From Neglect to Healing and Joy: Coming to Terms With a Fragmented Past

From Neglect to Healing and Joy: Coming to Terms With a Fragmented Past

Richard Walker

For decades, musician-singer Sonia Lien hid her Native Hawaiian heritage. Her birth was the result of a 1934 affair between her mother, who was married to a Navy officer at the time, and a Native Hawaiian man while en route from Los Angeles to Hawaii onboard the S.S. Lurline.

The officer divorced Lien’s mother, and mother and daughter were ostracized by their socially prominent family in Virginia. As a child, Lien bounced between foster homes in California and family members back east who took her in from time to time.

It wasn’t until Lien decided to tell an inspirational tale about her journey from a childhood of abuse and neglect to a life of recovery and joy that a final healing took place. Using the few details left by Lien’s mother—as well as ship passenger manifests from that 1934 voyage—friends discovered that Lien’s father was noted swimmer Sam Alapai Kahanamoku, a 1924 Olympic bronze medalist. Kahanamoku’s brother, Duke, was an Olympic swimmer and is a swimming and surfing hall of famer who also served as sheriff of Honolulu and acted in 14 films, among them Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda and James Cagney.

On August 24, 2010, she joined her long-lost family in Hawaii at the 120th anniversary of the birth of Duke Kahanamoku, her uncle. The acceptance and love shown to her by the Kahanamoku family helped Lien accept “what I had been told was unacceptable: My mother had a brief affair with a Hawaiian man that resulted in my birth in 1935. Both she and I were abandoned by my prejudiced family from Virginia. I had internalized this rejection—until now.”

Once that happened, “A thorn planted in my heart at birth has been removed,” she wrote.

She added those details to the final draft of the book, From Alone to Aloha (Cedar Forge Press, 2011). She now dances hula, plays ukulele and is active in her local Native Hawaiian community, which she visits often from her home in Poulsbo, Washington.

The book has touched the hearts of many readers. “Mahalo nui for this beautiful story,” wrote Kahanamoku family friend  Earl Maikahikinapamaikala Tenn. “You have brought so much dignity and awareness of Aloha to your family.”


With adoption, foster care and abuse playing so prominently in Indian country, ICTMN found out more about how Sonia Lien discovered her Hawaiian heritage and the healing it brought her. This conversation has been excerpted and recast from an earlier interview.

How did you become disconnected from your Native Hawaiian roots?

I was only four when I became a ward of the court.… Having lived in foster homes and group homes, I never knew the feeling of belonging to a loving family. I never thought about my Hawaiian roots.

In your book you describe how the discovery of who your father was began over lunch with a friend in February 2010. What happened?

I told her what I had heard from my mother: that my father was a popular and prominent Hawaiian and sheriff of Honolulu when I was born. My mother had said his name was Duke Kah–something. My friend’s partner, an avid surfer, became curious. He googled “Sheriff of Hawaii in 1935”; that was all it took for him to obtain the name “Duke Kahanamoku.” As it turns out, it was his brother (Olympic bronze medalist) Sam Kahanamoku who was on that ship and who had the affair with my mother and is my true birth father.

What did the Kahanamokus’ acceptance teach you about your family and culture, and what did you learn about yourself?

I have to give credence to the strength and character I inherited from my real father from Hawaii. The aloha that he and his family professed as their creed lived and thrived in me as I struggled in those early years. And it remains today, through the grace of God.

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ppmickey's picture
Submitted by ppmickey on
This is a beautiful story and I hope many people take time to read it. Going through the pain of losing your mother from prejudice and having to go through the foster system can be traumatizing to so many children, especially if the experience isn't a positive one. I've worked with many children ending up in foster care and with foster parents and adoptive parents in my past. Not all are cut out to be foster and/or adoptive parents. My mother and her siblings were orphaned when first their mother, then father died. My mother was in foster homes that treated her kindly and she ended up with the only maternal grandparent I ever knew and loved so dearly. She never told us about this until a few days before her death and had sworn an oath to not tell because her adoptive parents wanted to be known as her real parents and when us kids were born was afraid we'd think less of them. How wrong they were to think that. She felt unless she told us, near her end, that all of her childhood would be lost forever with no one knowing. We can now cherish her past and try to find out more about her birth family. I am so glad that Sonia Lien was able to find who her father was and reconnect with her family and begin the process of healing. Having come from a family so prejudiced, as many were in those times and many still are today had to have been very difficult. I am so happy for her. She is a true success story by having risen above her past and embracing her future.