Issue 10.4: August / September 2007

Hanai Tales

story by Paul Wood
photos by Linda Ching


“I am a child of hanai,” says Auntie Leimamo Lee of Hana. In other words, as an infant she was given away by her birth parents to be raised by another couple. The transfer occurred when she was one month old, over eighty-five years ago.

Given away, but not in the usual Western sense of adoption. The transfer of little Leimamo was done Hawaiian-style—without shame or secrecy, without falsified birth records, in fact, without paperwork of any kind. It was a simple matter of friendly agreement between consenting parties. “My parents never had any children of their own,” Leimamo says. “But they loved children, and they asked for one.” In fact, over the course of their lives, Leimamo’s makua hanai (feeding parents) asked for many such children and eventually raised seven keiki hanai (feeding children) in their plantation-style home on Hana Bay—“feeding,” of course, being metaphorical for all forms of caretaking, including emotional and spiritual nourishment.

Leimamo’s birth parents—Sam Kalani Kanamu, a pure Hawaiian, and Punohu Lin Tai, half-Chinese and half-Hawaiian—lived in Ke‘anae, a taro region that lies more than a dozen miles west of Hana along the windward Haleakala coastline. Leimamo was the fourth of what would eventually be fourteen children born to the couple. According to Leimamo, her hanai parents saw Sam and Punohu, saw that they had a baby and asked if they could have it. “My [birth] parents said, ‘This child is several months old. We love this child. But you know, there’s one in the oven. You can have the next one.’”

Here is the rest of the story as Leimamo tells it: “My mother had me at the police office in Ke‘anae district. They were playing cards, and she had the birth pangs and had the baby right there. Then she called [the hanai parents]—‘I’m letting you know the baby is here. But this one’s a girl. We don't have a girl yet, so we’re going to keep this one!’ Oh, my hanai mother got her dander up. ‘That was never the agreement!’ she scolded them. ‘You said the one in the oven!’”

Somehow, and certainly without the benefit of legal assistance, they worked out an agreement. And so the infant Leimamo was placed in a canoe and taken down Ke‘anae stream, then east to Nahiku Landing. (Hardly anyone visits Nahiku Landing these days, but in the era of inter-island steamships, the landing was an important place to transfer vital supplies.) The canoe stopped at the rocky shoreline, and the baby girl was passed hand-to-hand over the rocks into the arms of her makua hanai. “Then homeward I came to Hana,” says Auntie.

One might wonder how any parents could give up their newborn with such apparent ease. So it’s important to remember a key element to all true hanai agreements: No one loses. Leimamo has had a close, lifelong relationship with her birth family. “My adopted parents made sure that I would always love them,” she says. “Our ties cling together very tight.” She demonstrates this by twining all ten of her 85-year-old fingers together, raising her hands and smiling brightly.

Funny how it is with hanai. Nearly everybody in Hawai‘i understands the term to some extent. Most everyone knows somebody who was “hanaied.” And yet little has been written about this traditional Hawaiian childrearing option, and Hawai‘i’s courts stopped recognizing it as a legal and binding practice about 150 years ago.

Many famous people were hanaied: Lili‘uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai‘i, and Princess Ka‘iulani, who was to be her successor. Prince Kuhio was the hanai child of King Kalakaua. Bernice Pauahi Bishop was the hanai sister of Princess Ruth Ke‘elikolani, direct descendant of Kamehameha I. (That hanai relationship profoundly affected today’s Hawai‘i for Princess Ruth left her considerable land holdings to Pauahi, who then entrusted that wealth to the Bishop Estate and Kamehameha Schools.)

We think of hanai as synonymous with adoption or foster parenting, and yet it presents a vivid contrast to Western practices, especially those that begin with a rejection of the child. The very language of adoption is unfortunate, for unless the child has been orphaned, we call the baby “illegitimate.” By contrast, the hanai tradition is founded in love and perpetuated in honesty.

Kumu hula Hokulani Holt-Padilla

When Hokulani Holt-Padilla was born in Honolulu, her mother’s parents came over from Maui and made a bold request: Please give us this baby to raise as our own. The grandparents’ thirteen children had all grown and gone, and they were lonely. “They went several times,” says Hokulani. “My father was resistant.” In the end, an agreement was worked out. Hokulani went to live with her maternal grandparents on Maui ’til the age of 5. At 5, she returned to her birth parents to be educated. But she went back to her Maui home on weekends and every vacation. All her life she had two homes.

Today Hokulani is a revered kumu hula. As we talk, we are sitting in her office at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, where she serves as cultural programs director. She says, “I believe I am focused on things I do today because of the experiences of my childhood.” Her grandparents were fluent and literate in Hawaiian. “They taught me words and phrases; they taught me how to pray in Hawaiian. But they did not teach me to be conversant. That was not acceptable in those days.” She absorbed the manners and courtesies of an unmodernized generation. “Now as I look back, I see the wealth of the Hawaiian cultural outlook I was brought up in.”

In short, her maternal grandparents became her makua hanai and she their keiki hanai. “This is not uncommon,” says Hokulani, and she summarizes several other hanai arrangements that arose within her own extended family—for example, an auntie who gave birth to child number six while going through a divorce. A first cousin, who had no children of her own, came to ask for the child, promising to raise the boy “in all the ways an only child could be raised. Because she loved her son, she said yes.”

She mentions a cousin who became sick after giving birth to her last child. A friend came to help her at home. “It then became, ‘Why don’t you rest, and I’ll take baby home with me.’ Then it was, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep her a little while at my house. You call me.’ Then it became, ‘Monday through Friday the child stays with auntie, on weekends and holidays with the parents.’”

Hokulani adds: “This is how Hawaiian hanai is. No matter what household the child is in at the moment, those people are responsible for her welfare. So if auntie wanted piano lessons for her, auntie paid for those piano lessons. If mom wanted swimming lessons, then mom made all the arrangements for that. It is never, ‘You owe me.’ Never, ‘I spent this much on her; your half is this much.’ Never.”

Another defining quality of the hanai tradition is that the children always know and are taught to love their birth parents. “Rather than tear families apart, hanai binds them together,” says Hokulani. “They keep in touch much, much more. If your parents have your child, you call them up, ‘What’s baby doing now?’”

She adds, “People ask me, ‘How did you feel being an adopted child?’ I say, ‘Are you kidding? It's the best of all worlds.’ When I was home with my parents, they were happy to see me, so I got spoiled over there. When I was with my grandparents, they were happy to see me, too, so they spoiled me, too. I was doubly fortunate. I never felt unwanted.”

I say to Hokulani that hanai seems so sensible. The idea seems to be let’s observe what people want to do ...

She interrupts me with a smile as warm as sunshine, and then she finishes my sentence: “… and let’s try to make that happen!”


Hanai often involves giving a newborn to its grandparents. In fact, in deep Hawaiian tradition, the first-born (hiapo) girl was dedicated to the maternal elders, the first-born boy to the paternal ones. Auntie Leimamo of Hana tells me, “Reason was, the grandparents will show the grandchild the way to go in life and take the secrets of whatever they know and pass them on the child.”

To illustrate the point, she tells me about her great-aunt Julia Leialoha Huwewa‘a. When Leimamo was a child, this great-aunt was “my favorite loved one. She had such beautiful white hair. I used to sleep with her and run my fingers through her tresses. I would say, ‘I love this white hair,’ and she would say, ‘Cha! This is for old ladies.’” This great-aunt was “very smart with Hawaiian herbs,” says Leimamo, and when the great-aunt hanaied her daughter’s daughter, she passed the ancient lore on to the granddaughter. That girl then grew up to have a daughter of her own, who has recently been using herbal treatments to help Auntie Leimamo with the pain in her legs.

The point of that complicated generational story is to illustrate one great value of hanai adoption—it helps ensure that the knowledge of the old folks will pass on to future generations. The child hanaied by the grandparents becomes a conduit of culture. Consider this: The span of time encompassed by that story of the favorite great-aunt is about 150 years, for Auntie Leimamo is now 85 years old, and she stroked that beautiful white hair back in the 1920s.

Auntie and her husband, 86-year-old Uncle Pohaku Lee, live in Hana town, right on the main road in a small house that is at least as old as them. The house is crowded with memorabilia of their eventful lives, including a museum-quality shell collection, adzes and hand-carved implements from the Marquesas and a fruit bowl from the Seychelles carved from a coco-de-mer “double coconut,” the largest seed on Earth. They resided on O‘ahu for forty years, then came back to Hana in 1989. During that O‘ahu time, Leimamo taught Hawaiian language in the elementary schools and befriended Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui. Pohaku’s skill as a fisherman and navigator got him traveling around the world, first with the Fish & Wildlife Service, then on research expeditions with Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Today their home contains walkers and canes and hospital-type beds. Auntie Leimamo has to make the two-hour trip to Kahului three times a week for dialysis treatments.

Both of these venerable folks were keiki hanai. As we have already seen, Leimamo’s case was not a give-to-the-grandparents situation. Her hanai father, Thomas Kapuhi Wahihako, had gone to the royal school and then moved from Honolulu to Hana to be the tax assessor in 1919. After a two-year stint as a judge (he was self-educated in the law), he settled into a two-decade career as deputy sheriff. Leimamo’s hanai mother was blind but determined and capable. (“There was no dust in our house!” she tells me.)

Uncle Pohaku, on the other hand, grew up under the guidance of the older generation. (He nods vigorously in agreement as his wife tells the tale.) Apparently, Pohaku’s mother had “many husbands” and could not provide a stable home for the baby. So the baby went hanai to the maternal grandparents, who taught him traditional skills such as the proper felling of a canoe tree, using fire to hollow the tree and night fishing by canoe. Grandfather blessed the infant with a long prayer so that “he would never go hungry as long as he went to the seashore to get something to eat,” says Auntie Leimamo. “And that has become so.”


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.


In 1997, a group called Bastard Nation used a ballot measure to change adoption laws in Oregon. As a result, adoptee adults in Oregon can now look at their own unfalsified birth certificates.

“The West is maybe catching up with the idea of open adoption,” says Sen. English. “The idea of closed adoption leaves a lot of people wanting.” But adoptee-rights organizations have a long way to go. Oregon is one of only five states that allow such access. Hawai‘i is not one of them—ironically, the homeland of hanai is no leader in the modern field of adoption reform.

Kalani continues to work on formal recognition of hanai, but even he admits there are challenges. “It gets so complex. Anytime you codify culture, you get into trouble. And hanai is so fluid—which is one of its finest qualities.”

The story of Kamaka and his mother illustrates something important about hanai—that it is not about preserving the bloodline, nor about knitting the clan into an ever-tighter circle. The people who were interviewed for this article come from all sorts of genetic backgrounds, including Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and Caucasian. Hanai is about strengthening the ‘ohana, the extended family, and the ‘ohana is inclusive, not exclusive.

“If we strip everything away, hanai is simply about the strong bond of aloha, the strong bond of love,” says Kalani. “The wonderful thing about hanai is that it recognizes aloha in any form it takes. Hanai simply says, ‘Look, these people love each other; they are taking care of each other’—and, after all, that’s what we want.” HH