Hawaiian Cultural Beliefs, Traditions and Customs – Separating Fact from Fiction
by Trustee Peter Apo, Ka Wai Ola, May, 2017
The body of law that governed ancient Hawaiian society was generated by the ruling chiefs and codified as religious doctrine known as the kapu system. Kapu was a complex sacred system managed by a priesthood that served as extensions of the chiefs who were considered to be gods. Violations frequently mandated the death penalty. After the pivotal Battle of Kuamo‘o in 1819, the official priesthood was dissolved and a centuries-old system of managing the perpetuation and validation of beliefs, customs and traditions was swept aside leaving a huge vacuum of authority. The ramifications of what followed after the battle, and its impact on Hawaiian traditional beliefs, can be dialogued for days but not here or now.
Much is made today of how one validates Hawaiian traditions and customs as being authentically rooted. There has to be some historical basis demonstrating that the practice has not only been exercised in the past, but that there is a pattern of frequency that enjoys a transgenerational continuum of the tradition.
The highest level of validating what constitutes a traditional and customary practice, or in cultural terms, a “claim of kapu,” has to be based on consultations with cultural practitioners rooted in the lands that are the subject of the proposal, and scholars with expertise related to those lands. We should gather from all available sources of knowledge including:
1. Physical: land features; archaeological forms
2. Oral: mo‘olelo; oli; and oral histories of kama‘äina of those lands
3. Written: Hawaiian language sources including nupepa; records of the Kingdom; journals, letters, manuscripts and books
We need to consider context and integration, the connections, relationship and corroboration between and among different sources cited, and the larger framework of Polynesian tradition. We must consider time depth, and where each source of knowledge fits in the sweep of time.
In contrast, I observe a seriously diminished vigilance in contemporary Hawaiian society on maintaining the cultural dignity of our traditions in the absence of a collective will to check our facts. Consequently, to be blunt, people can just make up stuff, and pronounce cultural claims with little or no validation. These fake claims are then embraced by scores of social media followers who capture the high ground of public discourse with what is assumed to be historical truths.
I would pause here and acknowledge that cultures are not static and they are subject to evolutionary growth as a natural phenomenon of the human experience. But, in such cases where there are changes to the custom or tradition, it needs to be stated as an altered custom or tradition and not as an ancestral practice.
I would raise a red flag that there is a growing body of law and public policy being adopted by the state and federal governments that depends on how we define traditional and customary practice. The protests against the use of Mauna Kea for astronomy impacted public policy based on cultural claims of protesters. The federal expansion of the Papahänaumokuäkea Marine Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was supported by some native Hawaiians claiming that the conservation model it supports is consistent with Hawaiian cultural beliefs. On the other hand, there is good news relating to Native Hawaiian gathering rights that were validated and incorporated into the state constitution.
In the absence of a priesthood, I am suggesting to OHA that trustees adopt a policy that sets validating standards. Whenever OHA cites a cultural or religious practice or condition that would constitute an institutional basis for a decision to support, oppose, intervene, or opine on any initiative, the practice has to be formally validated.