Spirit of ‘Ohana: Native Hawaiian Views of Interconnectedness

School is going wonderfully well.  I’m loving the intellectual challenge of the research and writing, and the pleasure of exploring times and ideas that I’ve long been curious about.  Following is an essay on an oral tradition from my History of World Religions and Spirituality class.


The present-day life of my family in Hawaii, which includes dozens of part-native as well as non-native people I’m related to through my Honolulu-born father, is anchored in the bedrock of an ancient Hawaiian principle: ‘ohana.  In English, ‘ohana is usually translated as roughly equivalent to the word, “family.”  Our typical American usage of the word “family” might bring up images of the traditional family structure, including a mother, a father, children, perhaps some grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins.  Blood ties generally define the relationship; members might live far away from one another or rarely even meet.  In Hawaii, however, the word ‘ohana is rooted in the ancient tradition that bonded individuals who were related to each other “by blood, marriage, sentiment, or adoption” (Kalei), and who lived in the same area of land, or “’aina.”  The members of the ‘ohana were deeply interconnected with each other, with their ‘aina, their ancestors, and their deities, sharing food and resources freely in the manner that we know today as “aloha spirit.”

The indigenous culture of Hawaii held this interconnectedness as a fact of life across both the material and immaterial realms.  “Aumakua” was the world of spiritual beings, including gods, ancestral spirits, and totemic creatures such as sharks.  All the beings of aumakua were considered integral to the web of life.  All things in the natural world, including animals, plants, rainbows, and even rocks were held to have an inner spirit, a spark of life force or “mana,” and were also viewed as an integral part of the whole.  “There was no clear division in the Polynesian mind between man, the spirit world, and the natural environment” (Westervelt).  Hawaiians thus felt a deep responsibility and sense of stewardship for the land and its creatures.  The native Hawaiian worldview, called “lokahi,” is of balance and harmony between humans, nature, and the spirit world.  For a person to be happy and healthy, he must be in harmonious balance with all things:  “Aloha ‘aina, aloha ke akua, aloha kekahi a kekahi” (love and respect the land, love and honor God, love and look after one another…)” (McGregor).  Vestiges of this attention to maintaining harmony can be seen today in the offerings of flowers, plants, and food at Hawaii’s ancient “heiau,” or religious temple sites.  Even now, lying largely abandoned and in ruins, the heiau are still held as sacred and are visited regularly by local people giving small offerings to amaukua.

In addition to offerings to the spirit world, cultural taboos, called “kapu,” helped maintain the harmony and balance of the interconnected world of native Hawaiians.  Kapu governed behavior and assured that the sacred life force of all things, their mana, was protected from misdeed or error.  Punishment for trespassing on mana could be severe, even death, for example in the case of a commoner’s shadow falling across an “ali’i,” or person of royalty (Westervelt).

In my Hawaiian family today, and in Hawaiian culture in general, the understanding of “‘ohana” has evolved to include not just one’s local family, but all of one’s extended family—whether related by blood or not—and even the overarching ideal of the human family as a whole.  Guests are honored and treated with respect and astounding generosity, demonstrating the aloha spirit reaching from ancient times into modern life and welcoming the visitor into ‘ohana.  The children, for example, of my Hawaiian friends (and even friends of those friends who I’ve just met), welcome and offer me respectful greetings as “Auntie,” no matter that I’m a virtual stranger.

Similarly undergoing an evolution of understanding, the concept of ‘aina, the ‘ohana’s revered and beloved land, has come to express the Hawaiians’ reverence for their island home as a whole rather than a particular locale (McGregor).  The Kumupilo, a Hawaiian creation chant translated into English by Queen Lili’uokalani while she remained under house arrest in Iolani Palace in Honolulu in the late 1800’s, cries, “The wonder of the land, / Yes! of the land” (Lili’uokalani).  ‘Aina has come to symbolize that passionate sentiment of care and reverence for all Hawaii by her people.

Modern Hawaiians are understandably protective, sometimes fiercely so, of their land and their spiritual and cultural heritage, which was so devastatingly impacted by the arrival of Europeans bent on commerce and religious conversion.  However, if you visit any of my family in Hawaii, don’t worry about getting the cold shoulder.  Just tell them you’re my friend, and I promise you’ll be showered with aloha spirit and warmly welcomed into the ‘ohana.


Works Cited

Kalei, Kalikiano. “Ohana: The Matrix of Hawaiian Culture.” 24 January 2008. 29 January 2012 <http://www.authorsden.com/categories/article_top.asp?catid=23&id=36264>.

Lili’uokalani, Queen of Hawaii. “The Kumulipo.” 1897. Sacred-Texts.com. 4 February 2012 <http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/lku/index.htm>.

McGregor, Davianna. Nā Kua’āina: Living Hawaiian Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

Westervelt, William D. Hawaiian Historical Legends. Kindle. Rutland: Tuttle Publishing, 15 December 1989.

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