Promoting the Practices of Hānai and Luhi


Invoking abundance in contemporary times

Photo: Chris Molina

By Chris Molina

Today, a disproportionate number of Native Hawaiian kamaliʻi are in foster care. Recent data (2014-2018) reveal Native Hawaiian kamaliʻi comprise almost half of all children in care. Sadly, the experience of foster care may cause further damage to kamaliʻi, mākua, and their relationships with each other.

When looking for helpful responses to support families under stress, we can heed the advice of our ancestors: “ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope,” and look to traditional practices for solutions to today’s problems. Our ancestors knew the importance of permanency, support, and family unity and developed practices that promote resilience, abundance, and shared kuleana. This includes the practices of hānai and luhi.

Photo: Queen Liliʻuokalani with Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop
Queen Liliʻuokalani (seated on the right) was born to Analea Keohokālole and Caesar Kapaʻakea, and was hānai at birth by High Chief Abner Pākī and High Chiefess Laura Kōnia. Standing (left) is her hānai sister, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. – Photo: Courtesy

Nānā I Ke Kumu Volume I, defines hānai as a permanent arrangement between birth parents and extended ʻohana and may be used for a variety of reasons. The kamaliʻi would be given by the birth parents in the company of others. The parents would declare, “Nāu, ke keiki kūkae a naʻau” or “I give this child, intestines, contents and all.” This declaration made hānai a permanent and binding agreement. Often birth parents remained involved in the life of their kamaliʻi and mākua would confer with each other concerning the wellbeing of the kamaliʻi.

A related traditional practice is luhi, a temporary arrangement that allows birth parents to reclaim the child at any time. A key feature of both hānai and luhi is recognition of familial relationships while ensuring the wellbeing of kamaliʻi.

As Native Hawaiians, we face the effects of systemic disruptions such as forced assimilation and institutional racism. The traditional structures that supported vibrant, nurturing ʻohana became invisible within the structures of this new and often hostile reality. This has worked to estrange us from healthy, culturally resonant ways of being, doing and knowing. While some still practice hānai and luhi, it remains outside the child welfare system and without formal recognition.

Ka Pili ʻOhana (Ka Wai Ola 2021-January), is a collaboration between Liliʻuokalani Trust, CWS, and other community partners. The collaboration integrates traditional values and historical practices like ʻohana roles, hānai, and luhi to expand a supportive network of both biological mākua and resource caregivers to provide safe, stable, and loving care for our kamaliʻi.

In addition to addressing the needs of the kamaliʻi in care today, we collectively work to transform the foster care system to recognize and honor the importance of our traditional practices and values.

Chris Molina is a strategic initiatives liaison – Neighbor Islands at Liliʻuokalani Trust. He has a degree in psychology with a social work minor from Pepperdine University. He was raised in Māʻili, Oʻahu.