The arrival of Europeans initiated profound changes: the introduction of foreign diseases that decimated the native population, an influx of foreign workers to feed the sugar industry, cultural oppression, and the overthrow of the monarchy How did Hawaiian values and traditions prepare wāhine to navigate such transformation? Language and cultural-resource educator Pulama Collier says, “Hawaiian women have always been in critical roles at turning points in our culture.”
Kamehameha I was the first king to unite all the Hawaiian Islands, but it was his two most powerful wives, Queen Ka‘ahumanu and Princess Keōpūolani, who effectively ended the ‘ai kapu. Ka‘ahumanu led the spiritual revolution that brought Christianity into Hawaiian practice. The vision and estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop launched Kamehameha Schools, which today provides an exemplary education to Hawaiian keiki (children). Queen Lili‘uokalani, the islands’ final monarch, relinquished her throne to the U.S. Government, under protest, to avoid the bloodshed of her beloved people.
“It wasn’t chance that women were in the right place at the right time,” Collier says. “Women were nurtured and guided to be in these roles. The value of the female is not just earthly or worldly, it’s spiritual and cosmological. Their divinity gives them the power and authority to hold places of leadership and to enrich and strengthen not only their mana [spiritual power] but also the mana of males.” Even Kamehameha, who achieved the appellation “the Great,” did so in part by pursuing the young, highborn Keōpūolani to bolster his power and legitimacy; through marriage, he gained her high-ranking mana.
Against a backdrop of powerful female ancestors and several centuries of foreign influence, what does the role of Hawaiian women look like today? Collier’s life provides insight.
Gender-based traditions still influence what women do, but they don’t create rigid constraints. Collier grew up in a tight Hawaiian community where culture was lived daily. From parents to aunties and cousins, the value system was consistent. “We could understand each other without explanation. You could [communicate] with just a look,” she says. As a child she learned to mend nets and pick limu, and can list the different seaweeds as easily as she can name family members.
Like wāhine of old, Collier’s contributions focused on inshore waters, but she never felt restricted. “You had an awareness of the places where you belong.” Her father didn’t keep her from the boat; he just didn’t nurture her participation. Collier says, “It’s not just your physicality or gender; it’s your mana, your spirit, that will tell if you can.” One of six siblings, she held the special position of poi mixer. “Poi is so important,” she says, “because kalo [taro root] is family — the older sibling of the Hawaiian people.” The hand that goes into the poi must have the right “chemistry” to make the poi sweet. Her father could taste the difference if someone else had mixed the poi.
‘Ohana (family) continues to be the bedrock o Hawaiian culture. Collier says her parents placed no limits on what she and her siblings might achieve. “We all have a value and a responsibility. We have the kuleana to nurture the gifts and talents we have to excellence, and bring [them] together [for] collective transformation.”