The Role of Hawaiian Women

One of the side affects of colonialism in most areas in the Pacific had been the introduction of a rigid system of gender roles.  In my own understanding of traditional cultures through Oceania, most indigenous peoples acknowledged not two genders but three. The Bugis in Sulawesi in Indonesia for example have five genders. In other places in Polynesia such as Tahiti, Māhū (homosexual and/or hermaphrodite) were thought of as being a third gender and as a normal part of natural diversity. Different Native American nations (I won’t call them tribes) also have the concept of people with “two spirits”.  This is mainly because traditional and indigenous cultures saw gender not as being simply physiological, but being spiritual, emotional, and natural in the sense that it is observed in nature. Often, these same cultures also place women in deep and meaningful roles either as priestesses or a keeper of traditions and oral history.  
In old Hawai’i, women enjoyed certain prerogatives that even until today is not comparable. Women were allowed to have multiple husbands. Ka’ahumanu had at least five husbands besides Kamehameha the Great. Kamehameha the Great had to moe kapu (kowtow) to Keopuolani, his highest rank wife.  Men cooked and farmed while women produced art work particularly of lauhala (pandanus) and feather works which were used as an inheritance, a high value trade item, an offering and/or as part of taxes (yes they had taxes back then). The upbringing of children was not the sole responsibility of women but was shared often with the kūpuna as grandparents had rights too. Women had their own priesthoods and temples. Inheritance of titles and rank itself was often decided through matriarchal line as French ambassador to the Hawaiian Kingdom Marie Gabriel Dosseront d’Anglade noted in his memoirs A Tree in Bud.  While David Malo would write repeatedly that women were “unclean” in his Hawaiian Antiquities, women and māhū were renowned for being kāula (prophets) and haka (oracles). These haka were attached to mo’o or kihā deities. While ordinarily women were not allowed into luakini class heiau, these haka were escorted by special divination priests (kahuna pu’uone not to be confused with kahuna kāula who could be male, women, or  māhū and served a different function) to the hale puʻuone to advise the male chiefs during a particular day of the month.  Women acting as oracles is of course not unique. Ancient Philippines had babaylans that did similar functions.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet still consults with the Nechung State Oracle who uses male and female oracles who act as kuten or mediums. 
As it was explained to me by 
It is therefore not coincidental that the entire kapu system of the old Hawaiian religion–the social and religious legal system that lasted for over three hundred years–was overturned by a two women, Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani. If women of old Hawai’i had not been at least equal to that of their male counterparts or did not have an acknowledged and recognized spiritual role in Hawaiian society, Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani could not have overturned the kapu
With the introduction of Christianity in 1820, the worldview of Hawaiians was made to conform to that of the New Englanders. During the early years, missionaries needed the patronage of the Hawaiian nobility (ali’i) who at that time was being led by Ka’ahumanu, a woman, so the brunt of the changes was at first born by Hawaiian commoners by the slow introduction of Christian-based laws and Western norms through the public school system.  Dr. Jon Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887 and Sally Engle Merry’s The Cultural Power of Law eloquently testify to that.  With the recognition of Hawaiian independence in 1843, it also signaled the shift of the Hawaiian ali’i to become more like Americans and Europeans. In a way, the recognition of Hawaiian independence was a triumph of diplomacy but it also marked the beginning of intense self-colonization and from that point on, the missionaries became an power within the kingdom. While in the very early years of his reign, King Kamehameha III, still attended state functions dressed in a malo, after 1843, Kamehameha III began to increasingly appear in Prussian and French military uniforms.  Hawaiian ali’i women began to wear English corsets, to curl their hair in the latest American fashion. They were taught in schools how to cook, how to be an obedient housewife, and how to rear children in the manner expected of them. Male primogeniture in property rights, in inheritance, and in the line of succession to the throne replaced the old system.  In the churches, only males were allowed to become seminarians, pastors, priests, and bishops. Slowly, patriarchy was seen as normal civilized behavior and .   
 the roles  of males, far more than females, have lost much  of their 
value since Western contact (Cook & Tarallo-Jensen, 2006; Howard, 1971, 1974). It 
is generally assumed that Hawaiian matriarchs keep traditional Hawaiian culture 
alive both at home (Ito, 1999) and in the social and political realms (Linnekin, 1990; 
Trask,  1993). This  general trend may  be related to  evolutionary  explanations  of 
parental behavior (i.e., reproductive roles) of why mothers tend to invest more in 
their child’s upbringing than fathers (Blum, 1997) and that kinship systems favor 
the maternal side (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). 

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