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.