Despite Western influence, Hawaiians stay true to ancient culture

Special to Lowcountry LifeJuly 28, 2012 

Editor's note: Rabbi Brad L. Bloom traveled to Hawaii in June. This is part two of his two-part series about the trip.

The problem with understanding the 18th and 19th century history of Hawaiians is that we usually just get the perspective of the ha'ole, or rather, the foreigners or the white man.

We read accounts from Christian missionaries, great American writers such as Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, as well as biographical accounts from American settlers in Hawaii. But the history of the missionary movement in Hawaii and the role they played in the development of Hawaii in an economic, political and religious context, led to the establishment of the islands as protectorate of the United States and eventually to one of our states in 1959.

The missionaries brought Western religion and civilization. Anyone who has visited Maui, O'ahu, Kuai and the Big Island know the full impact of Western culture on the islands. Today, Hawaii has all the comforts of a modern society, and yet the ancient culture still thrives.

Talk to Hawaiians and you might get a different perspective about this history, especially regarding the missionaries. The Hawaiians adopted Christianity, but this did not mean giving up their cultural and spiritual heritage. There is an old proverb in Hawaiian that says, "Ke one 'ai ali'I o Kakuhihewa," or "The chief-destroying sands of Kakuhihewa." In her invaluable book on Hawaiian proverbs, Mary Kawena Pukui explains the deeper meaning of this adage. This proverb refers to the island of O'ahu. The chief Kahahana put a priest, Kahuna, to death for warning the king about being cruel to his people. The priest uttered a prophecy. He said the land would someday go to the sea, which meant to a people from across the sea. They interpreted his words as a curse. Later, when King Kamehameha III was persuaded by a missionary to move the Hawaiian capital from Lahaina on Maui to O'ahu, another priest, remembering the old curse, warned him that moving the capital would signal the end of the Hawaiian monarchy. Kamehameha III ignored the advice of the priest and before the end of the 19th century the kingdom of Hawaii no longer existed.

There are many historic accounts recorded in the journals of the first generations of missionaries, who came from America and England. The Americans brought their religious fervor and strict Calvinist discipline to transform the native Hawaiians, who had recently, due to a royal decree by King Liholiho, given up their native religion. So they were in need of a new source of inspiration, but too often it came at the cost of assimilation.

The Rev. Hiram Bingham, aboard the ship Thaddeus, arrived from Boston in 1820. His mission was directed from his church movement's American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions. Clergy like Bingham and their families devoted their lives to what they believed was a holy cause to civilize the native population. The Hawaiians understood the inevitability of the missionary movement and were, in fact, receptive to the message of Christianity.

There is another expression that says, "If sometime in the future a canoe from Kahiki-makolena arrives, grasp and hold fast to it. There is the kahuna (priest) for you, and your skins will never more be hurt in war, for the land will someday be owned by Kahiki." This was a prophecy by King Kaleihuahulu as he was dying -- as if to say, "Foreign priests, missionaries will come. Accept their teachings."

Today the Hawaiians are working hard to reinvigorate and preserve their native spiritual heritage. I do not believe it is because it makes good business sense -- tourism is the major industry of the islands. The public schools and their Hawaiian language immersion programs and the preservation of the native Hawaiian history, chants, hula dances and art all represent the aspirations of the Hawaiians and their friends who have lived on the islands for many decades to celebrate the pride in and respect for the Hawaiian right to preserve their way of life.

There is one more proverb that I want to share with you. It symbolizes that the descendants of the missionaries may be the very ones who help restore to native Hawaiians their culture. The great 19th century native Hawaiian writer who became a Christian pastor, David Malo, wrote "The missionaries are going to rebel; not they themselves but their children and grandchildren. The ruler at that time will be stripped of power, and the government established then will be the permanent government of Hawaii."

That is the dream -- sovereignty restored not just in a political sense but also in a spiritual and cultural realm for the native Hawaiian people.


Part 1: Considering spirituality on islands of Hawaii

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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