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The Aloha Spirit

The Aloha Spirit
The Aloha Spirit

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"Come forward, be in unity and harmony with your real self, God, and mankind. Be honest, truthful, patient, kind to all life forms, and humble." - Kahuna David Bray

When visiting the Hawaiian Islands, the word aloha comes easily to everyone's lips, even yours after you're there for a week. Sadly, few visitors realize the true meaning of the word. Tough to summarize in a few phrases, aloha encompasses a whole area of learning for Hawaiian children, called the Aloha Spirit. Pilahi Paki—Hawaiian philosopher, poet, and proponent of the Aloha Spirit—derived a code from the acronym aloha:

  • Akahai, kindness, to be expressed with tenderness;
  • Lôkahi, unity, to be expressed with harmony;
  • `Olu`olu, agreeable, to be expressed with pleasantness;
  • Ha`aha`a, humility, to be expressed with modesty;
  • Ahonui, patience, to be expressed with perseverance.

Although the Aloha Spirit has permeated Hawaiian culture for hundreds of years, it became somewhat lost after the arrival of missionaries in the late 1700s. King Kamehameha helped bring back a piece of the spirit in the late 1800s—known as the First Hawaiian Renaissance—with the revival of the hula, but Hawai'i became a territory of the United States just a few years after his death, putting the revival on hold.

The 1960s and '70s saw a second Hawaiian Renaissance, when natives realized that tourism had turned their beloved culture into a nightly show that visitors paid to watch. Hawaiians responded with a massive creation of endemic music, dancing, visual art, boat building, and language. The Second Hawaiian Renaissance also touched on politics, with a number of natives wishing to restore Hawaiian independence.

Woven throughout this movement is the Aloha Spirit, never forgotten by the people who created it. One teaching states:

    Aloha is being a part of all, and all being a part of me. When there is pain - it is my pain. When there is joy - it is also mine. I respect all that is as part of the Creator and part of me. I will not willfully harm anyone or anything. When food is needed I will take only my need and explain why it is being taken. The earth, the sky, the sea are mine to care for, to cherish and to protect. This is Hawaiian - this is Aloha!

Hawaiian artists take these words to heart, evident in everything they create. Playwright Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl affirms this in her statement: "There are all kinds of books that are set in Hawai'i. But just because something is set in the islands, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's Hawaiian. I think literature that's really Hawaiian is grounded in the history and culture of our community. Being from Hawaii, you can tell, when you read something, whether it has that authenticity."

The native language does not contain a word for "nature." For Hawaiians, nature is not viewed as something separate from themselves because nature is their reality. Hawaiian art imbues a sense of nature not seen in many other cultures, and as Kneubuhl stated, you can tell when something is written about Hawai'i, versus being Hawaiian. Thus, aloha is a close substitute for nature. The word aloha literally means the joyful (oha) sharing (alo) of life energy (ha) in the present (alo).

Other artists remain adamant about preserving the local culture and the Spirit of Aloha. One catalyst for the Second Hawaiian Renaissance still participates in the art community, photographer Kim Taylor Reece. Extensively researching traditional hula for 25 years, Reece captures the beauty and mystery of this dance through his camera. His work has helped revive the ancient dance; the technology he uses does not detract from the spirit that pervades the performances he captures.

The Aloha Spirit is visible in commerce and government as well. For example, the Hawaiian Businessmen's Association (now the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce) tried to make business culturally relevant through their annual award, which called for "someone who can be successful in business yet still be generous, warm, considerate and caring;" namely, someone who exhibits the Spirit of Aloha.

Even state law acknowledges the Aloha Spirit, encoded in the Hawai`i Revised Statutes (1986), section 5-7.5 . The statute reads in part:

    "Aloha Spirit" is the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others . . .

    . . . In exercising their power on behalf of the people and in fulfillment of their responsibilities, obligations and service to the people, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government may contemplate and reside with the life force and give consideration to the "Aloha Spirit."

To put it succinctly, you could say that the Aloha Spirit means to interact rightfully in the natural world. But the above examples show that it means so much more than that. It is the tone that permeates Hawaiian culture and daily life, making it unique in this world full of cultures. It means harmony, helpfulness, humility, and unity. It is Hawai'i.


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