The concept of hanai, which translates to “feeding” or “fostering” in Hawaiian, is an integral part of traditional Hawaiian culture that has helped shape the islands’ communal way of life for centuries. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Hanai refers to the practice in ancient Hawaiian culture of informally adopting children outside of blood relation in order to strengthen community ties. It was based on the core Hawaiian value of caring for one another beyond just the nuclear family.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the origins and customs around hanai, its role in ancient Hawaiian society, how the practice changed after Western contact, and its revival and place in Hawaiian culture today.

The Origins and Meaning of Hanai

The practice of hanai has deep roots in ancient Hawaiian culture and continues to hold significant meaning in modern times. Hanai, which translates to “to nurture” or “to foster,” is a tradition that involves the adoption or informal fostering of a child by someone other than the child’s biological parents. This practice has its origins in the belief that every child is a gift from the gods, and it is the responsibility of the community to ensure their well-being and upbringing.

The Etymology of Hanai

The word “hanai” itself carries a rich history and reflects the values and beliefs of the Hawaiian people. The term is derived from the combination of two Hawaiian words: “ha,” which means breath or life, and “nai,” which means to provide or nourish. Together, these words signify the act of nurturing and caring for another individual, emphasizing the interconnectedness of all living beings.

Hanai as a Cultural Practice

Hanai is not only a practical way to ensure the welfare of children but also serves as a means to strengthen community bonds. In ancient times, hanai was a common practice, allowing families to extend their kinship networks and build alliances between different families and tribes. It was not uncommon for children to be hanai’d into noble families or to be raised by respected community members who possessed particular skills or knowledge.

The practice of hanai was not limited to children; it also extended to adults in need of care and support. For example, if an individual lost their parents or became ill, they could be hanai’d into another family to ensure they had a support system. This practice fostered a sense of belonging and unity within the community.

The Spiritual Significance of Hanai

Hanai is not only a practical and cultural practice but also holds spiritual significance in Hawaiian belief systems. It is believed that through hanai, the child or individual being fostered inherits not only the physical characteristics but also the spiritual essence of their hanai parents or caregivers. This spiritual connection creates a bond that transcends bloodlines and emphasizes the interconnectedness of all beings.

Moreover, hanai is seen as a way to honor and perpetuate the ancestral lineage of both the hanai parents and the child being fostered. By bringing a child into their family through hanai, parents ensure that their lineage will continue and that their ancestors will be remembered and respected.

Today, the practice of hanai continues to be valued and celebrated in Hawaiian culture. It serves as a reminder of the importance of community, unity, and the shared responsibility of raising and nurturing the next generation.

The Role of Hanai in Ancient Hawaiian Society

In ancient Hawaiian society, the practice of Hanai played a significant role in strengthening community bonds, providing childcare support, and passing down lineages and traditions. This unique cultural practice fostered a sense of interconnectedness and communal responsibility among the Hawaiian people.

Strengthening Community Bonds

Hanai served as a powerful tool for building and maintaining strong community bonds in ancient Hawaiian society. Through this practice, individuals or families would take on the responsibility of caring for and raising a child who was not their biological offspring. This act of selflessness and compassion created a sense of extended family and kinship ties within the community. It helped to foster a deep sense of belonging and unity among the Hawaiian people, as they all took part in the upbringing and well-being of each other’s children.

Providing Childcare Support

The practice of Hanai also served as a practical solution for providing childcare support in ancient Hawaiian society. It allowed parents to entrust the care of their children to individuals or families who had the time, resources, and expertise to provide for their needs. This arrangement not only relieved parents of some of their responsibilities but also ensured that children received the necessary care and guidance from trusted individuals within their community.

Passing Down Lineages and Traditions

Another significant role of Hanai was the preservation and transmission of lineages and traditions. Through this practice, children who were raised by individuals or families outside of their biological parents would inherit the knowledge, skills, and cultural practices of their adoptive family. This ensured the continuity of ancestral wisdom, cultural traditions, and values from one generation to the next. Hanai played a crucial role in preserving the unique identity and cultural heritage of the Hawaiian people.

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Changes to Hanai After Western Contact

The ancient Hawaiian practice of Hanai underwent significant changes after the arrival of Western contact. These changes were largely influenced by the introduction of private property, the spread of Christianity and Western values, and the establishment of formal adoption laws.

Introduction of Private Property

One of the key changes to Hanai after Western contact was the introduction of private property. Prior to Western influence, land and resources were commonly shared among family groups and communities. However, with the arrival of European settlers, the concept of individual ownership and private property began to take hold. This shift in land ownership had a direct impact on the Hanai system, as it became more difficult for children to be raised by extended family members and non-blood relatives.

Spread of Christianity and Western Values

Another significant change to Hanai was the spread of Christianity and Western values. Christian missionaries played a major role in shaping Hawaiian society and promoting the nuclear family structure. As a result, the traditional Hanai practice, which involved children being raised by extended family members or close friends, began to decline. Instead, there was a greater emphasis on biological parents as the primary caregivers.

Establishment of Formal Adoption Laws

The establishment of formal adoption laws further altered the Hanai system in Hawaii. As Western legal systems were introduced, the concept of adoption became more formalized and regulated. This meant that the process of Hanai, which was once more informal and based on cultural traditions, became subject to legal frameworks and requirements. While these laws aimed to provide greater protection and stability for adopted children, they also led to a decline in the traditional Hanai practice.

The Revival and Modern Practice of Hanai

The ancient Hawaiian practice of Hanai, which involves informal adoptions within the Hawaiian community, is experiencing a revival in recent years. Efforts to restore Hawaiian culture and preserve its traditions have led to a resurgence of Hanai adoptions, as more people recognize the value and significance of this practice.

Efforts to Restore Hawaiian Culture

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing movement to restore and revitalize Hawaiian culture. Organizations, such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, have played a pivotal role in promoting Hawaiian traditions and practices. As part of these efforts, the practice of Hanai has gained renewed attention and interest.

By reviving Hanai adoptions, the Hawaiian community aims to reconnect with their cultural heritage and strengthen their sense of identity. Hanai serves as a way to pass down knowledge, values, and traditions from one generation to another, ensuring that the Hawaiian culture continues to thrive.

Informal Adoptions Within the Hawaiian Community

Informal adoptions, known as Hanai, have long been a part of Hawaiian society. It is a practice where a child is informally placed under the care of another family member or close friend, who becomes their Hanai parent. This arrangement is not legally binding but is based on a deep bond of love, trust, and mutual respect.

Hanai adoptions serve various purposes within the Hawaiian community. Sometimes, it is done to provide a child with better opportunities or to ensure their well-being. In other cases, it is a way to strengthen family ties or honor a familial relationship. Regardless of the reasons, Hanai adoptions are seen as a way to expand and strengthen the extended family unit.

Calls to Formally Recognize Hanai Adoptions

While Hanai adoptions have been a longstanding tradition in Hawaiian culture, there have been calls to formally recognize and provide legal status to these adoptions. Advocates argue that formal recognition would provide additional legal protections and benefits for both the Hanai child and the Hanai parents.

Formal recognition of Hanai adoptions would also ensure that the cultural, emotional, and spiritual significance of this practice is respected and acknowledged by the wider society. It would serve as a way to preserve and honor the rich traditions of the Hawaiian people.

Efforts are underway to explore ways to incorporate Hanai adoptions into the legal framework, while still respecting the unique nature of this practice. By doing so, it is hoped that Hanai adoptions will continue to flourish and play a vital role in preserving Hawaiian culture for future generations.


The ancient practice of hanai illustrates the communal, family-oriented spirit that has long defined Hawaiian culture. While the custom has changed over time, it remains an integral practice that connects generations and reinforces the enduring value of aloha among the islands’ residents. Hanai provides a window into the strong societal bonds at the heart of traditional Hawaiian life.

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