Hawai‘i state senator J. Kalani English is less than half the age of Auntie Leimamo, although they come from the same ahupua‘a, or district: Haneo‘o, near Hana. “Leimamo knew my great-grandparents,” Kalani tells me. His makua hanai were his maternal grandparents, Murray English and Violet Soong English. “Both grandparents died in my arms, my grandfather in 1998 and grandmother 2001. I took care of them both ’til they died. This was the greatest honor. For that I gave up my career as a diplomat at the United Nations.”
His story is a classic hanai tale. His mother, Amy Luana English, had been working in New York, got pregnant and had the baby in Florida—the first-born of a first-born child—and then her parents called from Haneo‘o to say, “Bring him home, come, we want the child.”
“I lived with them my whole life, raised in Hamoa village, predominately Hawaiian-speaking, no electricity, no television,” says Kalani. “The road wasn’t paved yet. We used kerosene lamps. I remember when electricity came in the mid- to late ’70s. It was just amazing to turn the switches and see the lights go on.
“This gave me a world view very different from others in my generation. I learned to speak Hawaiian, was taught a strong attachment to the land, understood the importance of recognizing the cycles of life. My grandfather was part-Tahitian. I know my family in Tahiti. I’m the one who knows the genealogies and family history.”
As a lawmaker in Hawai‘i, Sen. English is concerned that hanai agreements—which are created verbally without government registration—cannot be recognized when it comes to issues of medical care and inheritance. That’s not how it used to be. As Mary Kawena Pukui states in her invaluable 1958 book The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, for Hawaiians, the hanai agreement was “as binding as any law made in our modern courts.” Everything about it was clear and known. “Unlike the modern way of concealing the true parentage of an adopted child, (the keiki hanai) was told who his biological parents were and all about them, so there was no shock and weeping at finding out that he was adopted and not an ‘own’ child. If possible, the child was taken to his true parents to become well-acquainted with them and with his brothers and sisters if there were any, and he was always welcome there.” The legitimacy of the hanai child was never questioned.
But during the 1860s, says Kalani, shortly after the Great Mahele—which for the first time allowed Hawai‘i’s land to be sold for money—the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled that keiki hanai were not to be considered legal children. “Hanai is still not recognized,” he says. “They’re the same discriminated class of citizen as domestic partners, who also don’t have full rights under the law.” Four years ago he co-sponsored a resolution that created a hanai task force, which then produced a report. The issue is still rolling around the halls of government. “Hanai is a constitutionally protected traditional practice. But it has been eroded by the idea of liability. Schools won’t enroll kids without the proper documents. Doctors won’t administer medicine.”
Anticipating this complication, Kalani’s makua hanai decided to legally adopt him—make him not hanai but ho‘okama, (meaning “legitimately adopted,” paperwork and all). He was six when this happened. They asked him who he would like to have as his legal guardians—themselves or his mother. The person who asked him was his birth mother, as they sat together on Koki Beach. He chose, knowing there was nothing to lose.
Is the hanai tradition continuing or dying out? Kalani believes that it has lost its mana, its spiritual authority. Hokulani says that it’s looking old-fashioned.
But Robin Nae‘ole, who administers a low-income, tax-credit housing complex next to Maui’s homeless shelter and prison, sees that hanai continues to play an active role in Hawaiian culture—even if it may now be motivated more by family hardship than by the desire for cultural transmission. “The majority of my clients are of Hawaiian ancestry,” she says. They bring lots of family members who have no documents. “They share their lives together. Kind of like shared custody.” Robin helps them notarize or register their unpapered agreements. “The solutions are fairly easy.”
In the old days, hanai exchanges typically happened within the extended family. That’s changing, however, and Robin’s own story is a jet-age update on the tradition. Twenty-two years ago, she was yearning for a chance to be a mother. “I had wanted a child and could not have one of my own,” she says. “I considered hanai. But everybody I knew wanted their children and wanted other children. My circle of people are all like that. I couldn’t find a child I could raise myself.”
She met a deacon who worked with a Catholic charity based in Honolulu. He told her that there were many children of minority races living in foster homes in Arkansas. “He asked if I was willing to go as far as Arkansas and bring back an African-American child.” This would be not hanai but a standard ho‘okama-style registered adoption. Adoption these days can take years and cost up to $40,000. However, in Robin’s case the transaction took just weeks and cost less than $5,000, most of which was raised by a prayer group. “What made it quick,” says Robin, “is that I didn’t put conditions. It didn’t matter to me. I just wanted a child who needs to be loved.”
Thus began the life of a Hawaiian boy whose genes are African and whose skin is ebony. His Hawaiian name is Kamakakehau, a name that echoes Robin’s statement: “He was my heart’s desire.”
Although this was a typical Western closed adoption—the birth parents’ identities were hidden—Robin raised her son with a hanai-style openness. They have often spoken about his need to eventually return to Arkansas and learn about his origins. If and when he does find his birth mother, she’s in for a surprise: Her little baby is now fluent in Hawaiian, the product of twelve years of language-immersion education. Not only that, he composes music in Hawaiian and sings with one of the purest, strongest falsetto voices you will hear anywhere in the Islands. These days, Kamaka performs every weekend at the Maui Tropical Plantation lu‘au and is recording his first album. For now, his career as a Hawaiian musician is taking precedence over his interest in his Arkansas roots.