Defining Identity

What's in a name? For Hawaiians, the answer could be "Everything."

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Story by Lehia Apana

Hawaiian names
In Hawaiian culture, names can be inspired by favorite places or significant events. In the case of this story’s writer, her parent’s paddling and canoe connections played a role in her name.

Kalehiaikealaikahiki. That’s me, but everyone calls me “Lehia” for short. When your name includes twelve syllables and nearly as many letters as the alphabet, you often have some explaining to do.

I’ve told the story of my name countless times: My mother was in Tahiti on a canoe-paddling trip and became very sick. Upon visiting a local doctor, she was shocked to learn that she was pregnant. Returning home, she asked Hōkūlani Holt, a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and close family friend, to name her baby. The name Aunty Hōkū gave me, Kalehiaikealaikahiki, translates as “the skillful fisherman on the pathway to Tahiti.”

In Hawaiian belief, one’s name is so important that many parents ask someone fluent in the language, with a deep understanding of the culture, to determine what their baby will be called. But not every child receives a Hawaiian name the way I did. For example, a name can appear through a vision or sign (inoa hō‘ailona), or be given in memory of an event (inoa ho‘omana‘o). However it is chosen, one’s name is a prized possession, to be passed on only with the explicit permission of its owner.

One’s name has an existence all its own.

“In Hawaiian, we don’t ask, ‘What is your name?’ We ask, ‘Who is your name?’” explains Ekela Kaniaupio-Crozier, Hawaiian protocol facilitator at Kamehameha Schools Maui. “We truly believe it breathes and it has a life.”

She pauses before offering this caveat: “We’ve come to a point where you can pick a Hawaiian name off the computer, often without knowing what it could mean. As Hawaiians, we believe that one’s name becomes that person. It’s not something that should be taken lightly.”

Beyond the literal translation of a Hawaiian name is its kaona, or deeper, hidden meaning. Textured with layers of interpretation, a name can share family history, attract forces both good and evil — even ward off the supernatural. 


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