Some Thoughts on Hawaiian Culture

When we talk about Hawaiian culture, we often talk about it as almost being homogeneous, monolithic and sterile without taking into account the various time frames and subcultures. When most Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians think of “Hawaiian culture” they think of it as being somewhere in the time frame of Captain Cook and Elvis Presley. Much of this could be blamed on the Calvinist influences, colonialism and the tourist industry which influenced Hawaiian Studies programs. Some of it could also be blamed also on personal or family interests. As 99.9% of Hawaiians claim to have ali’i blood, an emphasis has been to have ali’i subculture of the 1600s represent what is Hawaiian culture in general. But ali’i subculture was different from regional and mass culture of Hawaiian society after the 1400s.

For example, in recent debates on UH’s taro patents and in Mauna Kea protests, there had been an emphasis on the Hawaiian genealogical links to Wākea, the Sky Father. In every Polynesian society, Wākea or Akea is a mythical figure except in Hawai’i where he is an actual person and the founder of the kapu system, the social hierarchical system, as well as originator of royal dynasties. Wākea is therefore held in awe today. Interestingly, that was not always the case in every level of Hawaiian society. As noted by Malo, Kamakau and Pukui, common people associated Wākea with blind lust, weakness, and craziness due to his relationship with his daughter. Commoners would say that incest was ‘ohana kiko moa or no better than breeding chickens. In Papa and Wākea epics, Wākea is emotional volatile yet cunning. Papa is always with him in battle and she is seen defending his rule. These were epics that commoners would have known about. Unlike many Hawaiians today, commoners while seeing incest as disgusting and shameful in general, tolerated it only in the ruling family not because of the Wākea and Papa example but because of an older example—Kū and Hina, who in mythology were brother and sister and were the first set of akua venerated universally by ancient Hawaiians. It is from Kū and Hina that the pi’o line of chiefs (including the term pi’o itself) originated from. But Papa and Wākea are emphasized more because of Wākea’s association with the kapu and of social divisions.
So when we speak of Hawaiian culture, we should ask ourselves which Hawaiian culture and what time period. We should also ask ourselves what aspects of what we know to be “Hawaiian culture” were influenced by certain agendas and what are values and traditions that should be questioned and which could be emulated today.

One thought on “Some Thoughts on Hawaiian Culture”

  1. Great post – any way we can connect? I work with Jim Tosney (Fox) and also with Tom Vitale (Netflix/SyFy). My name is Tai Truesdell and I'm a friend of the Kaina family (bruddahs) and also a descendant of the first doctors in Kauai. I'd like to discuss the history of pre-Cook Hawaii with you for a potential series.


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