Updated: September 1, 2021
You may recognize the word ʻohana from popular culture, such as the movie “Lilo and Stitch.” The characters in this animated children’s film repeatedly state that “ʻohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
While this message may be very comforting on its own, ʻohana also comes with a deeper meaning in Native Hawaiian culture, an indigenous island culture with close ties to other Polynesian groups across the Pacific, including the Maori of New Zealand, Samoans, and Tongans.
If you are visiting Hawaii, you’ll find it helpful to learn as much as possible about the native culture of the islands that only became the 50th state in the United States as recently as 1959. Rather than being a relic of the past, this native Polynesian culture continues to thrive in today’s Hawaii.
- The Concept of ʻOhana
- Types of ʻOhana in Hawaii
- The History of ʻOhana
- Emotional Support from ʻOhana
- Ways to Express ʻOhana as a Broader Philosophy
- ʻOhana, Aloha, Mahalo, and other Local Hawaiian Terms
- Keep Learning About ʻOhana
The Concept of ʻOhana
The concept of ʻohana involves creating loving relationships with more than just blood relatives. Embracing ʻohana means developing a sense of familial care and devotion to all members of the human family.
The general non-Hawaiian public primarily knows about ʻohana from movies or television shows. ʻOhana is closely associated with the concept of families providing support to each other. Traditionally, Native Hawaiians have had large extended families, with multiple generations staying close together.
One aspect of ʻohana means ensuring that no one in the family gets left behind. Growing ʻohana involves ensuring that everyone in the family has what they need to survive and live with joy. This sense of family includes not only the children but also the elders, who receive much respect.
The Taro Plant and the Hawaiian Word ʻOhana
ʻOhana comes from the root word tied to the taro plant, a vital part of life on the islands. ʻOha refers to the shoot of the plant, which Hawaiians cut off and replant to grow more taro plants the following season.
The word ana is related to procreation and regeneration. Families plan for future generations of children while focusing on ʻohana.
Taro Plants and Familial Ancestors
Taro plants play a significant role in the Hawaiian understanding of the world. Taro plants are treated with great honor in Hawaiian society and serve as a staple in the diet of many families.
Native Hawaiians see the taro plant as a cosmological ancestral relative. According to historical Hawaiian beliefs, Wakea and his daughter gave birth to the first human. However, they had a previous offspring named Haloa, who was a taro plant. Haloa grew in the corner of his parent’s house.
From this legend, Hawaiians consider the taro plant to be a kind of older sibling, like a brother or a sister, to the members of their culture.
ʻOhana Means Family, and Family Means Nobody Gets Left Behind or Forgotten
ʻOhana refers to the familial bond that Native Hawaiians share. You may consider only those you are blood-related to as family. However, ancient Hawaiians and their modern descendants living in the Hawaiian islands have a broader definition of family than we do in mainstream American culture.
Extended Families and ʻOhana
With ʻohana, the circle of family of kinship extends beyond what sociologists call the nuclear family: a mother, father, and their children. In fact, this term encompasses extended family across the generations and may even include people who are not biologically related, like friends and neighbors.
Many families in the islands consider caring for sons and daughters to be a source of joy. Many members of the family are involved in child-rearing. Younger people may call their older cousins “uncle” or “aunty” to show their interconnection.
In Hawaiian families, grandparents often help take care of children. Aunts and uncles help raise their nieces and nephews, and everyone is someone’s ʻohana, whether you are part of a biological family or merely friends.
Native Hawaiians do not treat their family as a separate structure in their everyday lives. Instead, family, work, and recreation interconnect in someone’s ʻohana, whether they are siblings or coworkers.
Types of ʻOhana in Hawaii
You may discover multiple kinds of ʻohana while you are visiting Hawaii since ʻohana extends into many parts of life. Each type of ʻohana relationship comes with benefits and obligations. Generally, the culture expects everyone in a family group to act responsibly, act with integrity, and mutually support one another.
For example, a person may be a part of multiple ʻohana connected to:
- Biological family
- Work family
- Groups linked by recreational activities
- Church family
- And more
Each of these groups can provide distinct types of support in different areas of a person’s life. The separate social groups work together to ensure that every member gets the resources they need to thrive in the island communities.
ʻOhana tells us that life connects all members of a community.
The History of ʻOhana
Many aspects of ʻohana have remained unchanged. However, in many ways, the native culture has adapted this process over time. For example, in the past, Hawaiians often gave their firstborn to a family member to adopt and raise.
Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, was adopted by her parents. She discussed the adoption in her personal writing. While the practice of adopting children among families has changed, it demonstrates the importance of ʻohana among the Hawaiian people.
Emotional Support from ʻOhana
The principle of ʻohana is what binds people together and commits families to take care of one another both physically and emotionally. Tending to a member’s emotional needs and offering emotional care may mean discussing a serious issue, providing advice, or making sure that a person has emotional support at challenging times of their life.
Ways to Express ʻOhana as a Broader Philosophy
Many straightforward ways exist to demonstrate that individuals understand the importance of ʻohana, or taking care of one another. The story of the taro root illustrates the close familial connection that Native Hawaiians feel to the natural world, too, so it should be no surprise that ʻohana extends into an environmental concept as well. Individuals show their respect for the earth and the global family by, for example:
- Ensuring that they don’t pollute
- Fishing for only what they need
- Understanding that animals and people share commonalities
- Obeying the rules of the road to keep others safe
Adhering to these behaviors shows that individuals respect their ʻohana.
ʻOhana, Aloha, Mahalo, and other Local Hawaiian Terms
You may hear the word aloha a lot if you visit the islands. While this word can mean “hello” and “goodbye,” it also has deeper meanings, just as ʻohana does.
Aloha can refer to sharing your energy or experience with those around you, including members of your family. Mahalo is the Hawaiian term for “thank you.” Haole is the word for people who are not Native Hawaiian.
Because many cultures have come together in the Hawaiian islands, you will hear many local slang terms that are either Native Hawaiian or what is called Hawaiian Pidgin, which is a creole language that develops when people speaking different languages come together and create a common dialect.
Keep Learning About ʻOhana
You can continue learning more about ʻohana by researching Native Hawaiian culture. The more you learn about cultures different from your own, the more you’ll enrich your own understanding of life and of the world.