"Gifting Hawaiian Names"

The names of a person were attached to that personʻs wailua and could shape a personʻs path in life. It also affected the relationship one had with their akua and with their ancestors. Hawaiian names have several categories including names derived from places, ancestors, dreams, events, remembrance, idea and deaths. Names should not be taken lightly nor be given lightly. The greatest gift a Hawaiian kupuna could give was a Hawaiian name especially if it was a name given to them in a dream, an inoa pō, or their own name. When a Hawaiian gives a non-Hawaiian a Hawaiian name, it should be regarded as a gift more valuable than a feather cloak because while a feather cloak could be only be worn in this lifetime whereas a name is worn in perpetuity.

When I give someone a Hawaiian name, it is given with much thought and with some time in prayer and in waiho ʻai (fasting). Thatʻs how serious I personally take gifting a name. That was custom of my own kūpuna before me who now dwell in the hidden lands of Kāne. But there some Hawaiians who may not be so serious about names. I have heard of incidents on Oʻahu and on Maui where Hawaiian hotel “cultural experts” would randomly give tourists Hawaiian names, often names from our royalty, without much care or thought. Some years ago a person from the Hawaiian History and Culture Facebook group messaged me about how their Hawaiian name was Kalākaua and it was given to them during their hotel luʻau. That person was about to legally change their name but wanted my permission (for whatever reason) because that person respected me. Apparently, everyone at that major hotel who wanted a Hawaiian name could ask the tour guide and he would give them one on the spot. I was so horrified that I called the hotel from Thailand (where I was at at the time) and spoke with that tour operator. That tour operator was indeed Hawaiian (from Niʻihau) and thought it was fun and added more tips to him. After trying to explain to him the cultural significance and pointing out specific books for him, I realised he did not care and was as thick as Waipiʻo mud. I then had to go back to that person who wrote to me about his “Kalākaua” name and asked if he would not mind adding a suffix or prefix in order to transform his name into an inoa hanana (an event name) and I did not want to have this discussion in a negative light. After some thought, I gifted him the name that meant “the smile given to Kalākaua”, which was an incident where a Hawaiian family gifted the King their childrenʻs smiles on his birthday and the king remarked it was the best present ever given to him. That person loved the meaning and I think legally added that name. I have gifted Hawaiian names on rare occasions to both Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians and usually itʻs to reaffirm a transition or a tie.

For non-Hawaiians, though, if one is given a Hawaiian name, one should know the meaning and also keep hold to oneʻs identity. There are some who given a Hawaiian name, somehow think that they have become “Hawaiian” (which I can name several examples). I have a friend, Makana, for example who was given a Hawaiian name by a famed Hawaiian author. She uses the name in a respectful manner and she does not co-opt Hawaiian identity. She makes it known that her fondness for Hawaiian culture and her gifted name means that it is also her kuleana (responsibility) not to claim that culture and identity as if it were her own. Also another thing for non-Hawaiians–if you donʻt know how to pronounce it–ask a Hawaiian language teacher or someone who speaks Hawaiian. Donʻt pull off a Joe Moore and ravage the beauty of the Hawaiian language. It is better to ask and have a moment of shyness than not to ask and have the reputation of a lifetime of arrogance.

For those Hawaiians who have ancestral roots in these islands going back the centuries before written time, we have a kuleana as well not to “make any kine” with these types of traditions particularly when it comes to names. Sometimes as Hawaiians having grown up in Hawaiʻi, we take our names for granted or forget how special a Hawaiian name can be. As someone who does get a lot of inbox and emails from Hawaiians all over the world, one of the most painful things to read is when a Hawaiian comes to me to ask me what does their middle name mean because their kupuna passed away before they could explain the name and no one in their family speaks kō kākou ʻalelo mākuahine (the tongue of our mothers). Whether we are gifting a name to someone else or kapukapu inoa (restoring a family name by giving it to someone else within the family) or pronouncing a place name, we need also treasure the richness of our names and naming practices.

One thought on “"Gifting Hawaiian Names"”

  1. When I was pregnant back in 2010, I asked my cousin to name my daughter because she speaks Hawaiian. (attended Hawaiian immersion all her life) I was wondering what is appropriate for changing her name? My cousin went based on feeling, not a dream or vision.


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