In modern times, people often refer to families as hānai when the arrangement is actually ho‘okama. This relatively new usage for hānai is, according to Hōkūlani, an example of the nuances lost “when people ceased to speak Hawaiian as a primary language in the early twentieth century.” Hānai, with its connotation of nursing (its most literal meaning is “feeding”), was originally used for babies raised by nonbiological parents. Yet even in Forster’s 1957 study, the term was already being loosely used to include ho‘okama.
E.S. Craighill Handy, author of the seminal work The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, became ho‘okama himself to research the book — which, among other topics, examines the traditions of hānai and ho‘okama. Pa‘ahana Wiggin, the mother of Dr. Handy’s assistant Mary Kawena Pukui, “adopted” Handy and his wife and co-researcher, Elizabeth Green Handy, knowing that, while many people wouldn’t be willing to talk to an outsider, they would open up to a Hawaiian family member.
For master maoli (native Hawaiian) artist Al Lagunero, it’s not surprising that hānai and ho‘okama expand the western concept of family — since, in the Hawaiian worldview, “family” encompasses the natural world. He cites the story of kalo (the taro plant), which Hawaiians consider the older brother of Hāloa, the first Hawaiian, and therefore an ancestor of all Hawaiians. Brotherhood is an apt metaphor for the relationship between this staple food crop and the people who care for and are sustained by it. Al also notes the popular belief among Hawaiians in “the friendliness of endemic trees. The native trees allow other trees to grow beside them, and form symbiotic relationships.” By comparison, “check out what the [introduced] ironwood forests have done, excluding these relationships with carpets of pine needles.”
An old Hawaiian chant says, “Mahalo e na kūpuna, Mahalo me ke aloha” — “Thank you to the elders. Thank you with love.” This oli mahalo (chant of gratitude) acknowledges that the devotion and affection of hānai and ho‘okama flow both ways, not just from the older to the younger generation. Susan Victor (not her real name) was twenty-one when she moved from the Midwest to Hawai‘i to study at O‘ahu’s East-West Center. She was assigned a sponsor who invited her over for meals, introduced her to Hawaiian customs, and helped her set up her new life far from home. They grew to consider each other family, and in the end, Susan took care of the woman she called her “hānai mom.” “I would spend holidays with her, take her to doctors’ appointments. I had power of attorney for my hānai mom. At the hospital, they thought I was her biological daughter. I spread her ashes.”
Part of the challenge in discussing and understanding hānai is that it is misused nowadays to include hānai in the traditional sense, ho‘okama, and even western-style adoption. But those who have experienced it all describe it the same way: hānai is the spirit of aloha.
Kalehua Bellotto, Sam Kaleleiki’s hānai son, feels that being a product of hānai has made him “more complete, knowing I was raised and loved by so many as if I were their own.” Then he corrects himself, “I am their own. I belong to all of them.”