Cultural Education

KUPUNA WISDOM

By “Aunty Betty” Kawohiokalani Ellis-Jenkins

Hawaiians believe kupuna to be their source of traditional cultural beliefs, practices and values. There existed in Hawai‘i past, a framework that commanded the role of kupuna to be respected and honored. Kupuna then, led the ohana through the accuracy of genealogy linkage, child rearing practices, ceremonies, rituals, and laws of cause and effect

Early in the 1990s when the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) was a developing infant, Trustee Moses Keale Sr. for Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, gathered a group of manaleo kupuna to spend some time together on his island. The invitation read “E Komo Mai!” They came, they talked and laughed, sang and cried, prayed frequently, dined on their Hawaiian foods and smiled with gratitude. Their task? To converse in their mother tongue about Hawaiian values. Not difficult for them. It was their natural lifestyle they had always known and knew no other.

From their deliberations words and phases in the mother tongue often held them captive. Kaona surfaced raised eyebrows, sly grins, nudging of elbows to reinforce the meanings, cupped hands over mouths, coquettish winks and innocent giggles. Regardless of island, village or geographic location in the ahupua‘a, they understood. With respect and aloha for their own kupuna (now passed) they knew that someday, somewhere, sometime, their shared values would surface. Burdens would be lifted, hearts would be joyful, hands would be kindly and productive, thoughts would be clear and compassionate, waters would flow freely and the thirst for knowledge would heighten.

It is from these manaleo kupuna that we visit the six values which defined the Hawaiian universe through selecting Hawaiian language terms which best identified concepts, values, practices, traits, rituals and protocols. These terms were grouped into categories as follows:

  1. KE AKUA, MANA: It is generally agreed that Hawaiians approach all tasks, large or small with the need to seek a higher authority for directions. Meditation on the task, the problems it may invoke, and the end product is embodied in the Hawaiian terms pule. Although a western translation of this term is prayer, the connotations related to the English word “prayer” would not be an appropriately complete definition. More appropriately, pule seeks a product which is divinely inspired with deep and unnerving understanding. This meditation breathes its own life into the task and that life seeks a harmony with man and nature. The process of pule seems to place a great concern on the questions of the appropriateness of a project or the solidity of the foundation of the project. This is reflected in the inclusion of terms such as pohaku (foundation), aina (land) and manaolana in defining this category.
  2. LOKAHI: The harmony described a goal of pule in the previous category then becomes the unity, which guides all tasks. Superficially, Lokahi brings together the terms laulima (working relationship), alu like (working in harmony), kuleana(division of responsibility), kupono and hana kupono (working for a correct cause). These concepts are especially applicable to physical tasks or interactions of man and nature or man and man. However, in combination withKe Akua and Mana, Lokahi takes on a more infinite meaning as Hawaiians consider their relationship with the wider universe. Lokahi, therefore is nature’s way of seeking total balance between all elements. Hawaiians relate to this concept by being a part of that peace and harmony within this system rather than in control of said system. Therefore, Lokahi is the balance and unity of all parts of the wider universe.
  3. OHANA:  Ohana in its simplest application is the family – nuclear, immediate, and extended. The kupuna associated over 35 attributes to this concept making it be far the most complex and important part of the total universe they defined. These terms ranged from simple attributes such as lealea (happiness), oluolu(pleasing), and laulima (working relationship) to immensely complex and philosophical concepts such as ha (breath of life), piko (essence of center), hoihiand waiwai io. Some of these terms were so complex in their deep meanings that words such as hoihi and waiwai io as it applies to ohana were left open to debate.It is important to note that applying a western concept to the term family could fall far short of the mark in understanding the vial role this plays in defining things “Hawaiian”. It we were asked to identify the most important traditional value which distinguished Hawaiians form other people, it  would be the treatment of family – ohana. It has been described by the participants that the Hawaiian considers family orientation not only laterally (i.e. nuclear: mother, father, siblings; immediate: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins; extended: all other relationships including non-blood relations) but vertically. An illustration created for the purpose of explaining vertical extension of ohana includes the vertical relationship that man has with his creater, aumakua (family gods), and ancestors, himself other people, and his ability to procreate. This vertical relationship was best expressed by the kupuna through the development of the terms hua and pua (male and female counterparts).
  4. POOKELA: Perhaps of the six categories, the terms listed in this grouping represents the most measurable items for qualitative and quantitative evaluation. Pookela refers to excellence. The kupuna listed items such aspaahana (diligence), hookipa (sharing), oihana (professionalism, task oriented),hana hooko (commitment), kupono (standing with firmness), ikaika (strength, determination), hoomanawanui (humility), imi naauao (correctness of knowledge), and waiwaikaulike (to strive for quality for all in everything done). It was their consensus that these attributes were not only desirable but also essential to any Hawaiian pursuit.
  5. HOOMAU:  Continuum is the theme for this category. Growth and re-growth to produce continued life for generations to come. Hawaiians knew that all things must continue to grow or cease to exist. Thus, in simplest terms they applied the concept of the balance between the hua and pua (male and female counterparts) in all things. Along with these two terms come ha, man’s mana(power to give the breath of life), hoonaauao o na pua a me pulama (to teach, inspire and to cherish, caress) were two qualifies that inspired hoomau (growth and re-growth). Specifically highlighted in this concept was the importance ofolelo makuahine (language). It was evident in the deliberations that the participants struggled to adequately find English words, which could express the true meaning of certain Hawaiian words or ideas. Therefore, they concluded that at this time certain terms could not be defined using English word equivalents.
  6. KOHO IA:  The final category, koho ia was indeed a profound discovery. After a brief explanation of the concept it was readily adopted as not only very Hawaiian but more importantly, it was looked upon as the concluding category which could guarantee the continued existence of the Hawaiian race as a separate and identifiably unique culture. The problem is in defining the concept to western thinkers.Simply put, koho ia is to be “chosen”.  It is the concept of a person having the ability to make a choice even if the choice seems to already have been made for him. As the kupuna put it, it is “choice but no choice”.  An exampled of this is embodied in the term punahele (chosen). The punahele has a choice at some point to continue to follow the teachings or to withdraw from the source. Although withdrawal is a true choice, the price of withdrawal is usually very costly and for the most part unlikely. If the choice is unlikely then there really is no choice. The moment you choose to walk a separate path you loose your ability to be part of the group. In other words you effectively fail to do your duty to nurture the ohana so you loose contact with the same. Extrapolating this further, since the kupuna identified the ohana as supremely important, breaking this chain disintegrates the system and the Hawaiian traditional values fall apart.

Long before my mother’s passing after her 100th birthday we talked about koho ia.  Because while I had come to recognize its “power” I too had not heard it. In our conversations we agreed as parent and child that all people are koho ia. We all have our paths to follow, “choice no choice”. We may not know what it is initially, but in time we all find our koho ia path that connects us in the most beautiful ways with all things, with all people.  Thinking that way is Hawaiian. Being a koho ia is understanding “On Being Hawaiian”.  Knowing that we are all Akua’s miracles, it is reasonable to believe that HE leads our koho ia journey. Welcome to your koho ia status!