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Honi: The Traditional Hawaiian Greeting

Two women giving Honi, the traditional Hawaiian Greeting

Honi (pronounced HO – nee) is the traditional Hawaiian greeting.

The english translation is “to kiss”, but actually, the original greeting was touching forehead to forehead, nose to nose and exchanging breath.

So here’s the question…

“How do I know when it’s okay to honi someone like a client or patient?”

Growing up, my dad would always say “oh, kiss your auntie, kiss your uncle” and we would kiss one time on the cheek. And hug. It felt a little awkward at times because I wasn’t asked to kiss and hug every grown up. In certain circles, we would just say hello, shake hands or give a “hi 5”.

It’s so important to understand the context before you can offer the appropriate greeting.

Cultural Context

In other places throughout the world, there are similar greetings. The Maori people, indigenous to New Zealand, greet with hongi. When you hongi, you touch forehead to forehead, nose to nose and exchange breath.

In the Eskimo tradition, the Inuit people, rub noses. This practice would likely be seen with an elder and child, someone that is family. The energy of this greeting is very intimate and familial.

The Hawaiian people exchange honi this way as well. It’s how you would greet someone honored, loved, and esteemed. It is a sign of respect to receive a honi.

Practice of Honi

When we touch forehead to forehead, we touch alo to alo, bone to bone, with our makaloa, third eye, nose to nose. The third eye is the potent, intuitive center of the body. By touching forehead to forehead, we can read someone else’s intention.

Hawaiians believe that our ancestral DNA is contained within the bones. When we connect bone to bone, we’re connecting the lineage of both parties. In other words, it’s a way of identifying the person in front of you and connecting with them on that very deep level.

Finally, we exchange breath. The ha, divine breath, is held within each of us. When we exchange divine breath through the nose, it is the part of us that comes directly from Spirit. The breath of God.

Historical Significance

When the western contact happened and we were greeted with a handshake instead of honi, it was very unusual to the Hawaiian. The gesture had no breath.

I believe that is one of the ideas behind the word, Ha’ole

Another possible explanation is when the Hawaiian saw pale skin they saw a similarity to when someone was not well. A person without life force. The Hawaiians referred to these foreigners as  Ha’ole, which means no breath.

It was without breath as we shook hands with the western sailors, Captain Cook and his men. And somehow that word has continued to stick overtime, but I believe it had to do with this greeting as well.

Modern Dilemma

Honi is a greeting that was traditional here in Hawaii. I’ve noticed that honi is one of our ancient practices that we’re seeing more and more nowadays. Still, some Hawaiians are hesitant when they go to greet someone as to whether the person is open to greeting them in this very intimate, familiar way.

Remember, there was a time in our history where many Hawaiian cultural practices were suppressed. Hawaiian elders have had to sit on a timeline with many changes.

From the migrations of the Pacific to the Missionary period, to the time when Hawaii became a U.S. territory, many Hawaiians were not able to practice our traditions. In fact, some were not proud of our traditions as a people trying to assimilate into American culture.

Hawaiians have now begun to really embrace our Hawaiian-ness our traditions, and cultural practices.

My Personal Experience with Honi

In the past, I’ve found myself holding back. I will not typically go towards someone unless I know them well like a student and I’m the one who is offering that greeting. Hawaiian elders deserve my respect, so I will wait until they approach me and then I receive it.

Honi is an honor, a gesture of respect and acknowledgement in the life the other person carries. If you are in a situation where you aren’t sure what to do, hang back, see what comes and be ready for anything.

The original question had to do with whether to honi patients,  clients, or those unfamiliar with the practice. If someone doesn’t know the deeper meaning of the gesture, it may be an opportunity to educate someone in a very beautiful way of acknowledging the God within someone else. Be mindful of the other person’s comfort level.

Be Mindful

Honi is a mana exchange and it has to do with our essence.

So, the next time you greet someone, whether you’re offering a honi, a kiss, or a hug, just do it with aloha. Greet one another from your heart and acknowledge the spirit within the other person. Their divinity. The breath of God.

Join the conversation:

When you have you held back when greeting someone new? How do you acknowledge the divine in another person?

I love reading your comments!

With aloha,

image of kumu Jeana Iwalani Naluai


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