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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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The Hawaiian culture is one of inclusion. Our language and our processes and our traditions—it’s all about trying to make people family. We end up, like I have, with very large families.

Hanai is one of the ways we build family. It started out as a kind of adoption. Traditionally, hanai was first-born children going to be raised by their grandparents. It was a way of making sure the culture survived—that each new generation learned traditions from the generation closest to the source. It wasn’t optional for the parents. If the grandparents wanted the child, they got the child.

There were about 14 kids. We sort of lived in between each other’s porches and houses, and played on the road at night. It was a lovely time.

That still went on, even in my lifetime. My grandmother hanai’d one of my cousins. My aunt didn’t want to give up the child, but she felt compelled to, because it was a duty traditionally. But the word means a lot of things now. Hawai‘i has many cultures, and they mix together, and words change meanings.

Hanai can also be a lot like adoption. When my father married my mother, she already had a daughter. My father hanai’d her, and she was brought up as much my father’s child as I was. He eventually adopted her, but it’s different. Adoption is a legal thing—it gives you duties that the law can enforce. Hanai is a kuleana—a moral duty. The consequences of breaking a kuleana are really worse than breaking a legal duty. You can be shunned, or cursed.

Building Bridges

Burgess baby picture by Paul Dunn

The new generation: Layla Ahonui-a-Lanakila Burgess held by auntie Rhonda DeCambra Villanueva.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine

I think even in traditional times hanai came to be a way of building bridges between families so that there wouldn’t be as much animosity when it came to disagreements. If I hanai’d your child into my family, you and I are family now. And so that makes it more difficult for you to come and fight with me. So it was a way of aligning perspectives.

And I think that’s partly what my father was doing when he and my mother hanai’d me to my father’s brother when I was eight. My parents were going through hard times, and that was part of it, too. My uncle and aunt didn’t have children, so they were in a position to take care of me.

But I think it was also a way for my father to build bridges within his own family. When my dad married my mother, his family didn’t approve. My father was Japanese, and when I was born, intermarriage between Japanese and other ethnic groups, especially Hawaiians, was really unpopular. I think my father sent me to live with his brother as a way to try to make peace with his family.

I lived with my Japanese uncle and aunt for three years, and then my parents were able to take care of me again. We moved to Waianae, right around the corner from where I live now. My grandmother had purchased this row of Quonset huts. My family moved into one of the Quonset huts, and all of my aunts and uncles lived in the other ones. So in a little patch of ground, there were about 14 kids. We sort of lived in between each other’s porches and houses, and played on the road at night. It was a lovely time. And in my cousins’ households, there were lots of hanai kids. And that’s another meaning of hanai—the kids go where they need to go, to anyone who can take care of them.

The rule is: you all belong to every one of us. So, if you’re doing something naughty, anyone can spank you or yell at you, and unless they do something really horrendous, nobody ever goes back and yells at the adults for doing that. So there was a lot of interchange, and we ate at everybody else’s house, and they ate at ours.

Then my mother and grandmother got into an argument, so my grandmother kicked us out. We ended up sharing a house with some cousins. It was in Damon Tract—a place that was thought of as a ghetto. And, you know, I didn’t know that I lived in a ghetto.

There were a lot of us. So some of us, the older ones like me, we had to sleep on benches, and then the smaller kids got the beds. There were a bunch of kids who slept on the bed, and then there were a bunch of us who slept on the floor, or slept on a bench, or we just figured out where to sleep. It was an interesting time of life, and I really remember the good times.

That was my family—or my families —growing up. Family is complicated. Everywhere it’s complicated.

My life took a complete turn when I met Poka, who’s been my husband for 43 years. I was at the University of Hawai‘i, and a friend of his introduced us. We stood in the hallway of Gartley Hall for four hours, and we just talked. We eventually ended up—in Hawai‘i you always end up—talking about “What’s your family name?” and “Where’d you grow up?” And it turned out we lived around the corner from each other in Waianae. And that day I knew that we were going to be married.

Poka grew up in a big family—seven boys and one girl. They weren’t rich at all, but they owned their land. So they had a stable place to live. When Poka brought me into this family, they really hanai’d me. Just like with adoption, it’s more than being an in-law. It’s really becoming a member of the family as much as anyone who was born into the family—they know how to bring you into them. I learned how to be a parent, how to be an adult, from the Burgess family. I learned to talk to people; I had people who loved me very openly.

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