Aikane is a term used in classical Hawaiian culture for an intimate male friend of lower rank involved with a man of ali’i (noble) rank. In contemporary Hawaiian folklife, it now refers to a close masculine male confidante to another masculine man, and with whom the masculine man might or might not have a sexual relationship. It may also refer to a dear friend of any sex or gender.
Classical Hawaiian references
Classical Hawaiian tradition honors the aikane, with aphorisms such as he aikane, he punana na ke onaona (“an aikane is a nest of fragrance”). King Kamehameha had aikane with whom he was erotically intimate, as did many of the rulers before Christian missionaries undermined the official status of aikane-as-lover.
In the story of the great chief Lonoikamakahiki, a commoner from Kaua’i, Kapa’ihiahilina, became his aikane, after telling him “Aloha au ia ‘oe, ukali mai nei” (“I love you, so I followed you here”) when Lonoikamakahiki went into exile. Perhaps the most famous aikane in Hawaiian history since Contact is Keoniana (John Young II), trusted counselor to Kauikeaouli, Kamehameha III (see article, “Kamehameha III”).
There is also a tradition of naming intimate Platonic relationships after romantic-sexual ones: ho’okane (from kane, meaning man or husband) for a man who is as close as a husband to a woman but without the implicit sexual bond, and ho’owahine (from wahine, meaning woman or wife) for a woman who is like a wife to a man but without the sexual bond. Aikane as non-sexual, non-sex/gender-based friendship can be seen as an indication of how important and how highly valued the loving and implicitly sexual (or at least possibly sexual) relationship was between a superior elite man of ali’i status and as inferior aikane in the classical Hawaiian network of personal relationships.
Signs are that such a relationship was a reference point in polite conversation. In a letter to the editor of the Hawaiian language newspaper E ka Hoku o ka Pakipika (The Star of the Pacific), the author uses the following courtesy in the introduction:
E ka Hoku o ka Pakipika. –Aloha oe:
E ae mai oe ia’u e hooipo aku me oe, “Kuu aikane punana a ke onaona,” no keia wahi kumu manao i manao ai au e hoike akea aku i kekahi mea i hana ia ma ke kulanakauhale Alii.
To the Star of the Pacific.—Aloha:
Allow me to make love to you, “my aikane, nest of fragrance,” concerning a topic that I thought to make public about something that has happened in the Royal City.
This introduction indicates that it was acceptable for pre-Christianized (and recently Christianized) Hawaiians to frame the sexually-implicit aikane relationship as an ideal that was applicable to all loving relationships, much as traditional English language letters begin with “Dear ____,” as an acceptable means for showing nonspecific affection in the introduction.
Contemporary Use in Hawai’i and Polynesia
Although there appear to be no references to aiwahine (a close feminine woman confidante to a feminine woman) in the historical record, the term is used in current Hawaiian LGBTQ discourse. The absence of aiwahine could be due to the lack of interest in women’s folklife by non-Hawaiians who recorded the earliest histories. Or aiwahine could be a new word, created in response to awareness of worldwide LGBTQ identities, and the adaptation of Gay folk identity discourse to Hawaiian traditional language. The same may be true with transperson-refined identity markers mahuwahine and mahukane (see article, “Mahu”). The relationship of same-sex lovers and transpeople in Native Hawaiian society should be understood within an attitude of tolerance for various configurations of gender and erotic expression. Overall, aikane and mahu identities were considered acceptable and unremarkable.
Among the Maori of Aotearoa/New Zealand, a community that is culturally close to Native Hawaiian and Tahitian societies, there does not appear to be the same emphasis on mahu as found among Native Hawaiians and Tahitians. Maoris do have, however, the gender-neutral term takatapui (“partner of the same sex”) for aikane/aiwahine.
Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa, Native Land and Foreign Desires, Pehea La E Pono Ai? Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1992, pp. 116, 145, 180, 191-2, 263-4, 266, 274, 276, 284, 365n.6, 379, 388.
Robert J. Morris, “Aikane: Accounts of Hawaiian Same-Sex Relationships in the Journals of Captain Cook’s Third Voyage (1776-80).” Journal of Homosexuality 19(4) 1990:21-54.
Robert J. Morris, “Same-Sex Friendships in Hawaiian Lore: Constructing the Canon.”
Stephen O. Murray, ed. Oceanic Homosexualities. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992. pp. 71-102.
Curt Sanburn, ” ‘Men of the First Consequence’ The Aikane Tradition: Homosexuality in Old Hawaii.” Honolulu Weekly 3(19) May 12, 1993:4-6.