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All in the Ohana

How Hawaiians embrace the land, its abundance, and their responsibility to each other.
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Burgess family photo by Paul Dunn

Some of the Burgess clan gathered on the family land in Waianae. At left is the tilapia pond, at right is the taro patch—both part of the family. Ned E. and Nora Lee Lo Tung Burgess are shown in the portrait held by Hilda Ku‘ulei Haynes. Standing, left to right: Puanani, Poka Laenui, sons La‘amea ‘o Mauna ‘Ala Burgess holding baby Layla and Poha-o-kalani-ku-lanakila-nana-i-ke-kumulipo Yoshiyuki Sonoda-Burgess, Ho‘oipo DeCambra, Charlotte Fameitau, Rhonda DeCambra Villanueva, Tiffany Villanueva, Virginia “Pola” Burgess and her son Stephen Burgess.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine


Family Portrait

Now Poka and I are the elders—we live in the same place where he grew up—and we have our own family, both our children and the people we’ve hanai’d in our own way.

So I was supposed to get my family together for a picture to go with this story in the magazine. That could have been a lot—enough to fill up the yard—because we’ve been here forever, and we could call about a third of the people in Waianae family. One of the ways that’s happened is through aquaculture.

About 20 years ago, a group of us started an economic independence project to give families a way to make money at home—this is not a wealthy town. We reached back to the Hawaiian tradition of aquaculture: Huge fish farms were part of ancient Hawaiian culture. We set people up with fish tanks in their back yards to grow tilapia. They could eat some and sell some, and both ways they got something they needed: good traditional food and some money for things they had to buy.

We found that setting up the tanks was a bigger job than one family could handle, so in order to participate, three families had to agree to work together. That built bridges within the community and got families working together. And the fish need a lot of attention—raising hundreds of fish in a tank takes constant care. It turned out the people who did that best were children and elders. So it reminded families that those members had something valuable to contribute.

In our family, our fish tank is one way we all stay close. When it’s time to harvest the fish, we get together, and we process the fish, and then we have a feast. We harvested just a couple of weeks before we got together for the family picture. All the fish—400 pounds—went to family members.

My elder brother is Haloa—the taro. When we harvest tilapia, we also dig taro to make poi—it’s a traditional Hawaiian fish and poi feast. When you eat the taro, you reconnect to the ancestor, all of us who are sharing a bowl of poi. And he’s in our family picture, along with our fish tank.

The cooking is done by my sister-in-law, Pola Decambra. She’s married to Poka’s brother David, who’s a chemist. Pola’s the most wonderful cook in the world—the Decambras are all great cooks.

Then there’s Ho’ipo. She’s a Decambra by marriage. When I asked her to be in the picture, she asked me “Can Herbie come?” Herbie passed away, but they were married for 48 years, and she still has this incredibly interesting and vibrant relationship with her husband, so she wanted to bring his ashes so he could be in the picture.

Burgess family photo by Paul Dunn
How Hawaiian tradition
sorts out family disputes

There’s another person like that in the picture, our friend Kenneth. He was a client at our mental health center, and he worked in our yard. Before he died, we asked him where he wanted to be—we invited him to come live at our house. So after he died, we had a ceremony in our back yard, and put his ashes in the ground, and planted a mountain apple tree over him. So we hanai’d Kenneth, and he’s next to the fish tank and the taro patch that he helped take care of.

Poka’s older sister, Ku‘ulei, married Sanford Haines, who’s from Alabama, and they lived there for many years. They moved in next door about five years ago. All their children live on the mainland, so we’re their local family. Sanford couldn’t make it for the picture because he was back in Alabama visiting his family.

Of course, my children are in the picture, except my daughter Pua‘Ena F. Burgess. She had to teach the day of the picture, and the gap in the picture is painful for me. She’s the closest one in her generation to this land, because she spent a lot of her childhood here. When she was young, I was in college and Poka was in law school, and I guess you could say that Pua‘Ena was hanai’d to her grandparents—almost like the traditional hanai.

And Anna couldn’t be there. She and my son Mauna ‘Ala have given us the new generation in the picture, Layla Ahonui-a-Lanakila Burgess.

I would have liked for my father, Christopher Y. Sonoda, to be in the picture. But he’s 85, and although he’s very active, he doesn’t like coming to the country.

That’s just the closest ring of my family. If you add in nieces and nephews and in-laws and their kin, it gets up to 300 pretty quickly. I’ve been learning about how to make family all my life. It just keeps growing.

Puanani Burgess and Doug Pibel wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.

Puanani is a mediator, poet, community organizer, Zen priest, and YES! board member.

Doug Pibel is managing editor of YES!


  • More stories, photos, and videos from What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.
  • You Are Who You Eat With:
    Why hectic times call for a return to the family meal.
  • Homemade Prosperity:
    Caught in the consumer trap? Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes discovered that producing what she needs at home lets her live on a fraction of what she thought she needed.
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