Islanders Eulogize Obama's 'Tutu'

Obama's grandmother was a hard worker who loved family, modesty—and Hawaiian 'ohana.

In the Hawaiian language, the word “tutu” for grandmother is of recent origin; it’s something of a novelty, not found in the ancient legends or chants. Yet it is used frequently and with great fondness instead of “grandma” by people on the islands. The more usual word would be “kupuna”, for respected elder, and in the case of a grandmother, “kupuna wahine.” But it comes down to the same thing, and Barack Obama’s calling his grandmother “toot” won him the affection of his fellow islanders. Recently, a prominent Hawaiian leader (indeed “Kahuna”) said Obama’s use of the word was proof that “he is one of us.”

The Hawaiian dimension of the death of Obama’s tutu, Madelyn Payne Dunham, is powerful, because this sad event embodies the important symbols in island life: family (‘ohana), the elder (kupuna), and the cycle of life and death. Death is not a lugubrious occasion here, but more often a celebration of a life. There are always flowers, always aloha shirts, always music. The only difference between a Hawaiian wedding and a Hawaiian funeral is that at a funeral there is one person not singing.

So, for many reasons, not just the in terms of the tragic timing, the death of Obama’s grandmother within a day of his victory (I presume: we’re still counting the votes) is a moment of almost unbearable poignancy.

When Hawaii’s governor, Linda Lingle, disparaged Obama’s links to the island [ see my previous post], people in Hawaii were shocked and angry. Not only was she denigrating a native son, but also she was fleering at Obama’s family. Because of the complex allegiances in Hawaii, the territoriality and competitiveness of island life, your ultimate support system is your ‘ohana.

So, for many reasons, not just the in terms of the tragic timing, the death of Obama’s grandmother within a day of his victory (I presume: we’re still counting the votes) is a moment of almost unbearable poignancy. Madelyn Dunham, who died Nov 3rd at the age of 86, was the last link with his childhood, and more than that, the brave woman who raised him.

Throughout the campaign, Obama has been cast by his opponents as a foreigner for his family name, and as a Muslim for his middle name. Doubt has been cast on the depth of his Christianity; and even quality of his blackness by, among others, Stanley Crouch, who claimed a few years ago in a widely-publicized column that Obama was not in the same class as an African-American because he had no roots in American slavery. In casting him as an inauthentic black man, Crouch was using the same argument as the disgruntled former Yankee Gary Sheffield used of Derrick Jeter: “Not all the way black.”

But one look at the history of Obama’s maternal grandmother and it is obvious that no one is more in the American grain. Her little history is like an idealized fiction of struggle and success starting in the Midwest and finishing in the Pacific. The woman who raised him was born in Peru, Kansas, on Oct. 26, 1922. Later the family moved to Augusta, Kansas and endured the Great Depression. In 1940, Madelyn Payne married Stanley Dunham, moved west, and studied for a few years at the University of Washington. Though she didn’t graduate, she worked on the Boeing assembly line inspecting B-29 bombers, while her husband served in the war.

In the year of Hawaii’s statehood, 1959, the Dunhams moved to the island of Oahu, where Stanley was employed as a furniture salesman. The following year Madelyn joined the Bank of Hawaii, at the time the largest bank in the islands. At first she processed mortgage claims but within ten years she had become one of the two first two female vice presidents (a "true pioneer," said Al Landon, Bank of Hawaii's chairman and CEO). After the death of Obama’s mother, Ann, she and Stanley supported Obama through the prestigious (and expensive) Punahou School in Honolulu. Obama acknowledged this in his moving tribute to his grandmother, at a campaign rally, speaking of his grandmother’s love, sacrifice, hard work and most of all her modesty the values that had helped shape him.

Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who was at their grandmother’s side when she died, spoke in her own statement of her grandmother’s love for Hawaii and its people

In a sentence highlighted with significant Hawaiian words, she added, “We want to thank Tutu's friends and extended 'ohana for the outpouring of aloha over the past few weeks.” With the passing of Madelyn Dunham, “the extended ‘ohana” are now the people of Hawaii, awaiting the elevation of an islander, son and grandson of beloved islanders, as president of the United States.