Hawaiian People and Culture

Wood statue in Pu'honua o Hanaunau National Historical Park in Big Island, Hawaii.

Wood statue in Pu’honua o Hanaunau National Historical Park in Big Island, Hawaii. Photo © Montse PB, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Nowhere else on Earth can you find such a kaleidoscopic mixture of people as in Hawaii. More than 50 ethnic groups are represented throughout the islands, making Hawaii the most racially integrated state in the country. Ethnic breakdowns for the state include 25.3 percent Hawaiian/part Hawaiian, 20.5 percent Caucasian, 18.4 percent Japanese, 10 percent Filipino, 8.9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 4.2 percent Chinese.

Ni‘ihau, a privately owned island, is home to about 160 pure-blooded Hawaiians, representing the largest concentration of Hawaiians, per capita, in the islands. The Robinson family, which owns the island, restricts visitors to invited guests only. The second largest concentration is on Moloka‘i, where 2,700 Hawaiians, living mostly on a 40-acre kuleana of Hawaiian Home Lands, make up 40 percent of that island’s population. The majority of mixed-blood Hawaiians, 240,000 or so, live on O‘ahu, where they are particularly strong in the hotel and entertainment fields.

Native Hawaiians

Ancient Hawaiian society was divided into rankings by a strict caste system determined by birth, and from which there was no chance of escaping.When Captain Cook first sighted Hawaii in 1778, there were an estimated 300,000 natives living in relative harmony with their ecological surroundings; within 100 years a scant 50,000 Hawaiians remained. Today, although more than 240,000 people claim varying degrees of Hawaiian blood, experts say that fewer than 1,000 are pure Hawaiian.

Ancient Hawaiian society was divided into rankings by a strict caste system determined by birth, and from which there was no chance of escaping. The highest rank was the ali‘ i, the chiefs and royalty. The impeccable genealogies of the ali‘ i were traced back to the gods themselves, and the chants (mo‘o ali‘ i) were memorized and sung by a rank of a ali‘ i called ku‘auhau. Ranking passed from both father and mother, and custom dictated that the first mating of an ali‘ i be with a person of equal status.

A kahuna was a highly skilled person whose advice was sought before any major project was undertaken, such as building a house, hollowing a canoe log, or even offering a prayer. The mo‘o kahuna were the priests of Ku and Lono, and they were in charge of praying and following rituals. They were very powerful ali‘ i and kept strict secrets and laws concerning their various functions.

Besides this priesthood of kahuna, there were other kahuna who were not ali‘i, but commoners. The two most important were the healers (kahuna lapa‘au) and the sorcerers (kahuna ‘ana‘ana) who could pray a person to death. The kahuna lapa‘au had a marvelous pharmacopoeia of herbs and spices that could cure over 250 diseases common to the Hawaiians.

The common people were called the maka‘ainana, “the people of land”—the farmers, craftspeople, and fishers. The land they lived on was controlled by the ali‘ i, but they were not bound to it. If the local ali‘ i was cruel or unfair, the maka‘ainana had the right to leave and reside on another’s lands. The maka‘ainana mostly loved their local ali‘ i, much like a child loves a parent, and the feeling was reciprocated. Maka‘ainana who lived close to the ali‘i and could be counted on as warriors in times of trouble were called kanaka no lua kaua (a man for the heat of battle). They were treated with greater favor than those who lived in the backcountry, kanaka no hi‘ i kua, whose lesser standing opened them up to discrimination and cruelty. All maka‘ainana formed extended families called ‘ohana who usually lived on the same section of land, called ahupua‘a. Those farmers who lived inland would barter their produce with the fishers who lived on the shore, and thus all shared equally in the bounty of land and sea.

A special group called kauwa was an untouchable caste confined to living on reservations. Their origins were obviously Polynesian, but they appeared to be descendants of castaways who had survived and became perhaps the aboriginals of Hawaii before the main migrations. It was kapu for anyone to go onto kauwa lands; doing so meant instant death. If a human sacrifice was needed, the kahuna would simply summon a kauwa who had no recourse but to mutely comply. To this day, to call someone kauwa, which now supposedly only means servant, is still considered a fight-provoking insult.

Although there were horrible wars, most people lived quiet and ordered lives based on the strict caste society and the kapu system of rigidly observed cultural taboos and laws. Famine was known, but only on a regional level, and the population was kept in check by birth control, crude abortions, and the distasteful practice of infanticide, especially of baby girls. The Hawaiians were absolutely loving and nurturing parents under most circumstances and would even take in hanai (an adopted child or oldster), a lovely practice that lingers to this day.

A strict division of labor existed among men and women. Men were the only ones permitted to have anything to do with taro. This crop was so sacred that there were a greater number of kapu concerning taro than concerning a man himself. Men pounded poi and served it to the women. Men were also the fishers and the builders of houses, canoes, irrigation ditches, and walls. Women tended to other gardens and shoreline fishing and were responsible for making tapa cloth. The entire family lived in the common house called the hale noa.

Certain things were kapu between the sexes. Primarily, women could not enter the mua (men’s eating house), nor could they eat with men. Certain foods, such as pork, coconut, red fish, and bananas were forbidden to women, and it was kapu for a man to have intercourse before going fishing, engaging in battle, or attending a religious ceremony. Young boys lived with the women until they underwent a circumcision rite called pule ipu. After this was performed, they were required to keep the kapu of men. A true Hawaiian settlement required a minimum of five huts: the men’s eating hut, women’s menstruation hut, women’s eating hut, communal sleeping hut, and prayer hut. Without these five separate structures, Hawaiian society could not happen because the i‘a kapu (forbidden eating between men and women) rules could not be observed.

Ali‘ i could also declare a kapu and often did so. Certain lands or fishing areas were temporarily made kapu so that they could be revitalized. Even today, it is kapu for anyone to remove all the ‘opihi (a type of limpet) from a rock. The greatest kapu, kapu moe, was afforded to the highest-ranking ali‘ i: anyone coming into their presence had to prostrate themselves. Lesser-ranking ali‘ i were afforded the kapu noho: lessers had to sit or kneel in their presence. Commoners could not let their shadows fall on an ali‘ i, nor enter the house of an ali‘ i except through a special door. Breaking a kapu meant immediate death.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.

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