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Living True Aloha

Using the core value of aloha as a weapon against others is pure cultural hypocrisy.

This past week as discussion of SB1 began at the Legislature, a television commercial aired featuring OHA Board Chairperson Collette Machado and at least one Hawaiian minister misrepresenting traditional Hawaiian values of aloha and ‘ohana as Christian derived ones. In the spot, they claim “aloha” for “all people of Hawai‘i,” but ask viewers to oppose SB 1, asserting that granting same sex marriage will “affect our traditional sense of ‘ohana.”  They state their position against same sex marriage is “for the sake of the children,” and end with “aloha ke akua” or God is love. The misrepresentation of traditional Hawaiian values as rooted in Christianity was surprising to some Hawaiian educators and cultural practitioners who more accurately and widely interpret such values. Such warped and twisted use of these values continued throughout much of the testimony of opponents to SB 1 during the Senate Judiciary hearing on Tuesday, October 29. At this time, some claimed in testimonies, on signs, and in social media that fluid sexual practices and relationships such as aikāne (intimate friendship, sometimes same sex relations) and māhū (transgender) never existed, one woman even insisting that such “depravities” were introduced by Captain Cook.

There is ample evidence in oral and written sources that aikāne and māhū were and continue to be a normal and accepted part of Hawaiian culture.  Moreover, these practices are found throughout the Pacific, and in many other parts of the world. People don’t have to like it or agree with it, but it is an irrefutable fact.

Cultural values such as aloha are so often misappropriated, particularly through capitalism and tourism that it is easy to forget its true complexity of meaning: love, compassion, sympathy, mercy, kindness, charity, to recall with affection (hence its allusion to the more simplified greetings “hello” and “goodbye” which don’t carry such emotional attachment). Ironically, raised in a Hawaiian Christian church, these are also the Christian values I learned and internalized.

In response to the commercial, the “True Aloha” movement began through social media with the intention of reclaiming the cultural root of aloha as reflective of all its meanings, applicable to everyone. Our central purpose is to remind everyone that aloha does not discriminate. Rather, it is an important cultural value inclusive of traditional Hawaiian practices of fluid sexuality, sexual identity, and relationship statuses such as aikāne, māhū, punalua, po‘olua, and hānai.

Using the core value of aloha as a weapon against others is pure cultural hypocrisy, and goes against the root of the Bible verse they end with, 1 John 4:8, Aloha ke Akua—God is love.

While some opponents of same sex marriage have evoked an argument of ‘ohana as equating to Christian family values, the word ‘ohana is derived from the word ‘ohā, the offshoots or keiki of the makua (parent) kalo or taro stalk. We should note that not only is the kalo genderless in reproducing, on one hand, the kalo is genderless when ‘ohā develop. There is no “one man, one woman” (or one male, one female) element of the plant that come together to create ‘ohā, and neither are necessary in that configuration to nourish the keiki.  To extend the cultural history, the kalo plant is the body form of Hāloa, the first offspring of Wākea (Sky Father) and in some versions of this history, Ho‘ohōkūkalani, his daughter. Their kalo child went on to become the center of Hawaiian sustenance, and Mary Kawena Pukui writes extensively about the importance of kalo and its cherished Hawaiian product, poi, in many of her numerous scholarly works.

In a forum on Kanaka Maoli Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, about thirteen years ago, Noenoe Silva reminded the audience that, “Aloha ‘āina is a familial relationship…our freedom to live in our land is linked to our freedom to determine how we live in our bodies.” Expressions of aloha and ‘ohana remind us of our beloved ancestor, Hāloa, and that our cultural foundation and values, as Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu so eloquently expressed in an op-ed piece in the Star Advertiser yesterday, are very different from western ones, including Christianity. As for “the sake of the children” argument, social science research has clearly shown that having a loving and stable home environment, regardless of whether both parents are the same sex or not, is far more conducive to a healthy, well-adjusted upbringing. Recently, Representative Chris Lee said that, “Many have asked how our next generation will receive marriage equality, but it’s really our next generation that’s leading the way who are overwhelmingly supportive of ending hurtful discrimination and treating everyone with the same respect and aloha that we all deserve.” This was very apparent during the rallies at the Capital on Tuesday, when a large number of youth brought their beautiful “Str8 against H8” message to the Legislators.

Our Hawaiian kūpuna recognized the beautiful diversity and complexity of humanity and our relationships with each other. They recognized the need to accommodate social systems that would not needlessly discriminate or ostracize ‘ohana. Aikāne recognizes same sex relationships, māhū recognizes a different expression of identity, hānai is the fostering and caring for a child who might otherwise be an orphan, punalua recognizes the need for some to be in a sexual relationship with more than one person at a time, and po‘olua grants multiple genealogical rights to a child born to questionable parentage (in the days way before DNA testing was available). It is a beautiful, sophisticated, loving culture that creates social practices of acceptance, rather than condemnation.

Some Christian groups and opponents of SB 1 have taken to waving the red, green and yellow “Hawaiian” flag, often in conjunction with the saying, “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono,” interpreting this as embodying Christian values. This perspective is as fake as the red, green and yellow “Hawaiian” flag. First, Kamehameha III (who had aikāne relationships, notably with the handsome Tahitian man Kaomi) first uttered this proclamation after Hawaiian sovereignty was restored through the assistance of Admiral Thomas at the Honolulu park that now bears his name, after it had been illegally seized by Britain’s Lord George Paulet in 1843. It has since been adopted as the state motto, and often translated as “the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Righteousness is often associated with Christianity, as conforming to the precepts of divine law and questions of morality.  Yet ea is also sovereignty, and pono is also justice; in the context of restored sovereignty; a better, contextually appropriate translation is, “The sovereignty of the land continues because of justice,” as the return of Hawaiian sovereignty was a just, morally important act. This reiterates Silva’s point connection aloha ‘āina and kanaka, Hāloa and ‘ohana.

While some Hawaiians embraced Christianity once it was introduced in 1820, and Hawai‘i became a Christian nation in 1840, traditional Hawaiian practices, such as hula continued. Deemed “lascivious” by outraged Christian missionaries, it was banned in 1836 for most public performance, but continued underground. Thankfully, this vibrant, important cultural practice continues, and even thrives in some of the same churches that are now denouncing same sex marriage, and who have appropriated the “pagan, lascivious” hula to worship their own god. So surely there is room for wider interpretations of Hawaiian values within a Christian context. 

Emotions are running high on the issue on both sides. On Monday at a sign waving event supporting traditional marriage along the Pali Highway near Castle junction, a man and his pregnant wife were physically assaulted by another man who drove his vehicle into the couple sign waving on the side of the road.  On Tuesday, Windward Community College students and faculty held their own sign waiving event at the corner of Kahikili Hwy. and Ke‘a‘ahala Road with the message that “violence is not the answer.” Violence is not the answer. It is only with aloha—love, sympathy, compassion, and acceptance—can we truly move forward as a diverse society, one rooted in our ‘āina and Hawaiian culture. As Martin Luther King Jr. said during the great fervor of the Civil Rights movement, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” As a heterosexual Hawaiian woman married by a Hawaiian Christian kahu, as a Hawaiian educator who is a kahu (caretaker) of Hawaiian knowledge, I stand in support of my aikāne and māhū ‘ohana and friends, those in punalua relationships, with all keiki po‘olua and hānai, with true aloha.