Pregnancy within Hawaiian Culture

A question was asked of me about Native Hawaiian practices on hāpai (pregnant) women. I thought iʻd share some information that I know of. A lot of this comes from Mary Kawena Pukui (i.e. Nānā i Ke Kumu, Vol 2), my own relatives and from kūpuna up in Papakolea. Practices may vary on different islands or among different families.

The term “hāpai” itself actually means to carry, to elevate,to carry and/or lift It also of course refers to a woman who is pregnant. There is correlation between all of these definitions. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is carrying a child. But for Hawaiians, pregnancy was also viewed as that person being elevated. Pregnant women became kapu (sacred) and the things that we made kapu to them (i.e. certain foods) were no longer kapu while at the same time, certain objects of theirs (i.e. combs, bedding, cups) were temporarily kapu to everyone else except them. There was a religious reason for that—that a pregnant woman had become the kino lau or vessel of the deities of Hina and Haumea (the Mother of All and the Earth Mother respectively). But there was also a practical reason that Hawaiians placed a kapu on the pregnant womenʻs things because they feared mū (germs) affecting the mother and child.

When an aliʻi woman was pregnant, there was a complicated ceremony where her kapu (sacredness) would be acknowledged and announced. The ceremonies would also involve reenactments and story telling of female gods like Hina, Haumea, Pele, etc and could go on for four days. Delicacies would be brought from all over the districts and her most highest ranking husband would present gifts. For commoner women, the vwomanʻs husbands (yes husbands because Hawaiians were polyamorous and women had multiple husbands) would plan a dedication feast in her honor and the local priest would announce her sacredness.

During the time of the pregnancy, pregnant women were massaged and they were encouraged to bath frequently in waterfalls or in fresh water pools. Whatever foods they desired was brought to them as the dietary restrictions of the kapu system no longer applied to them as they themselves were kapu. However, they were discouraged from eating too much sugary or salty foods as Hawaiians thought those types of food would affect the temperament of the child. Bananas or taro leaves cooked in coconut milk was often a.snack. Pregnant women of all classes were also encouraged to pray and to take pilgrimages to different heiau if their feet allowed it. If they were unable then a female relative would do so in their name. Women of rank made such pilgrimages using a mānele (palanquin). Aliʻi women also were given entertainments of debating competitions, Luaʻāpana (court jesters), story telling, athletic competitions, hula and puppet shows. Other aliʻi women of character were also brought in. It was thought that such entertainments would give the child a good disposition. While they were not excluded from the royal court, they were no longer obligated to attend court ceremonies and could form their own mini-court to enjoy themselves and their sacredness due to pregnancy meant that they were also above politics.

After childbirth, the primary responsibility for care of the child was vested in the maternal grandparents.. Among commoners, normally husbands lived with their wiveʻs village but often husbands and wives were from the same village as there were no dating apps or Facebook back then. Women were considered kapu still for the next three to four months and their routine of foods and massages wee unchanged. Grandparents cared for the child and if the mother showed signs of ka nunuha (postpartum), her female relatives and female friends would provide entertainments for her. If a woman no longer had her grandparents, the child would be cared for by the most senior female of her family or from a senior female from the husbandʻs family. When the period of kapu was over, a smaller feast would be prepared by the husbands and things went back to normal for the woman.

For aliʻi women, the women lived in the court of their highest ranking husband but often frequented the court of their father or brother if they were of equal or higher rank than any of their husbands and after pregnancy, they would be given a ceremony lifting their kapu status (that was placed upon them as a result of their pregnancy) and return back to normal court life.. In addition, aliʻi sisters and mothers often were influential in the courts of their brothers or father as they helped to arrange marriages. :Like commoner women, the grandparents were primarily responsible for childcare. However, a higher ranking aliʻi had a right to hānai (adopt) a child and in such cases, childcare would become that aliʻiʻs responsibility. Kahu (guardians) in any case would be provided in addition to grandparents or the adopted family. The kahu is of ten described in English as anything from wet nurse to nurse to governess. Some of that had to do with the fact that a kahu or varous kahu did a number of functions. Kahu were also in general of aliʻi rank (normally distant cousins) and it was considered a great honor. In cases where a child was adopted, the kahu also acted as a go between (and sometimes arbitrator) between the biological and adopted families and normally would be related to both families. With high ranking children, they had several kahu.

The key thing to remember, however, is that the idea of a “nuclear family” is alien to Native Hawaiian culture. The Hawaiian idea of ʻohana meant everyone who shared “the umbilical cord” meaning parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, etc. Therefore Hawaiian children of all classes had multiple avenues of support and they were literally raised by groups of people. The idea that it takes a group of people to raise a child was sometimes called a childʻs ʻahahui and is still linked to our modern day concept of ʻahahui. ʻAhahui is often translated as association, club or society. The term ʻahahui itself comes from two Hawaiian terms: ʻaha (sennit cord that binds houses together as well as a meeting) and hui (group).

One thought on “Pregnancy within Hawaiian Culture”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: