Hawaiian ‘Ohana Beliefs

Hawaiian ‘Ohana Beliefs

‘Ohana” and “family” are not interchangeable. This site was a great help to me while I was trying to understand the full extent of the meaning of ‘ohana to Hawaiians.

Our society puts so much emphasis on the individual that it can be hard to comprehend a belief system which places the relationship to family higher than the individual. For a while I fought against it in my mind: “But movies and TV would have me believe that people who hold the group in higher regard than the individual are evil! I have to find myself, be true to myself, set myself apart from others…” Seriously, how often have you seen a protagonist break away from the oppressive chains of those who would have him be part of a group? No, he has to stand on his own two feet and be an individual!

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being an individual. But these messages tend to create a feeling of not only wanting to prove one’s individuality, but also to separate from others. One year when I was a teenager, my mom told me to pick out a black or white outfit for a family photo. I put up a stink: “I don’t wanna look like everybody else!” I whined. “Why do you want me to conform?” I was being oppressed. So I told her I would wear lavender. It’s not like I wanted to wear neon and be visible from a hundred yards, I just wanted to stand out a little.  I showed up to take the photo and saw that my mom and sisters had made last-minute attempts to match. They were all wearing lavender. I was mad at first. I tried to stand out and be an individual and they ruined it. 

Well, needless to say I was being selfish. My mom had to wear a plain tee-shirt because I just had to wear what I wanted to wear. And this family photo was not just us. My great-grandparents, who are no longer with us, my Grandma Nancy, her three sons (my dad and two uncles) and their families, including my cousin’s daughter, brought the total to four generations. The photos from that day are the only professional ones we will ever have with that exact group of people. And every time I go to my parents’ house and see those pictures, and my lavender top that I just had to wear, I feel embarrassed and ashamed and just so sad that I was thinking of myself at such an irreplaceable moment.

If I had valued my family as ‘ohana, I would have matched them. I would have found a black or white top that would match, but still make me feel pretty, like I did for our most recent family photo (on Maui, incidentally). I would have understood that ‘ohana is like a lei (keep reading for a future post).

In Finding ‘Ohana, everyone at the funeral in chapter three is wearing not only the same color, but the exact same pattern (as is common at Hawaiian funerals).

There’s something beautiful and selfless about the belief that family is greater than anything else in this world. The Hawaiian ‘ohana knows no bounds — it transcends blood and even death! They would have no saying comparable to “blood is thicker than water” because you don’t need blood ties to be ‘ohana. And when people we love die, we know they won’t leave us, not because of an old cliche that says that they’re always in your heart, but because they continue serving and protecting their ‘ohana even in death. Nothing can break the bonds of ‘ohana.

In our society, we have legal adoptions in which blood is unimportant. But how often does the adopted child want to find their “true” parents? In an ‘ohana frame of mind, the adoptive parents would be the true parents. We also have friends of the family. Again, these friends would be considered ‘ohana themselves.

This is why Kamea not only views Cinnamin as her own daughter (not daughter-in-law) but also views Lucas as a son, and Julie as a granddaughter. Cinnamin always thought of Lucas as brother-like, but Kamea saw this bond as brother/sister period. And that made Julie, Lucas’ daughter, part of the ‘ohana as well. From a mainlander’s point of view, there are so many non-blood connections that they would never consider Kamea and Julie family. But “Kamea had said that Lucas was like [Cinnamin’s] brother, and Julie [her] niece, so they were just as much part of her ‘ohana. And why would Kamea [babysit] one grandchild [Kalani] and not the other [Julie]? Julie had even started calling her ‘Grandma Mea.’ She liked the way it sounded, and would sometimes say it over and over in singsong. [Cinnamin] did not understand it. [She] envied how easily a child could accept a new person as family.”

Part of Cinnamin’s struggle in “Finding ‘Ohana” is to do just that: accept new people as family. She clings to her parents even though they turned their backs on her and has trouble trusting that Naali’s parents will not do the same. ‘Ohana is a foreign concept to her, and she struggles with viewing Hawaiian cultures through mainlander eyes. (This is called ethnocentrism, for you scholars out there.)

Growing up in the church I did helped me understand ‘ohana better. In our church, other members were called our brothers and sisters. My best friends were in the church, and we spent nights at each others houses more than (I realized only recently) most children our age. My friends’ parents were trusted to bathe me along with their own daughter and to read us a Bible story before bedtime, and even to give the same punishment my parents would give if they were there. If someone in the church needed a place to stay, our home was open to them. When I got older, I started babysitting for the kids in our church — if the parents were at a church-related event, I wouldn’t expect to be paid. After moving away, I still saw my childhood friends whenever I could. Even now that I’ve stopped going to that church almost altogether, I feel that I have a connection with those friends unlike any others I’ve lost contact with over the years.

The difference between ‘ohana and my childhood church is that when someone left the church (not moved away, but actually left the church itself) they were gone. We called it “falling away.” It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was like the person disappeared off the face of the earth. “Where is Fred this week?” “Oh, he fell away.” Sometimes people would hope that person would come back to the church, and for all I know maybe the adults stayed in contact, but usually it felt like we’d just lost him.

In this way, our church was much more like Cinnamin’s family than like Naali’s ‘ohana. I actually never noticed until writing this very blog post. Funny how writing helps you learn about yourself.


5 thoughts on “Hawaiian ‘Ohana Beliefs

  1. It’s nice to learn about Ohana in your blog. After reading it I googled for it to learn more and also found that there was an animation movie “Lilo and Stitch” (2002) talking about Ohana. Something more cute is on Youtube “Ohana means family. Family means no one stay behind .. or forgotten!” You might wish to watch it. Don’t be harsh on yourself for being supposedly selfish wishing to wear something special. You didn’t know why it was so important to wear the same clothes. Just an honest mistake. We all like to keep our individuality, not to just submit to the Ohana. It’s a balance act how to be an individual and also part of the Ohana. By the way, if your novel is set partly in Hawaii and also introduces the readers to Hawaii and its culture, you might wish to send a query to University of Hawaii Press. I met them last month in Toronto and they told me that while they only publish academic books, they are open to publish a novel if it has a strong flavour of Hawaii. It’s worth trying.

    • That’s a good idea. I’ll look into the University of Hawai’i.

      “Lilo and Stitch” is actually one of my favorite movies! I love Disney, and I loved “Lilo and Stitch” ever since I saw it in theaters. I liked what they included about Hawai’i and ‘ohana, but I didn’t think about it relating to “Finding ‘Ohana” until I started doing research on Hawai’i. I didn’t realize that the movie only touched on a small aspect of ‘ohana. I also didn’t catch a lot of slang they used in the movie, like “howzit” or “lolo” until researching for my book. I would be researching, see a slang word, and instantly have the character’s voice in my head. Needless to say, I’ve watched “Lilo and Stitch” more than a few times in the last couple months! 🙂

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