All in the Ohana
How Hawaiians embrace the land, its abundance, and their responsibility to each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
YES! managing editor co-authored this article.