Traditional Hawaiian knowledge, values, practices and proverbs reflect a significant aspect of Hawaiian identity, which includes the fundamental responsibility to care for iwi kūpuna and moepū. Kanaka ʻōiwi is a traditional term by which Hawaiians identified and continue to identify themselves as indigenous people. “Kanaka” is a generic term for people and “ʻōiwi” metaphorically means native, but literally translates as, “of the bone,” defining Hawaiians as the indigenous people of Hawaiʻi and most importantly, indicating that our identity is a function of the bones of our ancestors.
Similarly, the term “kulāiwi” means “homeland” and literally translates as “bone plain” which indicates a connection between the land and the people. As a result, our homeland is defined as that place in which the bones of our ancestors, and eventually ourselves and our descendants, are/will be placed. “Kulāiwi” establishes an inter-relationship. Present once again is the root word “iwi” as it relates to another expression of Hawaiian identity. In addition, “kanu” means “bury/burial,” and “plant/planting.” The first kanu in our oral tradition was the burial of Hāloanaka, the stillborn child of Wākea the Sky Father and his daughter Hoʻohōkūkalani. From this grew the first kalo (taro) plant from which Hawaiians make poi. Their next son was also named Hāloa and it is from him that Kānaka ʻōiwi descend; he is the first ancestor. This moʻolelo establishes the interconnection between the gods, the land and the people.
The burial of iwi results in physical growth, as with plants, and spiritual growth of mana. The descendants feed off the foods of the land and are nourished spiritually by knowing that the iwi kūpuna are in their rightful place and being cared for. Designated family members carried the kuleana (responsibility, duty; privilege) of ensuring that all family members received kanu pono (proper burial). This meant that the iwi were buried with ceremony and that the treasured possessions needed in the spiritual world were hoʻomoepū ʻia (laid to rest) with the deceased. In some instances, secrecy was critical and the iwi and moepū were hidden to protect them from those who wanted to appropriate the spiritual power of the bones or desecrate them. As a result, the tranquility of a person’s spirit and the wellbeing of their descendants depended upon the level of protection provided to the iwi.