“Aloha ʻāina is a familial relationship; that means that we resist all attempts to further separate any of us from our ʻāina. Our freedom to live in our land is linked to our freedom to determine how we live in our bodies.” –Noenoe Silva
“In these challenging times, convoluted views of our native culture are being appropriated for other purposes…If you support the Westernized Christian view of marriage, then so be it — but please don’t pretend that your choice has anything to do with Hawaiian thought or values… You would relegate our people to nothing but mere shells along the seashore, damaged by those who trample upon their fragile beauty because they want to walk in paradise. I speak on behalf of mahu and those in aikane relationships who are too afraid, too shy or unable to articulate their profound connection to the true native concept of Hawaii — an inclusive society that unconditionally accepts, respects and loves all people, and that values the full and wondrous diversity of our relationships and families.” –Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu
Lately in Hawaiʻi, we have been painfully reminded of Chris Finley’s observation that "Heteropatriarchy has become so natural in many Native communities that it is internalized and institutionalized as if it were traditional." As the Hawai‘i State Legislature continues its special session to consider a bill that would extend marriage equality to same-sex couples, Native Hawaiian words and values have been misused and taken completely out of historical and cultural context by those who promote homophobia and heteropatriarchy under the guise of “traditional marriage.” The institution of state-sanctioned or church-sanctioned marriage has a very short genealogy here in Hawaiʻi. To claim marriage is a Kanaka Maoli tradition is like claiming plantation capitalism is a Hawaiian tradition. It is necessary for us to consider Driskill, Finley, Gilley and Morgensen’s call to look at the ways “the normalizing and privileging of patriarchal heterosexuality and its gender and sexual expressions” undermine struggles for decolonization and sovereignty.
Before going any further, we need to provide a few brief background:
- Since time immemorial, Kanaka Maoli—the Native Hawaiian people—have included and celebrated fluid gender and sexual practices in our culture.
- The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court in 1993 issued a landmark decision that a ban on marriages between same-sex couples violated the state constitution’s prohibition against sex discrimination.
- In 1998, Hawaiʻi voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Hawaiʻi Legislature the authority to reserve marriage in Hawaiʻi to opposite sex couples. The Legislature later passed a law that defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman.
- Currently, a bill that would affirm the equal protection and equal rights of same-sex married couples is making its way through the legislature and was approved by the Senate (with a vote of 20- 4) on October 28, 2013.
As we watch this situation unfold, we have seen numerous instances of Hawaiian concepts being twisted and misunderstood. For example take this commercial, “Hawaiʻi’s covenant with God,” sponsored by a group opposing Senate Bill 1 relating to equal rights. The speakers assert that “the Bible is the highest law of the land,” and that “same sex marriage will affect our traditional sense of ʻohana.” Among those in the commercial is the Chairperson of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs—the state agency responsible for administering funds and lands intended for the “benefit of Native Hawaiians.” For an excellent analysis of and response to this ad and to the wider usage of fundamentalist groups in appropriating Hawaiian language terms and values, see Professor kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanui’s opinion piece, “Living True Aloha.” For a concise and potent critique, please also read “Hawaiian Values Differ from Western Traditions,” authored by Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a fierce advocate for Hawaiian independence and the kind of genuine liberation that requires challenging heteropatriarchy.
Additionally, we take this historical moment to look back to the words of three Kanaka political theorists and practitioners, Noenoe Silva, Kuʻumeaaloha Gomes and Kaleikoa Kaʻeo. During the late-1990s, when the same-sex marriage issue was being debated in many communities across the islands, these three Kanaka Maoli scholars came together to shed some light on the connections between Hawaiian sovereignty and sexuality. We post the following excerpts from the panel, especially since it is incredibly difficult to access the transcripts from this event, and yet their voices could not be more necessary and insightful.
"Ka Le'a O Ke Ola: A Forum on Kanaka Maoli Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality" featuring Noenoe Silva, Kaleikoa Kaeo and Kuumeaaloha Gomes
Participants in the AFSC gathering had the opportunity to attend a public forum at the Center for Hawaiian Studies of the University of Hawaiʻi (UH), which addressed for a Hawaiian audience many of the same themes under discussion at the gathering. In addition to AFSC, cosponsors of the forum included Na Mamo O Hawaiʻi, the Marriage Project Hawaiʻi, the Pacific Families Network, and a variety of UH organizations and programs, including the Queer Student Union, the Center for Hawaiian Studies, Kua`ana Student Services, the Task Force on Sexual Orientation, and the Student Equity, Excellence, and Diversity Office. The forum, which began with a traditional Hawaiian processional and invocation, was well attended by representatives of both the Kanaka Maoli sovereignty movement and Hawaiʻi's gay community. Excerpts from presentations by the three panelists appear below; their remarks were followed by a spirited discussion with the audience and many expressions of mutual respect and solidarity regarding both gay rights and Hawaiian sovereignty.
We need to speak about the issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage with a Hawaiian voice, a Kanaka Maoli voice. Especially those of us who are involved in Kanaka Maoli political struggles have been silent about the whole issue. I believe this is a failure on our part, and by proclaiming my support I hope that others will support this issue. As a heterosexual male I don't pretend to speak for the gay community; I come to speak from a Hawaiian nationalist perspective.
. . . Next to sovereignty, the most controversial issue facing Hawaiʻi is the issue of same-sex marriage. Many nationalist organizations and individuals have yet to publicly proclaim their point of view. The only voices so far have come from a Kanaka Maoli organization formed by students and faculty at the University of Hawaiʻi, Na Mamo O Hawaiʻi.
This is disturbing. It is as if same-sex marriage will not have an impact on the Hawaiian community. If this were an issue involving family, land, or religion you can bet Hawaiians would be there - why haven't Hawaiians come forward on this issue? Many leaders in the Hawaiian community are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Marriage as it exists today is an artifact of cultural imperialism, encoded as a mechanism of colonization. It is no different than the bringing of capitalism, Christianity, or privatization. It has brought confusion to Kanaka Maoli culture: about sex, gender roles, and family; about how we relate among the sexes.
The voices of opposition [to gay rights] have also been minimal. Even though some have spoken in opposition from the churches they have spoken on the basis of Christianity, and not as Kanaka Maoli. This issue highlights the clash between Kanaka Maoli culture and the hegemony of Euro-American culture in Hawaiʻi. This is a very painful situation for Kanaka Maoli. It calls into question our basic cultural beliefs. It poses the questions of who we are and what our beliefs are. What were our traditions concerning sexuality? What are they today and how have they changed?
The question of shame and guilt has always been here. If we are talking about decolonizing, can we truly do that without dealing with this question? Marriage as it exists today is an artifact of cultural imperialism, encoded as a mechanism of colonization. It is no different than the bringing of capitalism, Christianity, or privatization. It has brought confusion to Kanaka Maoli culture: about sex, gender roles, and family; about how we relate among the sexes.
The main function of marriage was to produce a European-style family, which was part of the process of colonization. As we explore decolonization as Kanaka Maoli, issues like cultural institutions or land use have all brought about deep discussions in our community, all for the sake of the physical, cultural, and mental survival of Kanaka Maoli people. The Kanaka Maoli cannot afford to limit our attempt to decolonize spiritually, socially, culturally, and economically by failing to address one of the most predominant institutions of American cultural hegemony.
I am talking not just about granting lesbians and gays the right to marry, but about re-imagining the institution of marriage. We need to include Kanaka Maoli values in the concept of marriage. If same-sex marriage becomes legal in Hawaiʻi, it should be viewed by Kanaka Maoli as a window of opportunity. We should follow the lead of the proponents of same-sex marriage because it gives us the latitude to reshape societal institutions to fit our cultural standards.
As Amilcar Cabral points out, the greater the difference between the culture of the dominated and the culture of the oppressor, the more possible becomes the resistance of the oppressed. It is easier to dominate where there is a similar culture. Imperialism struggles unceasingly on the cultural front, to bring you to believe that you have no culture, that your culture and that of your oppressor is the same. If we want to liberate ourselves as Kanaka Maoli, we cannot blindly accept and keep intact the premises of the colonial regime.
The institution of marriage as we know it today is not a traditional Kanaka Maoli cultural form. Many of the opponents of same-sex marriage say we need to protect traditional marriage as it exists in Hawaiʻi, marriage for procreation. What is traditional marriage in Hawaiʻi? Does this term come from the view of marriage as it has existed in Europe and America, as an institution that developed mainly to control property?
Marriage did not exist in Hawaiʻi before the arrival of European missionaries in 1820. In the old days there was no such thing as marriage; everybody slept with everybody. If a man wanted a woman, or a woman wanted a man, they would seek each other. We had different types of unions and relationships. One was a binding betrothal, when a family for procreative purposes wanted offspring to be born, not because of love or sexual attraction but because of the need to produce a child. A second type of relationship, punalua, existed between two persons closely linked to a third person; they could be sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law, two wives of a man, two husbands of a woman, and so on. These terms cannot be translated into English, because they are cultural concepts that are lacking in the social relationships of English-speaking people.
The term "punalua" comes from the idea of two heads. In Hawaiian culture before the arrival of the missionaries it was permissible to have multiple partners, for men and women alike. The raising of children did not take place in a nuclear family construct. If a woman had two lovers at about the same time and a child was born then, then the child was considered to have two fathers. Another type of relationship was known as ho`ao, daylight: if a man slept with a woman until daylight they were married. That was the declaration of their union: they didn't go in front of a judge or a priest. Religion was not involved in determining what was a marriage and what was not. Sometimes no words were said. There were no requirements for sexual abstinence before marriage; often couples tried living together before forming a union. The most common way was for the male to go and live with his wife's family. With that type of arrangement, the room for physical abuse or verbal abuse is taken away because that man is going to face his wife's brother.
Traditionally, relationships of lifelong love and commitment did not include economic support and did not necessarily include sexual involvement. Those involved might have sex outside this union. Another term is aikane, which has had many meanings at different times of history. "Ai" means sex and "kane" means male, but this word is actually used to describe relationships between two people of the same sex. Such a relationship may have included sex or it may not; the main focus is the relationship itself.
When I first read all of this about our culture it opened up my eyes to realize that sex is resistance. The conflict of cultures is also experienced as sexual conflict. If you really feel Hawaiian you experience sex as enjoyable, natural, fulfilling, and lots of fun. . . .
It's very beautiful to be here in the Center for Hawaiian Studies, but I'm going to talk about an event that happened two years ago in Hilo in which I felt very different than I do tonight. I am a cofounder of a group of lesbian and gay Kanaka Maoli. We formed in 1993 with the purpose of attending the hearings on same-sex marriage and talking about traditional Hawaiian practices. In 1996 there were a series of puwalu or conventions of different sovereignty groups, with the intention of finding common ground, and we decided to go. Our intention was to be in on the formation of a new Hawaiian nation. We believed that we need to think carefully about what kind of nation we are building: we don't want to live in a new nation that is just as oppressive to us as the old one. At the time I was inspired by the constitution created for South Africa after apartheid was dismantled, which included a clause prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual
orientation. The theme for that particular puwalu was aloha ʻāina, malama ʻāina. These puwalu normally lasted about three days and we were there the whole time. It was a full weekend of workshops seeking to find some common ground about what "aloha ʻāina" means. On the last morning, a Sunday morning, just before the closing, we intervened. I was the one who stood up and read our statement, which said that we are Hawaiian, we belong to Hawaiʻi. Our ʻāina permeates every part of us: the land is our ancestor, it is in our bones. It is our link to our past, our history, and our future well-being. All are linked to our relationship with our ʻāina.
We said that aloha ʻāina is a familial relationship; that means that we resist all attempts to further separate any of us from our ʻāina. Our freedom to live in our land is linked to our freedom to determine how we live in our bodies, our freedom to live in relationships that may be different from American culture. Before colonization we lived in a society that accepted diversity, and now we want to propose support for ending discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. The first reaction to our proposal was that this isn't the right time; we have to get the land back and establish our own government, and then we can talk about your problem. Another person said, we don't need to say this because there is no discrimination in our Hawaiian community, you are part of our families. Another said, our people are not going to accept this, this is too controversial. When we pointed out the contradictions between these last two statements, people got very stuck.
Our freedom to live in our land is linked to our freedom to determine how we live in our bodies. Then this wonderful man stood up, a country guy, speaking in Pidgin. He said, look at us, this is Sunday morning, none of us are at church. Why? Because most of us have fled from a church that is oppressive to us. He began talking about missionaries and colonialism, and he broke through. He said, we need something that says we are not going to discriminate against people who are poor, or ill, or disabled, and we agreed with that. Then people turned around. We drafted a statement, and the whole puwalu approved it. Afterwards women kept coming up to us, crying, saying, my sister is gay, or my daughter had to go and live in California. They wept many tears after the decision to support our statement. Many of them came up to us and said, I'm so glad you're doing this. Despite the decision, the statement from that puwalu never came out publicly. That is why I'm really glad to be here tonight where people like Kaleikoa are ready to talk about our rights in the context of Hawaiian sovereignty.
A seed was planted a long time ago when we took the step in 1993 of deciding that we would come out publicly as gay Kanaka Maoli. That seed has needed some extra nurturing. We cannot do this work alone, making sure that our community does not become our oppressor. When I learned of Kaleikoa's work I realized that we are on the path together, paving the way so our Kanaka Maoli community can move forward together as we claim our sovereignty and independence. We cannot allow a nation to be built that will impose the same kinds of oppression.
As a Kanaka Maoli woman and a gay woman this question of sexuality and spirituality is a passionate one for me. As I grew up I was surrounded by stories from my mother and my grandmothers that affirmed sexuality. One of these stories tells of the night my mom and dad were married. My Auntie `Io disappeared from the luau. My parents left for their honeymoon place, and when they opened the door there was Auntie `Io, jumping on the bed. My mom said, "what are you doing?" She answered, "I'm making the bed soft for you so you have an easy time tonight!" Before she left she said a blessing for them, talking about my father's prowess and my mother's beauty. Today we are confronted with the Māhele of our body. Our bodies are appropriated and commodified for tourism. We have to be wary of circumstances that attempt to make us invisible and invalidate who we are.
When I was little my grandmother used to talk about Papa and Wakea, the earth mother and sky father. There are many sexual stories in our mythology. Later on in my adult life I used those same kinds of stories when I worked with Kanaka Maoli children in a farm project. I used them to restore pride in these children who had been rejected by their schoolteachers and by the Department of Education. They were labeled as failures, but I understood them as creative children for whom the schools were not providing any nurturing.
I brought them the stories of how Papa supports us every day of our lives and gives us the food from the land, how Wakea sends us the air we breathe all the time. When you go to the mountains on the windward side they look like a vulva, that is their name in Hawaiian, because they are very deep and very dark inside. They look like a woman's maʻi. I grew up with that kind of story. I remember the thrill one day of learning that the coconut represented the man's scrotum, and so women were forbidden to eat that because it's too dangerous. The same with the banana, which women sometimes were forbidden to eat. Growing up in Hawaiʻi we cannot escape the maʻi inoa, the sexual nicknames describing our genitals that children are given when they are born. Our famous rulers were given names like these, King Kalākaua and Queen Liliʻuokalani. This was celebrated and respected, you had dances where people celebrated their ma`i names. This is historical in our culture, it is not something we create today. We may write about it today, but it comes from our past.
Our culture has many songs and dances with double meanings, about a rocking chair, about the squid in the sand. I can remember my excitement as a child, not about the words, but about understanding the sexual feeling. This is who we are as Kanaka Maoli, who we traditionally have been, what we celebrate.
The impact of supremacist Christianity has been to take that away from us. This is why we are here to reclaim who we are as Kanaka Maoli. We need to claim every part of it: our sexuality is part of what makes us strong. Not all Christians have the same attitude, but supremacist Christianity is related historically to white male supremacy, which perpetuates racism, class oppression, and heterosexism. It is part of the same history through which the missionaries imposed things like the Māhele and became part of the plantation elite.
Today we are confronted with the Māhele of our body. Our bodies are appropriated and commodified for tourism. The colonization of our bodies and privatization of our relationships is expressed through marriage, which perpetuates private property and the ownership of people. Think of words like "Mr." or "Mrs.," which means mister's property. Many women are no longer using such terms but we still need to confront them and deconstruct them. The Western Christian idea of marriage has imposed on Kanaka Maoli a certain model of the family. We had other models of family, such as fostering, in which children were lovingly shared with other families, but each child always knew its own genealogy. These were hānai families, like our child who we have taken on to be raised by us.
Today as we look at same-sex marriage it is really important for us to look at our state constitution, which speaks to the state's responsibility to preserve and protect Native Hawaiian customary rights. This includes things like the protection of the hānai family. Today that article is being threatened with a constitutional amendment. We as Kanaka Maoli have a responsibility to speak up and protest that. If we are going to protect our rights we have to be wary of circumstances that attempt to make us invisible and invalidate who we are.
With the little girl who we are raising, we want her to be proud of who she is as Kanaka Maoli. We want her to know her history, to know that her people support her and both her families, her biological family and her hānai family. We want her to grow up in a culture that celebrates who she is at all levels.