — it’s all that came before you.”
When the first Tahitian king came to Kaua‘i he, and his crew left family members behind, Akana said.
“When they sailed, only the strong could come on the canoe. They’d bring farmers, sailors or a fisherman — people who could start a new village.”
Those family members left behind were hanaied by aunties, uncles or friends of the families. The concept of hanai alludes to an umbrella of relatives or community members who look after children.
“Before people moved around as much as they do now, multiple generations stayed in one region — extended family gave stability to communities,” Faye said.
Pukui, who was reared by her mother’s parents, is just one historical example of hanai.
“In Hawai‘i the nurturing was within the family and not just mothers,” Faye said. “If you had an abundance of children, it wasn’t uncommon to give them away. Sometimes the oldest or youngest would go live with grandparents.”
Pukui’s grandmother was a traditional dancer in the court of Queen Emma and taught her granddaughter chants and stories. Pukui has more then 50 scholarly works to her name, including collections of Hawaiian proverbs, quotes and stories. The slim volume referenced here, “‘Ohana,” is a tribute to family in verse and vintage images.
According to Pukui’s book, ‘ohana is the bedrock upon which Hawaiian culture is built. It consists not only of extended and adopted family, but to deceased and spiritual ancestors. ‘Ohana includes taro, “the staff of life for Hawaiians.” The first taro plant is considered an ancestor “who was born first in their world to provide sustenance for all those who would follow.”
This Mother’s Day, “Celebrate your aunties, older sisters, adopted parents,” Faye said. “It’s not about blood — bloodline doesn’t make you a good parent. You have to celebrate what mother you have.”