Part 2: The Hawaiian Class System

Part 2: the Hawaiian Class System
Before Wākea, Before Pa’ao, the ‘Ohana System
“Na ali’i o ke kuamo’o o Haloa” 
Chiefs of the lineage of Haloa…
Said of high chiefs whose lineage goes back to ancient times. 
Mary Kawena Puku’i – ‘Olelo No’eau
Hawaiian family. Courtesy of the Bishop Museum

In Tales of the Night Rainbow by Koko Willis and Pali Jae Lee there is this interesting passage:

Family, to us, on Moloka’i was seen as a solid unit. A whole, of which we
were each a part. In actuality, the family was a community or group of people
living together, growing together, working out their problems the best way they
could together, all connected, all learning and growing and assisting each other
fingers of the same hand; parts of one body.
Each ‘Ohana was governed by a group of kupuna (elders). Age alone did
not make one a part of this group. There were many old people who were not.
To become part of the ruling body of the family you had to be accepted by all
of the elders. Everything was decided on consensus of opinion. The ruling body
varied in size, and always consisted of kahuna (experts) of many kinds.
When a person proved himself through years of hard work and wise thinking,
if they were known for being loving and unselfish in all things, and had mastered
many of the family secrets, sooner or later their name would come up and the
kupuna would discuss making this person a part of their group. No vote was taken.
If everyone was in agreement, then at the family ‘aha (meeting) they were
requested to join the other kupuna who ruled, on the upper part of the circle.
It may sound simple. It was not.
One of the kupuna was our chief or ruling elder. He did not rule alone like
the ali’i. All our ruling elders ruled together. This one person met with other
family heads when there was need of it, and brought us news of what was going
on in other families. (p33-34)

It is important to note here that Lee makes it a point to say that kahuna means expert and not what it has come to mean post-1820 which is priest or something related to “sorcery”.  I will delve into that important distinction later. 

In Mary Kawena Puku’i’s “The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u” we find this on page 2:

In Hawaiʻi political control was constantly in flux and political institutions were ill defined; land titles were evanescent due to redivision of spoils amongst faithful supporters upon the accession of every new high chief (whether he had acquired power through conquest or election by family council); and the external mechanism of family form and authority was less well regulated, though the family was, internally, completely integrated… 

Because old Hawaiʻi lacked village units regulated by established institutions such as existed in New Zealand and Samoa, it must not be concluded that the community was not a reality and a fundamental factor in the old political and economic order.

The fundamental unit in the social organization of the Hawaiians of Ka-ʻu was the dispersed community of ʻohana, or relatives by blood, marriage and adoption, living some inland and some near the sea but concentrated geographically in and tied by ancestry, birth and sentiment to a particular locality which was termed the ʻaina.

Puku’i writes further that:

There are ample indications that in this legendary era pioneering Hawaiians were tribal groups, under individual chiefs, many of whom came from islands south of the equator, generically referred to as “Kahiki” (generally meaning “a land overseas”). From the point of view of Polynesian history, a study of these evidences, scattered through legends, myths, chants and genealogies, is capable of yielding rich rewards, in interest and in scholarly returns. (p41)

 and then quotes Sir Peter Buck by:

Dr. Buck writes (The Coining of the Maori, p. 338): “All members of a Maori tribe are related to each other by blood descent, and the record of a common tie is preserved in the family genealogies…. The kinship terms in use are capable of expressing the relationship between any two members of the tribe… (42)”

The arrangement mentioned by Lee and Puku’i is not as unusual or idealistic as it may sound. On Ni’ihau, the term “‘ohana” does not mean family. It means a family meeting, a sort of ‘aha. The term for family unit is pilitana. In the old Hamakua dialect of Hawaiian which my grandmother spoke, the word ‘ohana refers to a village meeting. Specific related persons or family units were called pilihanau. So the structure mentioned by Lee and Puku’i bares a resemblance to those mentioned concepts. It also bares a resemblence to what existed in other Austronesian societies in the Pacific.  

For those who are unfamilar with the term, Austronesian has nothing to do with Australia but is a linguistic and anthropological classification pertaining to the indigenous populations of Oceania, parts of SE Asia, and Madagascar. Austronesian simply means “South Sea Islands” in Greco-Latin just as “Polynesian” means “Many Islands” in Greco-Latin and the Austronesian family of languages is believed to be one of the oldest language families dating back to at least 4,000 years.  The Hawaiian language is a part of the Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family of languages. Since language is the primary carrier of culture and being that Hawaiian was not a written language until 1822 or 1823 (depending on which source you’re using), one of the ways that one can verify if a practice is indeed an ancient one or a local innovation is by looking at the origins of the terminology and the concepts and comparing cognate (similar) terms or concepts by various Austronesian languages. For example, the word maka or mata means “eye” in most Austronesian languages (including in Philippine, Indonesian, Malagasy and Maori languages) so we can conclude that the body part name and the word itself dates back several thousand years because of its prevalence in other Austronesian languages.   

In a symposium on “Austronesian diaspora and the Ethnogeneses of people in Indonesian Archipelago” which the proceedings were published by the Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of Science in 2006 under the same name as the symposium, a paper discusses some common Austronesian terms including the term matua. Every Hawaiian knows the word makua. Today, it means parent. In the symposium proceedings, it lists matua in Macassarese and Buginese as eldest, elder (kinship) or old (p214).  I know that in Toraja, matua refers to the older generation, well older than the speaker. The creator being in Toraja mythology is Puang Matua. The Malay word for “lord” or “noble” is tuan and is believed to come from either the word matua or matuang and the word datuk or datu which now an aristocratic title is believed to have originally referred to the ancestor of a clan (ed. Thomas Reuter, Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land, p116). Datuk among certain Dayak tribes in Borneo also means expert, medicine man and the head of a tribe–similar in some respects to what Lee was writing about in regards to expert. In Chamorro, matua or matoa refers to chiefs and likewise means old or dignified. 

In old Hawaiian, a makua was anyone one generation removed from the speaker which is why the makua used to also refer not just as parent but as to uncles, aunts, and older cousins.  So like in Macassarese and Buginese, the word also implied someone who was more senior than you. But in Hawaiian, it meant one generation removed. Matua could also be one of the root words for akua. Thus an akua was originally the founder or makua of a clan.  This could explain why early Hawaiian Christians did not see the necessity of having makua and akua in the same sentence.  Early Protestants as one knows were very fond of saying “Father God”.  Kupuna on the other hand meant two generations removed from the speaker thus it came to mean “grandparent” in English.    

In Sharing the Earth, Dividing the Land, several authors make the point that the clan was the single fundamental social unit. This is in opposition to the Western idea where the fundamental social unit is the individual. In the surveyed cases–from Indonesia to Tonga–the clan did not simply consist of a father, mother, grandparents, and children. Again this is in opposition to the Western idea of what constitutes a family. In the case of the Balinese, the clan consisted of those who were related by blood (in some cases up to the 10th degree), those who married blood relatives, those adopted into ones clan, as well as those shared the same neighborhood and temple (banua in Balinese).  In some cases, those who lived in the same district treated each other as family, though the bloodlines were not clear, because they shared in communal tasks (banjar) such as farming and fishing.  Those who shared in the same rituals and occupations could also see themselves as a form of an extended family since Bali is divided into a caste system and those of the same caste generally had to marry each other and work together. There is no differentiation between a clan and a family in the Balinese sense. In the Hawaiian sense, this may have also been true of larger settlements particularly after Pa’ao. While Lee and Puku’i do not go deeply into those areas, they both argue that their perspective is largely based on a rural setting where the class or caste-like divisions were not as pronounced as in other areas. In the large villages of Kou (Honolulu) and Kailua (Hawai’i), a clan could easily have consisted of several extended families including those who lived near each other and, eventually after Pa’ao, those performing similar occupations as well as those sharing the same ritual spaces similar to the Balinese example. So the Hawaiian ‘ohana or clan could have at first consisted of family members (perhaps up to the 10th degree consanguinity as the Balinese case),  those hanai‘d into the family, those “married” (I prefer the term ku’i or joined than married since married is a Western concept) into the family, and those who lived in the same village. Eventually, as settlements grew larger and with the imposition of the ali’i institution, those performing the same communal tasks and within the same class, could have easily saw themselves as being “ohana” since they would have seen each other everyday and could have eaten meals together in the same eating houses. Like the Balinese, I doubt that there were any differentiation between a clan and a family as both were called ‘ohana.  Also in the Balinese and Hawaiian cases, these clans or larger families had councils which consisted of experts and from the bases of these councils, leadership were generally held by agreement and by election. The most senior person did not necessarily have the right to lead the entire clan unless he or she had the respect of the entire clan to do so. 

One has to think that voyaging for thirty or more days on a single canoe, you’d probably travel with relatives and those who you can trust as opposed to complete strangers who might just throw you overboard if food becomes scarce.  

Upon arrival to a new land, the clan or ‘ohana would claim certain lands or what some anthropologists call “ritual area” and developed certain narratives to explain how and why it could claim certain lands and thus have access to spiritual economic and political power.  In Peter Bellwood’s The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspective  he notes:

Each clan recounts its separate origin and its particular journey into Tana ’Ai. One clan — in Lewis’ words, “the source clan” —is pre-eminent. This clan possesses the narrative that integrates the other clans to it. As among the Kalauna, this clan’s “history” is especially complex because its own internal division is of great significance. For the source clan of Tana ’Ai, this internal division is an ancestral elder/younger bifurcation represented by critical differences encountered in hunting together. On arriving in Tana ’Ai, the elder of the brothers assigns precedence to the ancestors of the other clans as they, in turn, arrive; the younger brother marries with these ancestors and shares out ceremonial goods and ritual duties. An ambiguous third ancestor who accompanies the two brothers at the outset takes a divergent journey and finally arrives in Tana ’Ai to become the founder of the lowest clans of the domain... 

Among the Ilongot, each household is regarded as “one trunk” (tan tengeng). These “trunks” form local clusters generally denoted by the names of rivers or other prominent features of their environment. The boundaries of these settlements and the affiliation of households within them is flexibly interpreted. But in each settlement, according to Michelle Rosaldo,

there is at least a core group of closely related families who are apt to share a history of common residence, having lived in close proximity over years of intermittent movement in search of fertile lands, abundant forests, or freedom from lowland law. It is this history of coordinated moves, through times of inward-turning “concentration” and then “dispersal” toward the lowland margins of Ilongot lands, that lends a settlement its viability as an ill-defined yet generally recognized and cooperating social group (M. Rosaldo 1980:5)…

Like the Kalauna and Ata Tana ’Ai, Ilongot also possess origin narratives that relate journeys of the past. Although they focus mainly on the recounted memories of their oldest living members, these narratives nevertheless articulate two distinct levels of origin. Again to quote Michelle Rosaldo:

A history of related moves, interpreted in an idiom of bilateral kinship and reinforced by bonds of marriage, permit most members of a settlement to construe themselves as kin, who (as Ilongots express it) share a “body” (betrang) … What continues over time is not a stable group but a tradition of relation (M. Rosaldo 1980:9)…

Here kinship is constituted by a shared journey which includes hunting together. A tradition of such shared relationship points to still earlier origins.

Those people who have shared in hunts, along with kin in other settlements with whom they have been wont to live at times of “concentration”, will tend to see themselves as members of a single bertan… .

Ilongot society is composed of at least thirteen such discrete, named, and loosely localized groups. Seen from a perspective of origin structures, there is little formal difference between the Ilongot, the Kalauna or the Ata Tana ’Ai except in the way in which each of these societies reckons its path of origin through the father in the case of the Kalauna, the mother in the case of Ata Tana ’Ai or through either parent in the case of the Ilongot. In all of these societies, the sharing of a journey is part of the reckoning of social ancestry. This reckoning is enhanced by the recurrent linguistic use of terms for “path” as a common Austronesian metaphor for social relationships.
In comparing these societies, one crucial difference needs to be pointed out in the case of the Ilongot. All the bertan of the Ilongot recount their own separate narrative of origin; no member of a bertan recites a narrative that links the bertan to each other as a group.

From this long description, one can gleam the true context of the Papa-Wākea myths as well as the Kumulipo (which would be developed in the 1750s) and the kapu. Hawaiian society was divided into ‘ohana. Experts became clan leaders (mākua then worked their way to become kūpuna). Exceptional experts within the ʻalaea would then eventually hold chiefly position as explained by Lee and as what currently still takes place among the Dayaks in Borneo. In early times, these positions were probably not hereditary nor automatic (including the title of kupuna and mākua). But as families intermarried or adopted (hānai) each other, larger ‘ohana became ʻalaea or clans.   Following the patterns of Samoa, Eastern Indonesia, Guam and the Philippines, as one  ʻalaea gained political or economic control over their own ‘ohana and over other ʻalaea, it became a “source clan” or a governing class. The source clan (papa noho or lit. “presiding class”) would eventually claim hereditary privileges thus becoming papa noho ali’i and justify this new structure through some kind of quasi-historical narrative or myth. In this context, the mythology of Papa and Wākea, of Hāloa, of Māui all begin to make sense. These were all originally clan “legends” of their clan founders that became the “pre-eminent” myth in an effort by the governing clan to bind all the other clans together (including the ‘ohana from previous migrations) yet at the same time to give precedence to one set of individuals or group within their own ruling clan to have control both ritual domains (i.e. heiau) and political economy (i.e. natural resources of the ‘āina, valued trade items such as feathers, etc) of all clans under their rule. This is why most of these genealogical chants include references to struggles against brothers and why certain incestuous relationships were deemed necessary to preserving the purity of the papa noho ali’i. To help control the various ‘ohana on the psychological level,  new classes of experts (kahuna) became solely religious functionaries (read priests) who then perpetuated the clan myths of the ruling elite. However, Hawaiian sources say that this process of hereditary privileges of the priests and nobility was dramatically quickened or imposed by the arrival of Pa’ao. 

Outside of the “Austronesian world”, another example that might parallel this might be in Japan where the Amaterasu mythology of the Yamato clan became the dominant origin or founder mythology as the clan came to eventually rule over much of Japan and in turn would create Shintoism to re-enforce their new national leadership.The earliest settlers of Japan, the pre-Jomon and the Ainus were eventually pushed back by the waves of migrations until they were subdued by the Yamato clan until the point that today we know very little about these peoples. Their mythologies were replaced by the Yamato clan founder’s genealogical myths and its sanctioned practices through the Shinto priesthood.   The same probably happened in Hawai’i.  

As one migration established a foothold in Hawai’i over another earlier migration, this created a series of competing or counter-myths as well. Lee’s work is an example of such. So are some of the legends Samuel Kamakau writes of. As the saying goes, where there is power, there is resistance. This is where the role of origin meta-myths–myths that link all the Hawaiian people into one unit through a clan founder or place of origin (as in the Hawai’iloa myths)–comes into play. Since even until today the “‘ohana” is still a basic unit of Hawaiian society, meta-myths like Papa-Wākea and the Kumulipo had been created and sanctioned as a way to bind the various ‘aha ‘ohana to the ali’i as well as to project an air of superiority. I call it the kākou-mākou myths meaning there is a layer of inclusiveness (kākou) while it still contains a layer of exclusivity (mākou) from the audience. 

Without these origin meta-myths, the ‘aha ‘ohana would not feel obligated not only to obey the ali’i without the use of force but not to help out non-related persons in their community. Thus the myths of Papa and Wākea, Hāloa, etc, all provided not only a raison d’etre for the ali’i but also performed the role of philosophically justifying their rule over all other ‘ohana or clans–many of which were already there. Once the ali’i had a philosophical reason for all other clans to obey them (i.e. being the ones that defeated Liha’ula, being the older brothers of the Hawaiian people, etc), they then could claim all the islands as their own and begin to develop a semi-feudal aristocratic society. So these myths and genealogies provided a philosophical transition from the ‘ohana type of system (that probably existed prior to their arrival) to the new state society that the ali’i were trying to cultivate, particularly after Pa’ao–a society which was significantly different than the previous social order. 

The kapu then could be understood also provided a socio-religious tool to display its dominance over the other clans as well as re-enforcing the source clan’s mythology, providing a system to control the natural resources, a means to disburse privileges and justice, and simply a way to test the loyalty of other clans. That also would explain the why ali’i had to constantly project themselves as embodying the akua themselves particularly through temple rituals–as a way to re-enforce the sanctioned myths and upon the populace. It also would explain why the ali’i would sought to tie themselves to the main food crop, taro, in an effort perhaps similar to how other nationalities such as the Americans tie certain foods (i.e. apple pie, hot dogs) to being “American”.   It is also a technique that other royal clans had done (i.e. the Yamato clan of Japan, the Chakri of Thailand and other dynasties in Asia sought an affiliation with rice, etc)

As the ali’i institution became more stable over time, aspects of the previous clan social order, as spoken about in Tales of the Night Rainbow and in The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u continued under the new royal divine-sanctioned structure of the hereditary ali’i and in many respects still continues among certain Hawaiian families albeit in a syncretic Christian form. 

But again, this also shows that Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian politics is far from a pond of wai kū (stagnant water) as some would like to have Hawaiians believe. But Hawaiian society and culture historically, is like any other living society, underwent sometimes dramatic internal change.    

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