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).

The Term "Makaʻāinana"

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Makaʻāinana is the Hawaiian term often translated as “commoner”. But actually thatʻs a misnomer because in English a commoner is someone without rank or title and who were neither clergy nor noble. That is based on European social stratification going back to the Greeks and Romans. In Hawaiian, makaʻāinana is in fact a protected class and rank and unlike in European social stratifications, they were not tied by the land nor were they bound to serve a chief. A makaʻāinana could move freely and pledge allegiance to a chief of his/her choice. While in some ways, it did resemble a caste system in the sense one was born into it but in traditional caste systems, one does not have freedom of movement and freedom of allegiances. It can not be understood in European terms because of the lack of property ownership which was essential in class formation. The closest in the concepts of Hawaiian stratification I have found in terms of relate-ability and application are from Sāmoa, pre-colonial Visayan (in the Philippines), pre-colonial Merina society (in Madagascar), and pre-Islamic Indonesia .

The term makaʻāinana is quite beautiful in itʻs concept. The term “maka” means “eye”. “Mata” in most Austronesian languages from Indonesia to Rapa Nui still means “eye”. Maka in Hawaiian also means “face” and may have a relation with another term. In most Western Austronesian languages (i.e. Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, etc), muka or mukha means face and supposedly derives from the Sanskrit term मुख (mu.kha). 19th century New Zealand scholars proposed that maka and muka maybe related and this showed linguistic ties and/or on-going pre-colonial trade going on between Polynesians, SE Asians and India. In Hawaiian, maka means eye and face.

After maka, comes the term ʻāina. Everyone knows that ʻāina means land. But ʻāina in itself comes from the term ʻai refers to food and that which sustains you and you hold onto. ʻAi also figuratively means to rule because of the meaning of sustain and that which you hold on to. The the na in ʻāina is a normalizing suffix used to turn specific verbs into general nouns. Thus “to eat” or “to sustain” is changed from it’s verb form into “the persons/groups of people/things that which will sustain you and eat from”. The extra -na suffix in ʻāinana modifies the ʻāina even more to mean “the persons/ groups of people/ things that helps sustain the things that sustain you and eat from”. So the term makaʻāinana thus means the face or eyes of the people who sustain the land and everything on it that sustains you and society as a whole. They in essences help to sustain the entire society through their labors and skills. They are the real face of the lāhui. They are the face of the land. They are the eyes of the land. In my opinion, we need more people willing to sustain all that sustains us and we should honor our farmers, our fishers and also our our workers, our security guards, our sales clerks, our servers, our social workers and everyone else whose work enables us to sustain ourselves and keep us on the move for they are the face of the lāhui too. They help sustain our land and our society today.

Recognizing Hawaiian Women in Hawaiian History

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In reflecting on the way that many local women are dismissed in Hawaiian history and culture discussions by outsiders and even at times by our own men in the Hawaiian community, maybe this is be a wake up call in understanding and revisiting the way women are thought of in history in general but in Hawaiian history specifically. 

Many people know the attached painting. Itʻs the “Battle at Nuʻuanu Pali” by Herb Kane. Kane was a native Hawaiian artist and historian of extraordinary ability. Most people see this painting and look at the men hanging off the cliff. But in this Kane painting, there are women. There are women warriors fighting on both sides. Thatʻs historically accurate because we know that Kaʻahumanu for example fought in that battle. We know that Hawaiian women could be warriors. They could be soldiers. Under Kamehameha I, women were included in his regiments as well as war councils. They were female “generals”. But that was not unusual nor uncommon. Chiefly women for centuries fought along their fathers, brothers, husbands (yes husbands), and their kings. These pūʻalihine or women warriors were given the same rigorous combat courses and sweat just as hard as the men besides them. They not only gave the lāhui (nation) the ultimate gift of children but the ultimate sacrifice of their own.

The women have been in this painting since Kane painted it but many havenʻt really noticed that they are there. Thatʻs the same way we view too much of our history. Due to our internalized colonialism, many again just see the men. Thatʻs the way in general history by Europeans and Americans has been written. The focus has been on the men, their heroism, and their actions that shaped the course of their history. But Hawaiian history is different. Hawaiian culture was different. we need to look at things differently and can not allow a haole or colonial view of our history and our culture to define not only our Hawaiian women but to dismiss them, their contributions and their viewpoints from the history of our lāhui. O ka lāhui i ke kamaliʻi nui o nā wahine. The nation is the greatest child of women.

Hawaiian Fisher Women and Divers

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In ancient Hawai’i, the Hawaiian men usually were the ones that hunted, planted, harvested, cooked and fished. There were, however, roles in each of the above too for women. For example, when it was time to plant, women were present and handed over the seed or taro corn to men. The belief was that things grew better when there the presence of both males and females and is linked to mo’olelo about Kū and Hina as well as Papa and Wākea. This was also symbolic of the way Hawaiians reared children–women giving birth and men caring for the child. When it was time to harvest, women helped with the peeling or cleaning–again this is linked to Kū and Hina and to burial rituals of the makaʻāinana. The last face a person saw before passing was usually their mother, their wāhine (spouse) or some other beloved female figure.

Between those times women often would wait, weave their lau hala or feather works, or sing on the side of the taro paddy or agricultural development. This continued well into the 19th century. The famed “taro patch” slack key tuning style is said to have been developed by women in the early 19th century entertaining their kāne in the taro patch with their guitars. Women by the way learned the play the guitar from paniolo or cowboys but developed their own tuning and styles.

With fishing, men normally did most of the fishing. In smaller communities, women also fished. One area, however, that was almost exclusive to females was diving. The thought was that a woman who had children was a better diver than men because they had developed a stronger set of lungs. Men also could dive, but women were thought to be better. Some of the things that women would dive for was pearl clams, mussels, and certain sea urchins. Pearls were sought after luxury items particularly black pearls. But clams, mussels and sea urchins were considered to be fatty foods. Fatty foods were usually given to pregnant women in the belief that it made child birthing easier. So in other words, women helped out other pregnant women in diving for clams and mussels. Clams and mussels were also sought after by the aliʻi particularly if they were pregnant or wanted to be more virile (especially true of the men).

(Photo: Hawaiian fisher woman from the 1890s)

The Palaka and the Labor Movement

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The Hawaiian word palaka comes from the English word “frock”. Some say it comes from the English word “block” as in block print or checkered. 

When the American missionaries came to Hawai’i in 1820, this pattern was known to them as rubbish cloth and used for frocks, rags, kitchen curtains and table cloths. The first written reference to the word “palaka” comes from a letter in 1873 of Peter Ka’eo to his cousin, Queen Emma, where he speaks of buying some of palaka fabric in Kalaupapa for use to make some clothing as clothing was scarce in the leper colony.

With the boom of the sugar industry in the 1870s, sugar plantations began to issue uniforms to their workers. This twill or palaka style cloth was seen as cheap and durable and thus became the common attire of plantation workers. Eventually different colors of the palaka became identified with the different races as plantation labor and salaries depended on your race. So plantation workers not only wore bongo tags that identified them by race and erased their names, but also clothes to re-enforce their racial status. With the strikes of the early 20th century, the race-based color coded palaka was done away with to a degree. Plantations instead used the color coding as a way to divide workers by which plantation they worked on or by which camp they were assigned to. Sometimes the palaka colors and the number of buttons was also used to mark one’s seniority. In the 1946 sugar strike where 76,000 workers went on strike for better wages, the red and white palaka and the black and white palakas became a symbols of the movement. The black and white palaka initially was used by the sugar cane workers of all races and then the red by those who supported the sugar cane workers including the dock workers. The 1946 strike became the most successful strike in Hawaiian history. 

Menstruation through the Lens of Hawaiian Culture

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One of the negative impacts that Westernization and colonialism brought to Hawaiʻi was the way we understand women in Hawaiian culture. Take for example a womanʻs menses. There are several terms for a womanʻs menstruation. Hanawai, kahe, maʻi (wahine), heʻe koko, wai, wai ʻula, wai o ka wahine, waimaka lehua. We tend to think of maʻi as meaning solely diseased or sick but it also referred in general to the genitals of either male or female (i.e. hula ma’i). In the writings of David Malo, he uses maʻi (despite the other terms) and that is translated as unclean or sickly. Due to this translation and other Calvinist views on Hawaiian culture in our educational system, generations of women have been taught that they are to be ashamed of their bodies and of their gender. Most Hawaiians today actually use the term ma’i or ma’i wahine to mean menstruation. Malo and other noted Hawaiian writers of the 19th century should be taught within the context of their own biasnesses because to do so has lead to notions that ancient Hawaiians had some sort of patriarchal system and women in general were viewed unclean, dirty, flawed and diseased–all of which is wrong. The term kahe for example means menstruation as well as male circumcision/supercision (yes Hawaiians practiced that before Christianity). Nothing negative there. Hanawai means to irrigate or to flow as a river or ‘auwai as well as menstruation. Nothing negative there either.The other terms such as waimaka lehua, heʻe koko, etc all carry powerful positive connotations. Out of all the many other terms to use, the term ma’i with it’s connotations to diseases was used to refer to the menstruation cycle and many Hawaiians today know only that term–which is very unfortunate for the self-confidence of Hawaiian women who should be celebrated not admonished.

But Hawaiians did not have a negative or embarrassed view of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle of women was a process that helped to ensure the coming of the next generation. Hawaiians thought it cleaned out the blood and helped to clean out the naʻau (conscience) of pilikia (problems). I know that when a woman had her first menstruation, she was taken to the Hale Pe’a (the Menstrual House) with her female relatives and they celebrated it because it meant that her body was preparing to become one with Papahānaumoku (linking her to the Earth Mother who births lands) and Hina (linking her to the Moon Goddess and the Eternal Woman). She was unclean in the sense that males were not allowed to touch a woman undergoing her menstruation and all her normal chores and duties would be suspended except for lau hala weaving and kapa making. Special sweet and fatty foods would be brought to her to ease discomfort, though in cases of severe pain or blotting, noni juice would be used. Softened lau hala mats and pillows on a raised bed made of rocks and wood was usually also found in a Hale Peʻa in order to make it easier for her to stand up or sit down. This was a time of reflection and being able to have a break from the issues of the community.

In larger settlements, the Hale Peʻa were also normally located near a womanʻs temple and a special pond or stream was dedicated to women undergoing their hanawai. The Hale Peʻa was also where aliʻi and makaʻāinana women could mingle freely without social distinction. In smaller communities, the Hale Peʻa would be located somewhere in the Western most side of the family housing complex–the Western direction signaled the realm of the ancestors.

The recent activity with Pele reminded me of this. The ways I know is that we were taught that the lava flows were like hanawai (menstrual) cycle of Pele because like a womanʻs menstrual cycle, it prepared for the birth of new life and it was cyclical. The thought was that there would be one major eruption every generation and just as a womanʻs hanawai cleaned out the blood to prepare for the next generation, Pele cleaned out the ʻāina. So in that a womanʻs menstrual cycle can be seen as powerful as Peleʻs eruptions and vice versa.

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.

Broken but Beautiful

When Hawaiians of old broke a bowl, they did not discard it. Instead, they mended it using another type of wood and shaped it in the form of a fish (known as the pewa design) or a butterfly (known as the lepelepe o Hina design) as part of the mending process. The more it was mended, the more pewa or lepelepe designs were added. The more designs, the more the bowl was seen as beautiful because it had a history and someone cared enough about the bowl to keep mending it. That was the real value of an object–how it survived, its history and how it was cherished generation after generation despite any “imperfections”. So in life, whenever you have a problem, think of the pewa or lepelepe.