Ke momole nei no ka mole o ʻĪ.
The ʻĪ chiefs still adhere to their taproots.
The descendants of ʻĪ hold fast.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1768

Let's talk about . . . loina!

Imagine this. Your parents bring home a little sister for you from the hospital. She’s all bundled up to keep her warm and safe, and you think she’s the most beautiful little person in the whole wide world. But when your family and friends come over, some of them keep calling her ugly. Should you get mad that they’re insulting your cute little baby sister? How dare they, right?


[Slippers at the door] Photo by Anne Murray.Well, maybe we shouldn’t get so upset at them. They’re doing it because they love her too. Hawaiians sometimes refer to babies as pupuka, or ugly, because they don’t want any person or spirit to get jealous of all the praise and compliments that are being heaped on the baby. By calling the baby ugly, they throw those jealous people off the scent. This is something that Hawaiians have done for a long time, and it is from a set of practices called loina.


Loina are customary rules that guide behaviors or actions of a particular culture or group of people. These loina are what help set a culture apart from other cultures; it makes them unique. Sometimes people from different backgrounds behave the same way, but the loina guiding their behavior come from different cultures. One example is taking off your shoes before you go into someone’s house. It is widely accepted that doing that is an Asian practice, but it is something that Hawaiians used to do traditionally as well.

What are loina?

[Newborn baby] Photo by Melissa Austin.Instead of just giving an explanation of loina, here are some other examples of loina so we can start to get our own sense of what they are and how they work. Pregnant women do not wear closed lei, so that the baby’s umbilical cord does not wrap around its neck like a lei, which is called lei i ka piko. You are also not supposed to bring bananas when you go fishing because it gives bad luck. Some families of Ka‘ū and other areas feel that people should not wear red on the beach or fishing because that color is sacred to Kamohoali‘i and would bring bad luck if worn for such things. It is also bad to stand or sit in a doorway of a house because it would be an annoyance for the ‘aumākua, or ancestral spirits, who are trying to enter or leave the house.

Though these are beliefs based in our cultural understandings and values, many people would dismiss them as superstitions. Lots of times, beliefs that do not line up with mainstream ideas are called superstitions and associated with ignorance and not knowing any better. But when you understand that these loina have grown out of the practices and beliefs that have enabled Hawaiians to live well in these islands for generations and generations, then you see that there is nothing ignorant about them.

Though almost all loina have spiritual connections, some loina come from more practical concerns, such as never turning your back on the ocean. Though the practice has to do with respect (not turning your back on someone), it also makes sure you pay attention in situations near the ocean that might become dangerous.

Examining loina can tell us a lot about the values and worldview of a culture.

[Moon phases] By Sam Gon.Kānaka Hawai‘i believed very strongly in the power of language, so many loina have to do with words that have more than one meaning, and whose meanings could affect what you are trying to do. One common loina is avoiding planning anything important when the moon is in the phases called ‘Ole. ‘Ole means no, not, or nothing, so that is what would come of things planned during those phases: nothing. This connection with language is also the reason that Hawaiian songwriters often tried to avoid using words that could have unintended negative consequences for the people being written about.

Most Hawaiian activities and practices have loina connected with them, as both spiritual and practical rules were needed to ensure their safe and proper functioning. Eating is a good example of this. There are many loina that apply to the handling and eating of food. When the ‘umeke of poi is uncovered on the table, the family was not supposed to argue or discuss business because it is displeasing to Hāloa, whose body form was the kalo that made the poi. This ensures that meals were a nurturing time that kept the family balanced and allow them to enjoy their time with each other. It is also considered very rude to kahi, or wipe, the sides of the bowl while a guest is still eating, because that’s what you do when you’re going to put the ‘umeke away, and it implied that you wanted the guest to stop eating. This loina ensures good feelings and proper hospitality between host and guest, which in turn leads to stronger community and familial ties.

How have loina changed over the years?

As with long-held cultural rules from other places around the world, sometimes only the practice remains, but the origins and reasons behind loina are often forgotten. One of the more widespread loina that people, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike, are familiar with is that you are not supposed to take pork over the Nu‘uanu Pali. What is not clear is exactly why you are not supposed to do this. Some say that it will call hungry spirits. Others say that it will be an affront to the pig-god Kamapua‘a to bring his kinolau, or body form, to the Windward side of the island, a place he has ties to. Yet others say that it will anger Pele to bring the body-form of her former lover Kamapua‘a to her side of the island.

[Fisherman with net] Photo by Jeff Christiansen.

Sometimes the main parts of the loina remain intact, but the ways they are carried out differ. Many kānaka believe that fish can hear what you are saying, so they never say that they are going fishing out loud. Otherwise the fish will be alerted and avoid them. In olden times, people would say something like “I’m going to go see how our sugar cane is growing” when they were going fishing to keep the fish in the dark about their intentions. Nowadays, people often say that they are going to holoholo, or go cruising, instead. It is hard to say which one works better, but fishermen always talk about how the fish they caught in the past were bigger, so maybe holoholo doesn’t work as well!

The importance of carrying on loina

[Kalo] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Even though we can sometimes be made fun of for doing things differently than what is considered “normal,” it is important to hold onto our loina because they are a big part of what makes us who we are. If Kānaka Hawai‘i act and think no differently than everyone else, haven’t we lost something vital? Continuing to practice loina also does not mean that we are merely trying to live in the past. Cultures and cultural practices like loina grow and shift over time so that they can adapt to new circumstances and times, but we have to always maintain the core of these practices to keep them, and us, Hawaiian.