What’s in a name?

Choosing a name by traditional Hawaiians for a newborn — or anyone who’ll be gifted with a Hawaiian name — I have learned, is an art and an act of great importance and resulting consequence. It is never done lightly, nor hastily, but with serious thought. Prayers and meditation often are activated in the responsibility of choosing. Guiding dreams may be sought. The ancestors may be invoked, for guidance.

In Hawaii as in many cultures, past and present, the idea of foretelling the character, personality and/or fate of the bearer of the name is present. The name, like its recipient, must hold within it a seed of growth to encompass the expected growth and change during life if the name is rightly chosen. When the use of another person’s given name is desired, whether alive or passed, the name must be blessed and permission granted. You don’t just “take” a name that you fancy — strong, handsome or pretty, right in meaning, pleasing in sound.

Many stories tell of name vibrations. Two of my favorite, historical Kauai legends deal directly with the inherent meaning of names played out in life dramas. This leads me to wonder if individual names somehow influenced events, decisions and outcomes, whether all was guided by the sub- or unconscious mind, or while fully aware.

The first concerns our last Kauai-line chief (Kaumualii’s name now marks a highway) and his mother Kamakahelei (her name is regularly omitted during the mention of “Chiefess,” Lihue’s Middle School). Kaumualii’s name may be interpreted to mean “the oven of the chief.” Certainly, everything was “cooking” during his rule. The Great Kamehameha had tried not once, but three times to come with his warriors and conquer Kauai. The story goes that he was thwarted in his plan of invasion by storm, by sickness, and the third time, by Kaumuali consenting to meet him on peaceful terms and accept the takeover, returning to announce the news and govern in Kamehameha’s name.

It was Kamakahelei who opposed warring, a plan her son’s chief advisers supported. She counseled him, paying attention to a vision of peaceful transition she’d had, saving bloodshed and lives. “Maka” in Ka-maka-helei means eye, and “helei” can mean an inflammatory disease of the eyes that affects the lower lids — as well as a sign of contempt. Known to be a seer (see-er), Kamakahelei is said to have lost her outer sight while gaining clear inner vision — wise, as it turned out. Kaumualii did return home to make the dreaded proclamation. However, because of the successful negotiation, not much actually changed for some time on this island of independent people.

The second story is one I first heard from Kupuna Frances “Halia” Frazier during her lecture for visiting Elderhostelers in the late 1990s, introducing them to her translation of “The True Story of Kaluaokoola”u as told by Piilani, which she had recently translated from its Hawaiian language document. All of us were fascinated by this epic tale starring Koolau (for short) the leper, and related by the wife who saw him and their son through their ordeal with other “escaped” lepers living in Kalalau Valley.

Frances, who had lost an eye herself, fixed her good eye on the group, underlining the explanation of Koolau’s full name. Received by his grandmother in a dream, she said, and wondered at by the mother of the babe.

At the beginning of this bright and handsome young man’s life, who would have guessed he’d end up buried in a “pit of the Koolau” division (the meaning of his name) after his historic ordeal with the Provisional Government and the disease. As to their child, Kaleimanu (the lei of birds/spirit), who would have known that he, too, would be buried in the valley, also a victim of leprosy (now, Hansen’s disease) — and that he would become so entranced with birds during their valley sojourn? Frances intimated that the boy slipped into altered consciousness toward the end, communing with birds and spirits. Kaleimanu’s last nourishment, according to his mother, came from sips of broth she made from a cliff-nesting bird captured by his father.

From small-kid time, I knew there was a lot to a name. As a tot, I picked up on the fact that there were names grown-ups joked or commented about in private — funny names, and fitting names. We all know that kids can be particularly cruel about names, pouncing on one who can be bullied or teased and happens to bear a name that can be rhymed funnily or twisted into an embarrassing meaning. Probably, that’s why I was so careful to consult “What to Name Your Baby” when I was considering names for my brood.

More on notable names in a future Green Flash. Aloha kakou, Dear Readers. I wonder at your own experience with names. You can write to me in care of the editor of this paper if you have a name tale …


Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs on the topics relating to Hawaiian culture for visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer recently took time off from the manuscript of Memoir II about Burma to organize “Tapestry,” a Kauai celebration of April as National Poetry Month. She continues as principal and owner of DAWN Enterprises, distributing books and planning and performing simple weddings, vow renewals and other ceremonies.


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