What is the Meaning of "Kupuna"?
Throughout Hawai‘i, this Hawaiian word is widely understood to mean elder, grandparent or an older person. What is less recognized is the fact that the word has at least three distinct but related meanings. First, a kupuna is an honored elder who has acquired enough life experience to become a family and community leader. The term has been stated to be the embodiment of natural respect… a practitioner of aloha (love), pono (righteousness), malama (caring), and spirituality.1 In ancient times, they were teachers and caretakers of grandchildren and that bond was especially strong. Even today, the kupuna is expected to speak out and help make decisions on important issues for both the family and the community.
Kupuna also means ancestor and includes the many generations before us who by their spiritual wisdom and presence guide us through personal, familial or community difficulties. We look to our kupuna to help us find and fulfill our pathways through life. Included among our kupuna are the family guardian spirits or ‘aumakua who take physical shape, in the form of a honu (turtle) or a pueo (owl) and come to visit, warn and communicate with us.
Finally, kupuna means the source, the starting point or the process of growth. This meaning is related to the notion that that our direct forebearers and those of the distant past remain living treasures who continue to help us grow in numerous ways. They are a source of experience, knowledge, guidance, strength and inspiration to the next generations.
These various meanings of kupuna show how rich a resource they are and why they should be tapped to contribute to the betterment of Hawai‘i, for they truly represent one of Hawai‘i’s fastest growing natural resources.2
Prepared by Kahikahealani Wight, Professor of Hawaiian Language and Literature, Kapi‘olani Community College