Part 1: The Hawaiian Class System

A proper understanding of our history is very important to us because it will serve to demonstrate how the present has been distorted by a faulty knowledge of our past. By unraveling the past we become confronted with the present already as future.” Renato Constantino, Dissent and Counter-Consciousness, p131

The other day I had been re-reading some of the Hawaiian books I have and in particular the book, Tales of the Night Rainbow by Koko Willis and Pali Jae Lee. When I read the book the first time a decade ago I didn’t take much notice in particular a chapter on the ali’i. I think it may have been because I had similar stories before from my grandmother or due to the fact that its only within the last five year thats I had been able to study various Austronesian languages more closely and have had the opportunity to get material on the indigenous peoples from Indonesia, Fiji, Samoa, and the Philippines (not mention a bit of traveling).  

In the next four parts, I will be examining the Hawaiian class system from an historical, anthropological, and from the mythical point of view. 

My grandmother never believed that most of the ali’i were indigenous or were Hawaiian. She believed that many of them came originally from Samoa, Tahiti, Borabora and Ra’iatea because of their kapu which included the kapu puhi kanaka ahi, lumaluma’i and certain types of mōhai. I won’t translate those terms because they are quite horrible and graphic.  But she believed that such kapu were innovation sfrom Tahitians who came with Pa’ao and that originally the Hawaiian religion consisted of simply Kū and Hina.  She also believed that original Hawaiians were also not directly from Polynesia but from Asia (hence the names Hawa, Hiwa, Ulu, and Nana which have cognate names in Indonesia, Borneo, and India) led by Māui and the original people were primarily farmers which is why Kanaloa never had a huge role in the Hawaiian religion unlike the Māori, Tongans, and Samoans.  But later, with Pa’ao, all of this was distorted as the kapu system became rigid and this is why some Hawaiians have a different more hoʻomaʻau mentality, particularly notice-able with some Hawaiian politicians and certain Hawaiian groups. I personally took those stories as a family myths but those stories had always bothered me which is why I began to investigate more on Pacific linguistics and history. 

 In Tales of the Night Rainbow, the author clearly state:

To us, they were invaders.  Pa’ao had gone back to Tahiti and gathered thousands of  people to come to Hawai’i and take over the land. The men were tall  fierce warriors. They did not believe in the force of  light, only in the force of  the  closed fist, in mighty armies tha t  killed, took and plundered. The  people on Lana’ i were the first to see them approaching. They said the red malo of  the invaders could be seen from horizon to horizon making the s e a  itself  take  on a  r ed hue.  Soon the s e a  did turn red with the blood of  our people  as  thousands were  slaughtered  and enslaved.  The native  population that  could, made a run for Kaua’i where they would be safe. You had to be well schooled in  the tides of  Kaua’i to get ashore safely. Many of  the people who could not get to the boats in time hid in mountain caves. The people who were caught were used as fishbait  and  human  sacrifices,  and their  bones  were  used to  decorate  the  tiki statues of  the Tahitian gods.
The  Tahitians who became the rulers of  our  islands called themselves na ali’i  ( the rulers or  chiefs)  and they  called our  people Mana  hune  (small power) because they thought we were ajoke. In fact the people who lived here before the ali’i came were much smaller than these warriors, and had no knowledge of  how to use a spear of  club or  any manner of  war  weapon. The  early people had used their minds to cooperate with the world and had no war leaders or  chiefs to lead  them into battle.  They were fishermen and farmers.  They shared all they grew and caught with the community. To be a warrior you must be trained in the ways of  war. No one in our  Islands had such training at  that time.  Since the Tahitians  did not  consider mind power to be  power at all, the people were as they said -Mana  hune (small power) [hence the origins of the name Menehune] (p21).

 Legends and stories of  the Menehune’s great deeds came about because the ali’i would give orders when they wanted a fishpond built, or  a temple or  a ditch, and allowed a very short time for it to be done.  The al t i  would order the maoli (natives) to do the job and go off laughing. I f  the work was not accomplished in the given time,  all the people of  that  place would be slaughtered  

In The Legends and Myths of Hawai’i by King Kalākaua, he claims that for thirteen or fourteen generations, the first people of Hawai’i lived very simply and not until the tenth century or so, did Nanamoa, Pili, and Pa’ao come from Tahiti and changed the political and social landscape of the islands (p20-21). Kalakaua goes on to say that:

At the close of the second migratory period, which concluded their intercouse with the world beyond them for more than six hundred years, or from AD 1175 AD to 1778, the people of the group had very generally transferred their allegiance to the newly-arrived chiefs…. (p22)

In the context of Tales of the Night Rainbow, the term “transferred” might be a polite way of saying conquered. Furthermore:

The nobility and hereditary priesthood claimed to be of a different stock different from that of the common people, and their superior stature and intelligence seemed to favor the assumption (p23)

So who were the ali’i? Did Hawai’i always have ali’i? One of the things that I love about Hawaiian legends is the bits of information (or “cracks in the parchment” as some historians call it) that can be gleamed. In addition, for every Hawaiian myth, there is a counter-myth. Let’s take a look at our mythology for a second.

In Thrums Hawaiian Folk Tales, we find this legend:

In his time appeared a portent in the heavens in the shape of a head which spoke, commending Kahiko as a just ruler and reproving Waia because he had failed to keep up religious observances, to be courageous, to care for his people’s welfare, but took thought for his own pleasure alone and for the acquiring of possessions. “What king on the earth below lives an honest life?” asks the head, and the people answer “Kahiko!” “What good has Kahiko done?” “Kahiko is well skilled in all the departments of government; he is priest (kahuna) and diviner (kilokilo); he looks after the people in his government; Kahiko is patient and forbearing.” “Then it is Kahiko who is the righteous, the benevolent man,” says the head, and again it asks, “What king on earth lives corruptly?” and the people answer with a shout “Waia!” “What sin has he committed?” “He utters no prayers, he employs no priests, he has no diviner, he knows not how to govern,” answer the people.

Eventually the people decide to overthrow Waia, the brother of Kahiko. This is the first (and not the last) time the maka`āinana or commoners would overthrow a chief and replace him with another and this shows how fluid rank was at the time. It also shows that the commoner class did not simply blindly follow the ali’i. Kahiko is according to some genealogies the father of Wākea, Liha’ula, and Maku’u. With Kahiko as ruler, the priestly class (kahuna) and the ali’i (chiefly) class became united into one. But note, that all of this does not occur in Hawai’i.  Hawaiian legends are nearly universal in saying that Wākea was either a chief or the son of a from Kahiki. In Martha Beckwith’s Hawaiian Mythology in the chapter on “The Chiefs” we find:

Eastern Kahiki, western Kahiki were born, [My note: Most likely the original in Hawaiian said Kahiki ku and Kahiki Moe]
The regions below were born,
The regions above were born,
Hawaii was born,
The firstborn child was the island Hawaii

Of Wakea together with Kane,
And Papa in the person of Walinuʻu as wife.
Papa became pregnant with the island,
Sick with the foetus she bore,
Great Maui was born, an island,…
Papa was in heavy travail with the island Kanaloa (Kahoo-lawe)…
A child born to Papa.
Papa left and returned to Tahiti,
Went back to Tahiti at Kapakapakaua,
Wakea stayed, lived with Kaula as wife,
Lanai-kaula was born,
The firstborn of that wife.
Wakea sought a new wife and found Hina,
Hina lived as wife to Wakea,
Hina became pregnant with the island of Molokai,
The island of Molokai was a child of Hina.
The messenger of Kaula (Laukaula) told
Of Wakea’s living with another woman;
Papa was raging with jealousy,
Papa returned from Tahiti
Bitter against her husband Wakea,
Lived with Lua, a new husband,
Oahu son of Lua was born,
Oahu of Lua, an island child,
A child of Lua’s youth.
She lived again with Wakea,
Conceived by him,
Became pregnant with the island Kauai,
The island Kama-wae-lua-lani was born,
Niʻihau was an afterbirth,
Lehua a boundary,
Kaula the last
Of the low reef islands of Lono.…[emphasis mine]

Those who had been to the Makahiki at Kaho’olawe would be familiar with a shorter version of the chant usually called “the Papa-hānau-moku chant”. In the above much longer version, we find that Wākea and Papa lived in one of the Kahiki’s  and came to Hawai’i the first born with Kāne and Papa. Kāne is always connected with huge landmasses (i.e. the Big Island of Hawai’i) and distant lands beyond Kahiki. In fact, Hawai’i, the island is said to have existed before Papa and Wākea and Papa goes back to Tahiti after giving birth Kaho’olawe. This is of course a different version that what many Hawaiians know of the Papa and Wākea mythology.  The Papa and Wākea myths are important in our understanding how the class system came to be because the legitimacy of those claim to be ali’i even until today claim that all Hawaiians are related through the Papa and Wākea myth and that the ali’i are the eldest brother of the Hawaiian people hence why they deserve respect.   

As I will be getting into Hawaiian Creation mythology in another post, lets take another look at Beckwith’s Mythology and her notes on Papa and Wākea:

Stories and genealogies connect the Wakea-Papa line with the myth already noticed of a marriage between a high chief from a distant land and a native-born chiefess. A struggle is implied between an older line and a new order which imposes the separation of chiefs from commoners and of both from a degraded slave class, and establishes religious tapus, especially as related to women, by which so powerful a weapon is placed in the hands of the new theocracy, chiefs working in harmony with the priesthood, as to control conduct and effectually to subordinate the people to their ruling chiefs…Wakea is called the son of Kahiko-lua-mea (Very ancient and sacred) and his wife Kupulanakehau. To them are born Lihau-ula (Liha-ula, Lehu-ula) from whom are descended the priests (kahuna) and Wakea from whom come the chiefs (aliʻi). From a third son, Makuʻu, some say by another wife, come the commoners (maka-aina)….To the question of the meaning of the Papa and Wakea legend as it took shape in Hawaii no single answer can be given. Back of it is the Polynesian mythical conception of a dark formless spirit world presided over by the female element, and a world of form born out of the spirit world and to which it again returns, made visible and active in this human life through light as the impregnating male element. Back of it is also the actual picture of society in Hawaii, revealing a struggle for ascendancy among incoming settlers both in the Hawaiian group itself and in earlier lands—an ascendancy dominated by the idea of ancestry from a divine parent stock and hence of grades of rank as revealed in family genealogies….[the bold are mine]

In this rendering, Kahiko who had united the priestly and chiefly class in Kahiki and has three sons who represent the origins of the Hawaiian class system. We are often told about Hāloa, the taro, being the ancestors of all the Hawaiian people but we are never told about Maku’u because it would imply that the commoner class existed before Hāloa or that there were people here before Wākea which in turn would then change the perception people may have of the ali’i as being the older brothers as well as the fact that Hawaiians came in waves of migrations and not a single migration. 

We are also never told that Wākea, called an ‘ehu and a haole (meaning foreigner not Caucasian), at times he is the son of a foreign chief but born on O’ahu–the same place as Papa.  For example we find this myth in Hawaiian Mythology from Kamakau:

Wakea is born at Waolani on Oahu and he finds Papa in Ewa district on Oahu, and there on Oahu the daughter Hoʻohoku is born. Kamakau states that ‘the children of Wakea, up to the time of the disappearance of Haumea, lived between Halawa and Waikiki and for the most part in the uplands and valleys.; The land called Lalo-waia (and hence the name of Wakea’s son Waia) was a fertile land. Wakea (or perhaps his descendants) returned and lived there up to the time of Kamehameha. Some of his descendants emigrated to Kahiki and some peopled the other islands of the group. The story then resolves itself into that of a chief of god-like rank, attached to the Kane and Kanaloa family of gods in Waolani, who weds a daughter of a closely related Ewa family living in the land, and unites the priestly office with that of ruling chief. The chief later neglects his wife’s family, who eventually disappear from the land, and unites his interests with some other ruling line. The pattern occurs too commonly in Hawaiianromance to give it special significance in this connection.
Two chants in which the island births of Papa are made the theme for an enumeration of the islands of the group are so similar as to be certainly drawn from a common source. Both date from the time of Kamehameha and are hence not very early. Of the composers, Pakui is called the kahuna of the heiau of Manawai on Molokai. and Kaleikuahulu is described as a native of Kainalu on Molokai, son of the ruling chief Kumukoa and grandson of Keawe, whom Kamehameha appointed to teach to some of the chiefs his knowledge of genealogies….

Other chants and myths subscribe not Wākea, but Maui, as having discovered the Hawaiian Islands hence why in the above mentioned myth, Wākea was born on O’ahu which meant that the island and the Hawaiian people already obviously existed. Other myths exist that claim it was Kahiko himself to first saw the islands which were already inhabited. While others claim it was Ki’i or Hawai’iloa. Some legends claim that both Papa and Wākea were foreigners altogether and that the Papa and Wākea myths pertained to the Tahitian immigrants and not the original Hawaiian people. The point is that Hawaiians themselves existed prior to Wakea but the origins of the class division lies with Wakea’s father, Kahiko. 

After Kahiko’s death, a battle occurs between Wakea and Liha’ula. Wākea attempts to reclaim the priesthood and the governing rights their father, Kahiko, once had. Wākea is victorious and Liha’ula is banished to Kahiki Moe while his children become the kahuna class.   David Malo has this to say:

Kahiko at his death bequeaths the land to his elder son Lihau-ula “leaving Wakea destitute.” Lihau-ula gives battle to Wakea the blond (ehu) against the advice of his counselor, who would not have him fight during the summer lest his men melt away. Lihau-ula is slain and Wakea takes over the rule. He fights with Kane-ia-kumu-honua and is defeated and obliged to take to sea; but as they are swimming about his kahuna bids him form a symbolic heiau and its sacrifice with his hand (described much like our own hand game of the church and the steeple), gather his people together, and offer prayer to his god, which done he renews the battle, is victorious, and wins the government (aupuni). Those who place the fight in Hawaii say that he was driven to the extreme western islet of Kaula and thence oversea; others say that he fought in Kahiki-ku. (Hawaiian Antiquates, p312)

When Wākea won over his priestly brother, he then went on to Papa. After a while, Wākea begins to desire his daughter, Ho’ohokuikalani and issues the first kapu ali’i–the beginning of the kapu system and the institution of the ali’i as a hereditary governing class. Not a very auspicious reason to begin a new religious system. Wākea  begins to resemble Henry VIII.  Wakea then goes after his daughter, Hoʻohokuikalani, while Papa lives with Wākea’s kauwa Haakauilana in Tahiti and a son is born, Kekeu. Kekeu then has a union with Lumilani, probably a Hawaiian, and Noa is born. Noa lives with another person named Papa (sometimes also called Hina) and has Pueo-nui-weluwelu, who then goes off and marries Noni and has two children including Maka-noni. Thus the Kauwa class was born. Meanwhile, the original Papa, goes back with Wākea and has more children. This information is found in David Malo’s work, Hawaiian Antiquites page 91.  Thus Wākea is the father of the ali’i as an institution and as a class. 

The above mentioned myth I am quite familiar with from my grandmother because she would always say the Papa and Wakea epics refer to the coming of the Tahitians and that is why the old ali’i when they would approach a double pulo’ulo’u staff at the entrance of a door or temple, would move their right foot forward first. The double pulo’ulo’u represented Wākea’’s two brothers–Liha’ula and Maku’u–and the forward foot movement imitated Wākea who supposedly made his defeated brothers moe kapu as he kicked dirt across their heads with his right foot in a symbolic gesture. Thus the pulo’ulo’u itself represented the supremacy (some might use the word seizure) of the ali’i of both secular and spiritual power. Hence why the word mana means spiritual inheritance, charisma, spiritual power as well as secular authority. 

Mauna Ala staffs

So in carefully inspecting Hawaiian mythology itself, one can see the institution of the ali’i with the kapu were an innovations imported into Hawai’i and the Papa and Wākea mythology were used as a justification. This is all according to Hawaiian mythology itself. Eventually, the ali’i as a hereditary institution unto itself thought of themselves as an enlightened aristocratic illustrado class “of a different stock than the commoners” (in the words of Kalākaua) who kept “Hawaiian traditions” or more accurately kept the “Hawaiian” traditions they liked for as one can see, there are numerous counter-traditions. This is not to say that all ali’i were bad. Contrary, Hawai’i has had many good ali’i. Queen Lili’uokalani is my favorite ali’i. But the ali’i in general should also be understood in the context of their time, their history, and their class interests. We should not just venerate ali’i because they were ali’i nor should we assume that Hawaiian society never underwent changes and innovations. Only an extinct culture does not undergo changes. Hawaiian culture is far from extinct.   

Furthermore, just looking at the contradictions in the mythology, it should give us some insight into the class and cultural contradictions existing in Hawaiian society before Captain Cook accidentally stumbling in our Islands. Hawaiian society was like any other society with real issues and not some kind of tropical Eden as some try to make it out to be. 

In the next part, I will be exploring what type of Hawaiian society that might have existed prior to Pa’ao as well as possible wave migrations based on archaeological, linguistic, and historical information. 

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