Na kahi ka malo, na kahi e hume.
The loincloth of one, the other can wear.
A close relationship. As a general rule, Hawaiians would not wear the clothing of people other than blood relatives. In explaining genealogy to a young relative, this conveyed the idea that a relationship was near enough to warrant the wearing of each other’s clothing.
— ‘Ōlelo Noʻeau #2223

“Where you from?” “Who’s your family?”

Have you ever heard these questions? These are usually the first questions asked when two people from Hawai‘i meet for the first time. Where you are from and who your family is say a lot about who you are. These questions are also a way of finding commonalities and making familial connections. As these commonalities are made, we form friendships. But how can we participate and make these important connections if we don’t know our own mo‘okū‘auhau? 

What is moʻokūʻauhau?

Your mo‘okū‘auhau is several things. It is a genealogy, or the study of your family and your history. It traces your lineage back to your ancestors. And it’s so much more than names and dates. You inherited your physical traits—the color of your hair, eyes, and skin—from your biological parents. Their physical traits were passed on from their parents, and so on. Genealogy is the record of your kūpuna from whom you received not only your looks, but also some of your talents and mana.

['Ohana] Photo by Ruben Carillo.

Why was moʻokūʻauhau important before?

Mo‘okū‘auhau set the social order in Hawaiian society. The inherited mana (spiritual power) from your mo‘okū‘auhau and the people in your mo‘okū‘auhau is what made an ali‘i an ali‘i and a maka‘āinana a maka‘āinana. Mana determined a person’s place in society and was an indicator of abilities and talents.

For the ali‘i, the mo‘okū‘auhau was revered and performed ceremoniously in chants. Their mo‘okū‘auhau were preserved by kū‘auhau (genealogists), who were taught meticulously from a young age to memorize every generation of their ali‘i’s mo‘okū‘auhau. Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau, a prolific writer and noted historian, was one such kū‘auhau of the kingdom era.

What is the Hale Nauā?

[Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau] Artist unknown.A Hale Nauā was erected for the ali‘i nui (ruler), his relatives, and kū‘auhau. “Its purpose was to prevent bloodshed by uniting the chiefs under the bonds of kinship, friendship, and rank” (Emerson in Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities 200). There, study of traditional Hawaiian knowledge and customs took place, including the study of genealogy. To enter the Hale Nauā as a member of the family of the ali‘i nui, it was necessary to recite mo‘okū‘auhau as evidence of the relationship. A person approaching the Hale Nauā would be challenged by the people in the hale, “Who is your father, nauā?” The people would ask about the next generation and the next, and this could continue until the tenth generation. They would then ask about the mother’s side until the tenth generation.

The kū‘auhau would determine if a relationship existed with the ali‘i nui and how close it was. Possible relationships include:

  • pilipili‘ula: a very close and undisputed relative, like a brother
  • ‘auwaepili: close relative
  • auahi lā: distant relative

Once the kū‘auhau gave approval that a “suitable relationship” existed between the person’s ancestry and that of the ali‘i nui, the investigation was complete and the person was admitted as a member of the Hale Nauā. These were the trusted supporters of the ali‘i and often held important offices in the government. (Malo, Hawaiian Antiquities 191–92) 

[Family in front of hale] Photographer unknown.

Were there other traditional venues to share one’s moʻokūʻauhau?

For the most part, the Hawaiian attitude toward mo‘okū‘auhau is that it is very valuable, so it is to be guarded. Hawaiians do not publicize their genealogy. Here is a famous ‘ōlelo no‘eau that illustrates this attitude:

Mai kaula‘i wale i nā iwi kupuna.
Do not dry out the bones of the ancestors.
Do not discuss your ancestors too freely with strangers, for it is like exposing their bones for all to see.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2069)

Speaking of your ancestors openly was discouraged, but there was a proper time to reveal one’s ancestry, as illustrated in this ‘ōlelo no’eau:

Aia a pa‘i ‘ia ka maka, ha‘i ‘ia kūpuna nāna ‘oe.
Only when your face is slapped should you tell who your ancestors are.
Hawaiians were taught never to boast of illustrious ancestors. But when one is slandered and called an offspring of worthless people, he should mention his ancestors to prove that the statement is wrong.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #31)

So, in this way, genealogy was used to counter an insult. 

There are more Hawaiian terms for various types of relationships, including:

  • pili koko: blood relative
  • no kahi ka malo, na kahi e hume: a close familial relationship, such that one is allowed to wear the other’s malo
  • pili ‘ohana: familial relation
  • pili nakekeke: relationship that fits so loosely it “nakekeke,” rattles

How does my moʻokūʻauhau help me today?

Your mo‘okū‘auhau is the mo‘olelo (story or history) of your family. These stories contain ‘ike ku‘una (inherited knowledge). They teach who your family is and what is important to your family. These stories also teach values and guiding principles, which aid you in decision making. They teach you what you do and don’t do as a member of your family, your community, and your race. That includes how you interact with others. As the mo‘olelo guide your actions, they form your character and define your self-identity. Also described in these mo‘olelo are connections to people, places, events, and time.  

[Family connections] Photo by Ruben Carillo.

Understanding that genealogy affects each of us personally can help us to understand the people around us and those in history, especially Hawaiian history. Understanding your own family becomes a way of understanding other people’s relationships, decisions, and interactions.

Also, there are organizations and funds that require a person’s ancestry to be considered a beneficiary. These include the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Kamehameha Schools, some Office of Hawaiian Affairs programs, Alu Like, and federal Native Hawaiian education grants. These programs can help you find a home, go to school, go to college, and even get a job.

Mo‘okū‘auhau helps us stay connected to important things in life, like family—past, present, and future—and place. So, can knowing your mo‘okū‘auhau help you today? Yes! In many ways. Nauā ‘oe? Do you know your mo‘okū‘auhau?

[Moʻokūʻauhau in nūpepa] From Ka Nonanona, Okatoba 1842.

…that the Kumulipo, the genealogy chant composed for the ali‘i Ka‘īamamao, was 2,012 lines long?

…that a person had to be related to a chief to serve in his home? “Those who served the chief in his home were usually loyal blood relatives. From childhood they were taught not to discuss the relationship with anyone outside of the household, and always to refer to their chief as Ku‘u haku (My lord), never by any relationship term. Only the chief could mention a relationship if he chose” (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2127). Thus the saying, “Ma loko o ka hale, ho‘opuka ‘ia ka pili, a ma waho o ka hale, he haku ia (inside of the house you may mention your relationship, but outside of the house your chief is your lord)” (ibid).

[Lūʻau with Kaʻiulani] Photographer unknown.

…that there are genealogies for all kinds of things? Experts in each skill claimed their ‘ike (knowledge) from their teacher who also claimed their ‘ike from their teacher, and so on, forming a genealogy of ‘ike. In the world of hula, it is not uncommon to hear a hula genealogy showing the passing down of hula from a kumu hula to a dancer, whether through devoted study in a hālau (school) or even to an ‘ūniki (graduation) from this kumu.

Members of the Hale Nauā Society during the time of King Kalākaua (1874–91) had an ipu that contained, among other things, a ball of olonā string that was used for making pūlo‘ulo‘u, a symbol of kapu or high rank.