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The concept of ohana, or family, holds special meaning in Hawaiian culture. Ohana encompasses not just our biological relatives, but also our close friends and community. This article will explore the origins and significance of the term ohana in Hawaii.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Ohana means family in Hawaiian. But it has a much broader, deeper meaning. Ohana refers to your biological family, your close friends who feel like family, and the interconnected community you are a part of.

The Origins and Literal Translation of Ohana

The Hawaiian Word Ohana

The word “ohana” originates from the Hawaiian language. In Hawaiian, “oha” means offspring or descendant, while “na” means that of. When combined together, “ohana” literally translates to “that which is offspring” or “that which is descended from”.

So at its core, ohana refers to family that is related by blood. This includes immediate family members like parents, siblings, grandparents etc. as well as extended relatives like cousins, aunts/uncles etc. Over time however, the concept of ohana grew beyond just familial ties.

Extended Meanings of Family and Community

Though ohana literally means family, native Hawaiians came to embrace a much broader meaning. Today, ohana also encompasses very close friends who feel like family. It refers to a community of people who may not be blood-related, but share a strong bond and sense of belonging with one another.

This wider concept of ohana is seen in many common Hawaiian sayings:

  • “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” – This stresses the importance of inclusion and unity, where everyone looks out for one another.
  • “When you enter an ohana you need to leave your problems at the door.” – This signals that an ohana provides a safe space free of judgment.
  • “In an ohana everyone helps.” – This reinforces a culture of contributing to the collective good of the community.

So while ohana is grounded in ancestry and genealogy, it has evolved to emphasize the importance of relationships, connections and shared experiences among people as well. Whether by blood or not, an ohana is meant to provide its members with a profound sense of belonging, security, identity and purpose.

Why Family Ties Are So Important in Hawaiian Culture

Family, or ohana as its known in Hawaiian, is the foundation of native Hawaiian society. Generations of Native Hawaiians have placed great importance on cherishing family connections and supporting one another, which stems from the island lifestyle and environment.

Emphasis on Interdependence and Relationships

In the past, Native Hawaiian families needed to rely on each other to survive on the islands. Fishing, farming, and gathering enough resources took cooperation among many people. This interdependence to sustain themselves established strong bonds and unity within families and communities.

Additionally, Native Hawaiians emphasized building relationships over material possessions. They found value in spending quality time with loved ones, showing affection, and being good-hearted to one another.

These relationship practices have been passed down through generations and continue to be hallmarks of Hawaiian culture.

Sharing Resources in an Island Environment

The remote island ecosystem also contributed to Hawaiians’ communal way of life. With limited natural resources available, families needed to share and distribute food, water, and other necessities for the good of the group.

They lived by the concept of kuleana, which involves having rights and responsibilities to the collective whole.

This equal participation gave everyone a role and purpose. Elders often served as respected teachers, women managed households, and men farmed/fished for sustenance. By working together, Hawaiian families ensured all members’ needs were met.

Respect for Elders as Keepers of Knowledge

Elders, or kūpuna, have significant status in Native Hawaiian culture as the wisdom keepers. With longer life experience and expertise, they pass down centuries-old traditions, genealogies, stories, values, and life lessons to younger generations through oral history.

Showing honor and reverence for one’s elders is considered a core part of the Hawaiian cultural identity. Families frequently cared for elders at home and sought their advice on important matters. This maintenance of customs across ages has preserved Hawaiian heritage.

In today’s Hawaii, strong Native Hawaiian family ties are still evident in tight-knit communities. Generations of relatives often live together or near each other, socialize frequently, and provide support in times of need. This interdependent way of life sustains their distinct cultural spirit.

How the Concept of Ohana Persists in Modern Hawaii

Bonds Within Local Communities

The idea of ohana, meaning family in an extended sense, continues to thrive across the Hawaiian islands. Neighborhoods embrace the spirit of kinship and connection, with locals relying on each other during good times and bad.

This camaraderie exists between friends, families, and even among strangers. For instance, fundraisers often draw crowds to assist those facing hardship or loss.

Inclusion Rather Than Exclusion

Hawaiians cherish the tradition of bringing people together in celebration. Local luaus pack huge guest lists with all ages welcome. And holidays like Chinese New Year or Saint Patrick’s Day are community affairs.

With over 150 spoken languages across the islands, diversity flourishes through cultural diffusion. People share heritage pride rather than harbor divisions over background. Overall, Hawaiians focus more on common ground than differences among their ohana.

Celebrating Diversity While Honoring Heritage

The aloha spirit honors Hawaiian history yet embraces modern multiculturalism. Traditional arts and values intermix seamlessly with contemporary diversity. For example, hotels often start staff meetings with olelo Hawai’i phrases on themes like teamwork or kindness.

Also, about 1 in 3 Hawaiians actively participate in hula dancing, chanting, surfing, or outrigger canoe racing linked to native culture. Blending tradition with inclusion makes the islands a rich tapestry of customs, while underscoring core beliefs in communal bonds.

The Popularity of Ohana in Hawaiian Tourism

Marketing Hawaii’s Distinct Cultural Values

The concept of ‘ohana‘, meaning family in an extended sense, has become ubiquitous in tourism promotions for Hawaii. This emphasis on Hawaiian values of community and connectedness is a core part of efforts to market the islands as having a warm, welcoming spirit (Hawaii Magazine).

According to research from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, over 80% of visitors say experiencing Hawaiian culture is an important factor in their decision to vacation in Hawaii.

Tourism authorities like the Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau have honed in on the theme of ohana in ad campaigns, websites, and brochures. The goal is to share a glimpse into Hawaii’s unique cultural identity, going beyond sun, sand, and surf.

This provides an emotional appeal to visitors looking for meaning and human connection beneath the surface of a typical tropical getaway.

Appealing to Visitors’ Desires for Connection

In today’s increasingly disconnected world, the notion of ohana powerfully speaks to travelers hoping to find community on their vacations. Hawaii offers itself as an antidote to loneliness and alienation.

Marketing taps into people’s wishes for belonging by promising a place where they’ll feel embraced as if family.

Resort activities like guest luaus aim to initiate visitors into the Hawaiian extended family from the moment they arrive. Hospitality employees are even encouraged to refer to tourists as “cousins” to help them feel part of the island ohana.

Over 90% of visitors say such efforts pay off, leaving them feeling Hawaii’s welcoming spirit (Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority).

Criticisms of Appropriation and Commercialization

However, some native Hawaiians argue that tourism marketing reduces meaningful cultural values to commodities and empty slogans. Promotional uses ignore complex meanings of ohana rooted in reciprocal obligations.

Critics claim important aspects of Hawaiian identity have been exploited, raising ethical issues.

There are also concerns mass tourism has strained communities facing economic hardship and environmental damage. Yet travelers imprinted with idyllic marketing continue expecting ukuleles around every corner. This demonstrates tensions between tourism realities and the aloha spirit often depicted.

Ways for Visitors to Respect the Spirit of Ohana

Shop at Local Businesses

Supporting small businesses is a great way to connect with the local community and discover hidden gems. Check out farmer’s markets, mom and pop shops, and local artisans to find unique Hawaiian keepsakes.

Not only will you get authentic souvenirs, you’ll be contributing to the livelihood of hardworking families. Who knows, you might make a new friend along the way!

Participate in Community Events

Attend local festivals, fairs, concerts, and events to experience true Hawaiian culture. The Aloha Festivals held from September to October feature parades, concerts, art fairs and more across all islands. Moloka’i Ka Hula Piko festival in May celebrates the birthplace of hula.

Or check out Prince Kuhio Day celebrations on March 26th honoring the “People’s Prince.” Immersing yourself in community happenings lets you connect with locals and learn about history and traditions.

Learn Basic Hawaiian Phrases and Customs

Making an effort to understand basic language and customs shows respect for Hawaiian heritage. Useful phrases to know are “aloha” (hello/goodbye) and “mahalo” (thank you). Address elders as “tutu” (grandparent) or “kupuna” (respected elder).

Learn proper etiquette like taking shoes off before entering homes and not sitting on tables or in personal spaces. Understanding cultural do’s and don’ts deepens appreciation for the islands. And locals will be thrilled you took the time to learn!


As we have seen, ohana has deep cultural roots within native Hawaiian society. The open, inclusive concept of family and community remains a vital part of life across the islands. Visitors seeking to truly understand modern Hawaii should appreciate and respect the cooperative values embodied within the idea of ohana.

Though tourism sometimes exploits and misrepresents local culture, most Hawaiians welcome guests who engage respectfully with the Aloha spirit. By shopping locally, making friends, and participating in community gatherings, we can all foster the feeling of ohana.

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