The meaning of Hanai
Hanai (v.) – to adopt, to be close; to nourish, to sustain.
There isn’t a singular definition for the word hanai. I’d heard this word infrequently growing up, usually when my mom told me stories of one of her brothers who was hanai’d out of the family; I came to know that he was adopted and that’s how I defined hanai in my head as a child growing up.
While doing research one night, my mom asked me to find one of her aunts who was adopted by her grandmother. I began asking her questions as I couldn’t track down any adoption records. This is how I first learned that hanai does mean adopted….in perhaps the loosest sense of the definition.
It was common practice for the Hawaiian people in the olden days to give their first born child to their parents to raise (depending on the gender of the child). It was the highest form of love and respect that one could bestow upon their parents. As time went on the practice extended to the community; families raising children who no longer had parents, etc. Even the beautiful last queen of Hawai’i was a hanai child. Apparently this was still being practiced into the 1950’s since my uncle was hanai’d to a childless family.
Even though I grew up in Los Angeles – far removed from “island life”, I can still attest to the fact that Hawaiian families are some of the most loving and warm families I’ve ever encountered. It is not uncommon to be welcomed into a strangers home, be it for an hour or maybe even for a day. I can only imagine how welcomed and loved a hanai’d child would feel in such an environment. Now, that’s not to say that the times haven’t changed, I’m absolutely certain they have changed with each generation. But with regard to the culture as a whole, Hawaiians are still very “aloha“.
I’m sure in the simplest form we can say that hanai is basically a paperless, not legally binding adoption. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a tradition, it’s part of our history, and perhaps the greatest example of how highly the Hawaiian people regard their families and children.