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With Aloha: Culture, Conflict and the Debate Over Same-sex Marriage

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There is no denying that the debate over same-sex marriage has sparked conflict and controversy in Hawaii. It's been extremely emotional, at times vicious, and honestly, none of it has looked or felt very good.

It's all taken a surprisingly cultural turn. The conflict between Christian beliefs and pre-contact Hawaiian beliefs are public and notable. Prior to contact and the introduction of Judeo-Christian teachings in Hawaii, Native Hawaiians subscribed to aristocratic governance, polytheism, animism, inter-family marriage and procreation, and a range of other beliefs that remain largely antithetical to Western, Christian practices.

These cultural conflicts have created and fueled division in the Hawaiian community for over 200 years, since the first ABCFM missionaries arrived in Hawaii in the early 1800s. They have manifested themselves loudly over the past week of public testimony.

At the core of this conflict is an on-going inability of people to recognize the diversity of the Hawaiian community. A by-product of the political movement to march Hawaiians towards federal recognition has been the homogenization of the Hawaiian people. In an effort to establish a history of Hawaiians as one monochromatic nation, Hawaiians are denied the breadth of their traditional cultural diversity.

It once again raises the 64-million dollar question that many of us Hawaiians hear far too often: Why can't Hawaiians get together?

The answer: We were never really together in the first place. We were diverse. Hawaiians from different islands or regions held different beliefs, employed different cultural practices, and spoke in different dialects of the Hawaiian language. Unification during the reign of Kamehameha was largely a product of foreign contact.

As a result, it isn't appropriate for any one group of Hawaiians to claim to speak on behalf of all Hawaiians, at least based on cultural traditions. It's even one of the better known 'ōlelo nōeau, 'a'ole pau ka 'ike i ka hālau ho'okahi. Not all knowledge is learned in one school. This teaching reminds Hawaiians that different Hawaiians hold different beliefs and all are valid in their own right.

This brings us to the conflict over the concepts of aloha and 'ohana that have been so pointedly used as a theme on both side in the same-sex marriage debate.

Traditionally, aloha was primarily a practice, an action, a verb. It was much more than some amorphous concept; I was taught as a child that it was how you greeted someone or a way in which one behaved.

Aloha is the combination of two words: alo and . Alo means to face, as in the phrase "he alo ā he alo" -- face to face. Hā as in one's breath or spirit. It was the practice of engaging with someone face to face, sharing each others spirit. It was a sign of respect and manifestation of genuine care for another person.

It was never intended to be something bad, yet much of the testimony this week appears to have tried to weaponize the word into something that fuels dividing people instead of bringing them together.

Nor was the concept of 'ohana meant to divide. It was expansive; meant to embrace people, not exclude them.

There has perhaps never been a time in recent memory more in need of aloha and 'ohana.

Hawaiians enjoy all walks of life these days. Many have stayed here in Hawaii, but an equal number have moved away. Many have committed themselves to Christianity, as our Ali'i did. Others protect and perpetuate pre-Western contact traditions, particularly those related to polytheism or animism, which serve as a strong and healthy base for sustainable environmental and economic practices.

Hawaiians are entitled to their traditional beliefs, whether they originated before or after foreign contact, but in no case should one's traditional beliefs be used to deny another theirs.

We need to get better at recognizing our own cultural diversity. We need to fully embrace that time did not stop the day Captain Cook landed in Hawaii.

The world kept turning. We entered a new era largely influenced by western cultures, but it was still Hawaii and there were still Hawaiians. Those Hawaiians changed the culture and changed traditions. Our politics changed. Our language evolved.

Everything about us continues to evolve. We are a living culture, and a living culture is in a constant state of evolution and adaptation.

And so today, despite our shared history and ancestry, Hawaiians are culturally diverse. Some have strong Christian beliefs and these are the traditions of their 'ohana. Other Hawaiians prefer to adhere to pre-contact beliefs. And while we perhaps cannot reconcile these different traditions when debating same-sex marriage, we absolutely must recognize that no one group can speak for all Hawaiians. No one group can claim to have exclusive authority over defining the Hawaiian culture or its many traditions.

No one speaks for all.

But maybe if we start speaking more to each other, accepting and exploring our differences and diversity, maybe we'll start to do a better job of a giving voice to all Hawaiians. Maybe if we put more time and energy into our own edification, if we aloha each other more, and fight a little less, then maybe, just maybe, we will one day soon rediscover the commonalities that feel so elusive to us today.