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Celebrate Hawai’i Island Kupuna By Showing You Care This National Grandparents Day

Ka mo’opuna I ke alo – “The grandchild in the presence” — said of a grandchild who was reared in the presence of a grandparent. National Grandparents Day is celebrated as a public observance holiday on the first Sunday in September following Labor Day. In 2020, National Grandparents Day is September 13th. National Grandparents Day was started in the 1970s to recognize the contributions of senior citizens and bring awareness to the isolating living conditions of seniors in care homes.

Kupuna in the Hawaiian Community

Historically, Hawaiian children were raised by kupuna, leaving their parents able to work and perform their social duties. In a culture without a written language, kupuna have an especially important role in perpetuating intangible heritage. Moʻokūʻauhau (ancestral genealogies) were passed down orally from grandparents to grandchildren to memorize. Names were more often given by kupuna than parents. Hawaiian names are traditionally based on conditions surrounding the child’s birth such as dreams and weather phenomena, or to acknowledge ancestors and close family members. I was named by my father’s hānai grandmother, and my niece was named after me by my brother with my Tutu’s blessing. Kupuna were essential in language preservation at the turn of the 20th century when Hawaiian language was no longer taught in public schools, and many kupuna participated in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance movement of the 1970s.

Kupuna do not have to be blood relatives to fill the role of cultural teacher or family member. The Hawaiian general term for grandparents, kupuna, is also commonly used to refer to senior citizens in the community collectively. This community-minded concept of kupuna has roots in the traditional Hawaiian practice of hānai. Hānai can be a difficult concept to describe due to the broadness of the idea. In its simplest form, it is acknowledging an individual who is not related by blood or marriage ties as a family member. In modernity, hānai is a state of close emotional bond recognized by family members and the public rather than a legal relationship. Kupuna (of any race) in Hawaii may have a few biological grandchildren, but many hānai grandchildren. Reciprocally, it is possible to hānai grandparents, as well.

Compared to National US averages, grandparents in Hawaii are more likely to have a hands on role in raising their grandchildren, with Native Hawaiian grandparents three times as likely to have a direct role and live in the same household. Research on grandparents in Hawai‘i found that they most often assume responsibility for their grandchildren due to the child’s parent’s drug use (37.5%) or incarceration (22.5%). Kupuna in Hawaii face challenges in finding respite care, financial support, and health care access in much higher numbers than the National US average as a direct result of their role in raising grandchildren. 

Programs like the Tutu and Me Preschool seek to support kupuna raising their grandchildren by providing them access to traveling early childhood educators. Programs include literacy lessons, socializing practice, and basic Hawaiian language. Currently, the Tutu and Me Preschool Home Visiting program operates in five districts on Hawaiʻi Island: Hilo, Puna, North and South Kohala, and the Hamakua Coast. Those wishing to learn more about the Tutu and Me Preschool programs or make contributions should visit their website.

How to Show You Care on National Grandparents Day

About four million greeting cards are sent within the United States each year on National Grandparents Day. If you can’t find an official holiday card, use a Thank You card to express gratitude to your grandparents. The official song of National Grandparents Day is “A Song for Grandma And Grandpa” by Johnny Prill, and the official flower for the day is the “forget-me-not” flower. For a more Hawaiian spin on these festivities, consider listening to mele (music) like Na Mele Kupuna by Kaha’i Topolinski or Aloha Nō Nā Kupuna by George Kuo.

Gifting of lei is highly appropriate, especially a lei that is handmade, as this gift will be infused with the aloha of the giver. Lei made from Spanish moss (Pele’s hair) are popular to give to kupuna as the grey color of the foliage reflects the grey color of kupuna hair. The greatest gift to give a cherished kupuna would be a lei hulu (feather lei). Hulu kupuna, a specialized term referring to cherished elders of the great-grandparents generation, likens the preciousness of these kupuna to the value of the feathers woven into prized feather lei and garments. 

Supporting Kupuna During the Covid-19 Pandemic 

The very best way to celebrate kupuna in our local Big Island community is to support them. During the current pandemic, senior citizens are especially isolated and opportunities for shopping, eating out, and recreation are extremely limited. To help kupuna struggling with nutrition, please consider donating or volunteering with Hawaii Meals on Wheels, Hawaii Island Food Basket and Boys & Girls Club of the Big Island. Those who wish to help on a one-on-one basis can sign up with Our Kupuna via their website; there volunteers will be paired up with a kupuna in need in their local area. Volunteers are in high demand, especially in rural areas.

a young lady wearing a mask poses with a kupuna - volunteering for National Grandparents Day

The Coronavirus Hawaii website has started a “Letters for Kupuna” statewide campaign to get letters sent to kupuna living in isolation due to the pandemic. Letters may be sent digitally via their website, or handwritten letters can be mailed to: Letters for Kupuna, PO Box 283250, Honolulu HI 96828. Please see their website for letter guidelines, and share the campaign via social media with the tags @covid19_hawaii and #lettersforkupuna.

Mahalo nui loa to the Big Island community for helping to keep our kupuna safe and well cared for. 

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