HONOLULU — In Hawaii rapid changes followed Western contact and when King Kamehameha the Great died, Hawaii became a Christian nation and many Hawaiian practices, like kite flying, tattooing, and hula, were outlawed.
Before this time, Hawaiians created a social structure that maximized harmonious living by embracing all ohana (family) and sanctioning many types of relationships, including aikāne (same-sex love), māhū (transgender people), hānai (adoption), and punalua (multiple lovers).
The sign above, displayed on the side of the Hawaii State Capitol allotted to marriage equality opponents in front of tents with signs reading “Let the people decide” and Hawaii’s state flag, uses the literal translation of the Hawaiian word kapu, meaning off limits, taboo, or something that is sacred, to imply that the sanctity of marriage is between one man and one woman.
Although the sign uses a Hawaiian word, it evades the original notion of the kapu system which was a social, religious, and political set of laws in place up until 1819, when King Kamehameha the Great died.
“It’s misinterpretation, misappropriation, misunderstanding, misuse of the Hawaiian language,” University of Hawaii Professor of Hawaiian Literature Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui said to BuzzFeed. “They are using the word kapu in a Christian sense, but they are working off the Hawaiian translation.”
In traditional Hawaiian culture there was no concept of marriage—relationship statuses were noted by moe aku, moe mai or “sleeping here and there.”
“One of the ways Hawaiians created a very successful model was to recognize and culturally and socially legitimize… natural human behavior,” University of Hawaii Professor of Hawaiian Literature Ku’ualoha Ho’omanawanui said to BuzzFeed.
In Jan. 1778, Captain Cook arrived in the Hawaiian islands and wrote extensively in his journals about aikāne. The aikāne, Cook wrote, were young men with special sexual and political roles, who functioned as liaisons for the ali’i, including Kamehameha the Great, and Cook and his sailors. Negotiations led by aikāne influenced events at Kealakekua Bay where Cook was killed in Feb. 1778.
Kamehameha the Great was not the only ali’i to have aikāne relationships, Kamehameha III ruled the Kingdom of Hawaii for a period with Kaomi, his half-Tahitian lover, to the horror of Calvinist missionaries.
Aikane relationships were not exclusively for ali’i, but something practiced by maka’āinana (commoners) throughout Hawaiian society.
In traditional Hawaiian society māhū referred to someone with kane (men) and wahine (women) traits, and in a modern sense includes male to female and female to male transgender people, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a māhū wahine who is a hula teacher at a Hawaiian charter school, said to BuzzFeed.
“Māhū and aikāne were an integral part of our society,” Wong-Kalu said referring to traditional Hawaii.
Bradford Kaiwi Lum, founder of of Hulumanu Foundation, said during his testimony Nov. 1, 2013, at the the joint committee House hearing on Hawaii’s marriage equality bill about the māhū and aikāne: “What changed is the way people came to view us: intolerance turned into acceptance, and acceptance turned into intolerance.”
The concept of the māhū is not exclusive to Hawaii, and can be found in Samoa, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, and other Pacific islands.
The raising of a child by a different family member or another family, called hānai, was common when a family had a better opportunity to raise a child or could not have a child of their own.
“When we say hānai, it’s not adoption from the Western perspective where you never know your biological parents,” Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu said. “You are often given to your relatives for rearing.”
Consensual relationships between two or more partners was known as punalua, which literally means “two springs.” Kamehameha the Great had many lovers, but two of his “wives” were Ka’ahumanu and Keōpūolani, who were punalua to one another because they shared Kamehameha. Ka’ahumanu was unable to have children, so she was a hānai mother to Keōpūolani’s son, Liholiho who would become Kamehameha II.
The child of a women with relationships with two or more men was known as a po’olua, and could claim both fathers as parents. Kamehameha the Great’s mother had relationships with more than one chief, so he was a po’olua child.
“That is partially how he rose to greatness,” Ho’omanawanui said. “He didn’t have the highest genealogy of other chiefs of his time… so he used the claim to two chief genealogies to elevate his status.”
At one time in Hawaii, aikāne, māhū, hānai, punalua and po’olua were all accepted members of the ohana.
“These are all elements of traditional Hawaiian culture that are slow but surely fading away,” said Wong-Kalu.