Le'ale'a O Na Poe Kahiko--Joy of the People of Old Hawai'i.

Author:Marsh, Amy
Position:Company overview


Prior to European contact, the islands of Hawai'i nourished a vibrant, sexually joyous culture which supported the development of competent skills for healthy and pleasurable sex. Na poe kahiko (the people of old) experienced intimacy and pleasure within the context of spiritual and community kinship. " Hawai'i knew sex in its gamut, from union in deep love, to intercourse specifically for procreation, to the sheer excitement of physical attraction, tension and release" (Pukui, Haertig and Lee, 1972). I believe the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) created a culture which encouraged most people to gain sophisticated understanding of sexual matters and to become skillful in their attentiveness to intimate relationships.

Though the people and communities of the various islands had some regional differences in customs and language, it is probably safe to make the following general statements.

Erotic awareness and expression seem to have been integral to most aspects of life. Pleasure was enjoyed in harmony with na akua (male and female gods and other spiritual beings), the land ('aina), family life ('ohana), and the 'aikapu religion. Sexuality and intimacy were celebrated in chants (oli), dances (hula), place names, stories and genealogies. Even landscape features were imbued with erotic (and spiritual) significance. The Hawaiian language ('olelo Hawai'i) was rich in words and phrases which describe states of desire and acts of love with nuance and variety. For example, "unrestrained desire" was called kuko 'umi 'ole and "the ultimate physical union" was called hope loa koko'olua kino (Jensen and Jensen, 2005). Intimacy, not usually enacted ritualistically (as far as we know), was known to include communion with self, beloved, and the natural and spiritual realms (Jensen and Jensen, 2005).

European contact is usually dated by Capt. James Cook's arrival in 1778, though some people believe European and Asian voyagers arrived prior to Cook (1728-1779). Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. Before Western influences damaged the culture almost beyond repair, life in Hawaiian communities usually included the following features:

Wide range of intimate relationships. Socially acceptable intimate relationships included plural mating (and shared responsibility for children of these unions), aikane (same sex) relationships, kane o ka po and wahine o ka po spirit lovers, and the non-sexual but emotionally tender kane ho'okane and wahine ho'owahine (Pukui, 1999). The Kanaka Maoli even had a social framework for people who shared a mate or long-term lover--the punalua relationship--which created the emotional and practical equivalent of familial ties (Pukui, 1999).

Pleasure skills. Children and youth observed and were taught sexual and interpersonal skills to prepare them for intimate relationships (Pukui, 1999). Skillful lovers were admired, and lazy or inconsiderate lovers were ridiculed (Jensen and Jensen, 2005). The ma'i (genitals) were considered sacred due to their role in creating new life, however other fragments of language, dance, chants, and legends also indicate possible evidence of a sophisticated tradition of sacred sexual practices (Marsh 2010, Jensen and Jensen, 2005). Such practices may have been reserved for the rulers (ali'i) and priesthood, or they may have been available to the common people (maka'ainana) as well. The existence of a sacred sexual tradition in Hawai'i is tantalizing, but speculative.

Erotic expression. As mentioned before, the Hawaiian language is rich in romantic nuance and words and phrases which express deep (and playful) insight into human sexual behavior. Elements of what we might term "eroticism" permeated the culture through social relationships, spiritual concepts, language, place names, songs and chants, dance, and other cultural practices and artifacts.

However, the Western concept and practice of separating the "erotic" from other aspects of life does not apply to Hawaiian culture. For the old Hawaiians, it is more likely that all aspects of life--including sex--were entwined, sacred, and whole.

Framework for Sexological Exploration

My framework for sexological exploration of the traditions of Old Hawai'i are based on the work of the late Dr. Loretta Haroian. I have adapted her concepts of "sexually permissive, sexually supportive, sexually restrictive, and sexually repressive" cultures, which she originally described in the context of a lecture and monograph on child sexual development: "Sexually permissive cultures not only allow a less fettered expression of adult sexuality, but may give little attention to the sexual behaviors of children as long as they are not blatantly displayed. Sexually supportive cultures, believing that sex is indispensable to human happiness, encourage early sexual expression as a means of developing adult sexual competency and positive sexual attitudes. The children in sexually permissive and sexually supportive societies display a similar developmental pattern that is not apparent in sexually restrictive and sexually repressive societies." In a lecture taped for the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, Dr. Haroian defined sexually supportive societies as those which build capacities for intimacy and pleasure in its citizens.

I have added my own concept of the "sexually conflicted culture" which I see as the result of acculturation in a clash between sex-positive and sex-negative societies, particularly during periods of invasion, occupation and/or colonization, and processes of assimilation (instigated by the sex-negative society). In Hawai'i's case, all expressions of indigenous eros were first shamed and suppressed, then appropriated, distorted, commodified, and even adopted in distorted form by the Western invaders and their descendants, meanwhile alienating generations of Maoli from their intimate heritage and forcing them into sexual and religious conformity with the invaders' purported standards.

Western Influences and History

For the purposes of this article, I use the word "Western" to encompass all influences we generally acknowledge as coming from European, American and Judeo-Christian history and traditions. The specific secondary influences of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Portuguese (etc.) immigrants and culture are outside the scope of this document, though they add to the complexity of contemporary sexual attitudes and behavior and further complicate this topic particularly as so many people of varied ethnicity have intermarried in Hawai'i. The focus is mainly on the culture and customs of KanakaMaoli (whether or not they eventually had mixed ancestry and family ties).

In Hawai'i, western influences were seldom (if ever) wholly positive. Hawaiians had no immunity to Western diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people died as a direct result of Capt. Cook's voyages to Hawai'i. Westerners brought destructive technologies; a stern and oppressive religion; and customs like prostitution and private property.

They imported invasive foreign species which continue to wreak havoc on the fragile island ecosystem. Western business interests imported foreign laborers who brought still more diseases and new epidemics. When in positions of power or influence, Westerners outlawed or refused to recognize many kinds of cherished intimate relationships. Missionaries advocated suppression and criminalization of many Hawaiian customs, including hula and traditional healing. During the time of annexation, the United States even outlawed the language.

It is important to understand Hawaiian culture within the context of its history and the country's current political predicament. What follows is a very brief summary, and in the interest of brevity, I pass over many important topics and events.

Shortly after Capt. Cook's death, a high-ranking warrior and chief of Hawai'i island, Kamehameha I (1758-1819), made strategic use of Western ships and weaponry which had fallen like sweet ripe fruit into his hands. With this new advantage, the ambitious Kamehameha fought a number of battles with other chiefs on neighboring islands (1795-1810). Eventually he brought them all under his rule. This is commonly known as "unification" of the islands, but Kamehameha's acts of conquest are not universally admired. I have heard that his deeds still rankle with some descendants of people he battled or conquered.

Even so, the golden potential of a unified Hawai'i was rapidly eroded by increasing contact with Western visitors, speculators, and missionaries. Too much happened to the Maoli, much too quickly. After Kamehameha's death, Western influences ascended as two of his wives and one son, Liholiho, now Kamehameha II (1797-1824), deliberately broke with centuries of spiritual tradition by sitting down and sharing a meal together. Many heiau (temples) were destroyed and bitter and bloody clashes followed. In a decisive battle at Kuamo'o (1819, Kona district, Hawai'i island), the bodies and bones (na 'iwi) of people who fought in vain to save their traditions were left exposed to the elements--the ultimate insult.

By 1840, another son, King Kamehameha III (Kauikeaouli, 1813-1854), shifted the governance of Hawai'i from the old system of absolute chiefly rule (which he himself had enjoyed) to that of a modern, constitutional monarchy. This was an action designed to preserve the kingdom from political seizure, by creating the type of modern government that would be recognized and protected by international laws and treaties. From the start, the Kingdom of Hawai'i was a multiethnic nation consisting of KanakaMaoli and an assortment of naturalized immigrants. By the time of King Kalakaua (1836-1891), Hawai'i was a declared neutral nation in the League of Nations and had treaties with fifty other countries, including the United States.

King Kalakaua and his sister, Queen Liliu'okalani...

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