Part 3: The Hawaiian Class System

Part 3: The Hawaiian Class System
From ‘Ohana to Mokupuni

In the previous post, I went into how early Hawaiian society was primarily composed of clans headed by experts and respected elders and which slowly developed a governing class, mostly as a result of later migrations. These later source clans eventually developed themselves into a hereditary aristocracy known as the ali’i.  In Irvin Goldman’s Ancient Polynesian Society, he makes the point that Polynesian societies were originally “open chiefdoms” meaning clans where the governing class were fluid (sometimes elected). Open chiefdoms then developed into “traditional chiefdoms” as in the case of Tahiti at the time of Kahiko and the Maori in Aotearoa (New Zealand). From traditional chiefdoms, some Polynesian societies developed into “stratified chiefdoms” meaning that there was a distinct class system and a hereditary elite. This was the case in Samoa, Tonga, and in Hawai’i. Mary Kawena Puku’i had argued in The Polynesian Family system in Ka’u that Hawaiian society bore a resemblance to Samoa, but the system was less stable because of the way land tenureship was. 

I actually argue that Hawaiian society developed in such a way that if you threw 15th century Hawai’i somewhere in 11th century Malaysia or Indonesia or 14th century Philippines and Thailand, the systems would fit right in. This is basically because in both the case of Hawai’i and many of the Thai, Malay and Indonesian states, “open chiefdoms” went directly into “stratified chiefdoms” or kingdoms and as a result, there wasn’t the type of feudal relationship that Europeans or for that matter the way Samoan aiga (family units) and certain matai had with the land. Even later innovations such as the office of the kuhina nui paralleled similar offices in SE Asia such as the Krom Phrarajawang Bavorn Sathan Mongkol of Thailand, the Mahapatih of Jawa (Java), etc and had no equivalent in Polynesia. In terms of basic structures, both the Hawaiian and the Malay case, clans maintained a strong voice within the governing system which is why again in both cases, the commoner class could simply pack up and leave. The lower ranking ali’i (or datuks or rajas in the case of the Malay states) could change their allegiance at will and in both situations, at the death of a high ranking ali’i or noble, the land divisions came up for review and re-division. This was something totally alien in the Samoan and Tongan system where land was fixed to clans and the matai. In fact, it still is that way. In the Malay case, it was not until an introduced religion, Islam, that land in general became a fixed individual property subject to hereditary Islamic rules. The only exception in the Malay and Indonesia cases are where the matriarchal kingdoms where land was indeed fixed but to female heirs. In Hawai’i, it was not until the introduction of Christianity that land became view as hereditary individual property. 

So how did Hawai’i move from “open chiefdoms” (or what I prefer to call the ‘ohana system) to a “stratified chiefdom” (what I dub the mokupuni system) without going through a period of “traditional chiefdom” as in other Polynesian societies?  Hawaiian accounts are almost universal in declaring that this was due to the arrival of a man named Pa’ao.

In Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Beckwith, she recounts the two versions of the Pa’ao legends as follows:

Tradition ascribes to Paao the introduction of human sacrifice into the temple ritual, the walled heiau, and the red-feather girdle as a sign of rank; all typical, says Handy, of late Tahitian culture and not found in Samoa. Other institutions ascribed to him are the pulo‘ulo‘u tapu sign, the prostrating tapu (tapu moe or -o), and the feather god Kaili; some would call Paao rather than La‘a-mai-kahiki the introducer of image worship. Most of these things characterize the Ra‘iatea ritual. That Paao took his ideas from Tahiti is further indicated by reference to “Vavau” and “Upolo” as places where he owned land, probably old districts so named in northern Tahiti in the Aha-roa division of that island, and the name Aha-ula (later called Waha-ula) for the first heiau erected by his party on Hawaii suggests such a connection. Paao is said to have brought the puhala (pandanus) to Kohala. He brought soil from the hills and planted trees about the heiau, still standing, of Wahaula, some of which seem to have survived to Fornander’s day. Stones near the heiau of Mo‘okini are pointed out today as “Paao’s canoe,” his “paddles” and “fishhook,” and the fields he cultivated are called “the weeds of Paao” (na maau o Paao) and left untouched for fear of storm. To him are ascribed those severities of religious observance which built up the power of chief and priest during this later period of migration from the south. The land was revolutionized and all the old kahunas were put to death during Paao’s time, says Kepelino.

(a) Emerson version. The priest Paao and his older brother Lono-pele have a bitter quarrel. Lono-pele accuses Paao’s son of stealing tapu food and Paao insists on cutting open his son’s stomach to prove the accusation false. He broods over his son’s death and builds a double canoe to leave for other lands. Lono-pele’s son drums upon the canoes with his fingers while they are under tapu and Paao has him slain for a sacrifice for the canoes and buried beneath them, where the buzzing of flies reveals to the father the child’s dead body.
Paao acts as priest for the voyage, Makaalawa as navigator and astronomer, Halau as sailing master, Pu-oleole as trumpeter; and there are forty paddlers, besides stewards and awa chewers. Na-mauu-o-Malawa (The grasses of Malawa), sister of Paao, accompanies the party. Kanaloa-nui the canoe is called (Or Ka-nalo-a-muia, The buzzing of flies). They pass under the Kaakoheo bluff and the prophet Makuakaumana asks to be taken aboard. Paao says all the places are full except the projection of the stern. Makuakaumana leaps and gains this position (but this incident probably belongs to the return trip to Tahiti).
Lono-pele sends as storm winds Kona-ku, Kona-nui-a-niho, Moae, Kona-heapuku, Kiki-ao, Lele-ula, Lele-kuilua, followed by a north wind, Ho‘olua, and a monster bird, the Iwa, called Ke-kaha-ka-iwa-i-na-pali. Paao invokes Lono and first a school of aku fish, then one of opelu come to quiet the waves. These fish have ever since been sacred to the Paao family.
Paao lands first in Puna on Hawaii, where he builds the heiau at Pulama [now called Waha-ula (Red mouth) but formerly Aha-ula]. He goes on to Kohala and erects the famous heiau of Mo‘okini at Pu‘uepa, the stones for which are passed from hand to hand a distance of nine miles from the seacoast.
(b) Kamakau version. Upon Paao’s prayer to the god of ocean (Kanaka-o-kai, says Green), the aku and opelu fish “leaped up and skipped in the waters and quieted the waves.” At the time of the prophet’s leap, several other “gods” attempted the feat and were dashed to death. His success is heralded in a chant:”You are like the flying fishSkimming easily through the sky,Traversing the dark waters of ocean,O Halulu at the foundation house of heaven,Kane, Makua-kau-mana,The prophet who made the circuit of the island,Who circled the pillars of Kahiki.”(Paao brings with him several mo‘o kupua from Kahiki, all worshiped as sacred stones on Oahu today. These are Makapu‘u, Ihiihi-lau-akea, and Malei. Makua-kau-mana returns to Kahiki but Paao remains on Hawaii and his bones rest in the cave of Pu‘uwepa in Kohala. An early school composition makes Paao brother to Pele.) (p370-373)

Tales of the Night Rainbow by Koko Willis and Pali Jae Lee gives the following account

Around 1250 A.D., a priest named Pa’ao came on a visit from Tahiti. 

We knew Tahitians for there were many Tahitians who had come here to live. Any family who wished to come and live on these shores was welcomed and they were helped to establish themselves. They usually adapted to our way of life quickly and there was harmony among the families. All these people were considered to be Hawaiian. Where they came from was of no importance. The heart (kana’au) [my note. ka na’au actually means gut or liver not heart which makes perfect sense for Native speakers since the na’au was believed to be the seat of consciousness, emotions and culture not the heart but makes no since to an English speaker] was what we saw and heard. Pa’ao was noticed for many reasons. He came wearing white. The color was not used by us for it represented the absence of life. The men who came with him wore the Tahitian red malo (clothing) with which we were familiar. Pa’ao visited every island asking questions, always asking questions. People wanted to be helpful and so told him of harbors and tides, fertile valleys and all the things he asked about. No one thought much about it he’d ask questions, the people tried to answer. Then suddenly he was gone. The people questioned each other about him. He made many feel an unease that they were not used to. They called him the man who wore death, because of his undyed kapa. Several years later, we learned that Pa’ao did indeed wear death for he returned bringing devastation to our land. 

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 that killed, took and plundered. (21-23)

According Legends and Myths of Hawai’i by King Kalākaua:

When the high-priest Paao arrived with Pili he introduced some new gods while recognizing the old, strengthened and enlarged the scope of the tabu, and established an hereditary priesthood independent of, and second only in authority to, the supreme political head. Different grades of priests also came into existence, such as seer, prophets, astrologers and kahuna of various function,including the power of healing and destroying. In fact, the priesthood embraced ten distinct grades or colleges, each possessing and exercising powers peculiar to it, and mastery of all of them was one of the qualifications of the high priesthood. The tutelar deity of the entire body was Uli. The form of the heiau, or temple, was changed by Paao and his successors, and the masses mingled less freely in the ceremonies of sacrifice and other forms of worship. The high priesthood became more mysterious and exclusive, and assumed prerogatives above the reach of royalty. (p38)

Kalākaua also describes in his book that Pili would try to conquer the entire archipelago but would fail at Kaua’i where he was taken ransom. But the new social order brought by Pa’ao would last for the next five hundred years–with serious innovations.  

The arrival of Pa’ao and the attempted unification of Hawai’i under Pili  in the 13th century fits into what was also occurring elsewhere in the Pacific. Samoa and Tonga began to move to a stratified feudal society and took turns conquering each other and sometimes their neighbors like Fiji and Tuvalu as well. Samoa also began to build cities such as in Mu’a. In the Western Pacific, Islam began making headway and the traditional Hindu and animist rulers began fleeing to Bali, the Maluku, Flores, southern Philippines and possibly as into the middle of the Pacific itself including Papua-New Guinea.  In Micronesia,stratified chiefdoms were formed and construction of the building of floating cities such as Nan Mandol begun. The Rapa Nui, Rarotonga, the Austral Islands, Huahine, Borabora and Tahiti also began a period of redefining its traditional social structure and religious megalithic building. Much as the Warring States Period of China produced some of the great thinkers of Chinese history such as Kung Tzu (Confucius), Laozi, and others, this dramatic period of social change in the Pacific also saw the birth of social innovations and thinkers. Its believed that at this time the Arioi movement began in Tahiti under the prophet-deity Oro, the Bird-Man cult of Rapa Nui, the Uritoi society began in Guam, the Kaioi society of the Marquesas. The common major social changes that occurred from one end of the Pacific to the other end, from Jawa (Java) to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) at roughly the same century, however, was the strengthening of a class system and the birth or arrival of new religious and mystical movements–most of which were started by “prophets”, “saints”, and “visionaries”. The new religious movements may have been a reaction to the strengthening of class prerogatives of the ruling class as well as dealing with an increase in the population due to a high birth rate at the time as well with another wave or exploration and migration throughout the Pacific. As such Pa’ao may have been part of a reactionary authoritarian movement against these religious ideas and introduced these reforms into Hawai’i. 

One has to also take into account that the two hundred years prior to Pa’ao, Hawaiians were increasingly aware of the outside world. Those were the times of Kupe, Hema, Hawai’iloa, Mo’ikeha, and many others. So Hawai’i was connected to not only Polynesia but in other places in the Pacific.  But just as Willis and Lee mentioned, new settlers into Hawai’i tended to blend into the local culture. The awareness of different races (as the Kumulipo and other chants mentions) and the openness to outside ideas is probably why Hawaiians did not develop xenophobia that would have prevented Pa’ao and Pili from setting foot in Hawai’i.  

We also know from archaeological remains that the Hawaiian population was growing rapidly beginning in the 13th century. This probably led to some areas having tight competition for resources. This also allowed for a large potential labor pool. Hawaiians began to build fish ponds, ‘auwai systems, and probably still practiced some kind of ‘ohana clan leadership type of system mentioned by Puku’i and Lee. However, there was no type of central leadership. Pa’ao’s reforms allowed for a central hereditary leadership to push for wider projects and the enforced caste-like system (with the variations of kahuna orders and emphasis on ali’i blue blood) essentially gave jobs to the labor pool which made them less restless and co-opted them to supporting the new order. His reforms also probably drove the fear of God into the indigenous population as he also introduced human sacrifice and a new series of kapu including puhi ahi kanaka or the burning heretics and criminals. I always imagined Pa’ao to be sort of a Polynesian Torquemada like in those Monty Python skits “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”. For those who are reading this and saying “Wait, I didn’t know Hawaiians burned heretics”. Yes, they did. While many Polynesian groups ate their captives, criminals, and those who spoke against the chief or the Gods, Hawaiians did not practice cannibalism. But they did practice ritual burning, ritual drownings, and other things that one probably wouldn’t read in Ka Wai ‘Ola o OHA anytime soon. But all of those mentioned death rituals were all said to have been introduced by Pa’ao. Almost every Hawaiian source points their finger at Pa’ao. Pa’ao, as noted by Kalākaua also introduced megalithic temple building and new forms of ki’i. Archaeologically speaking, this can be varied not only by the remains of the various heiau which double or tripled in size after the 14th century but by the Mokumanana site which dates prior to the 16th century.

two reconstructions of a luakini

Mokumanamana ki’i
temple images
Temple of Kamehameha I in the Kona District at Kamakahonu. Courtesy, Hawaii State Archives, Honolulu.

Tournament during the Makahiki

A couple of centuries after Pa’ao, the deity Lono arrives. According to Martha Beckwith in Hawaiian Mythology:

The Lono order of priests in the days of Kamehameha set up heiaus to pray for rain, abundant crops, or escape from sickness and trouble. A prayer to Lono, recorded in the Fornander collection under Thrum, shows how, after the coming of Kane and Kanaloa and the establishment of the ancestral line through Kumuhonua and Lalohonua and its spread over the island through Wakea and Papa, from whom were born the chiefs, there came Lono also from the ancestral birth-place, to whom were offered the redfish, the black coconut, the whitefish, and the growing awa; to Kane and Kanaloa were made sacred the red fowl, the pig, and awa: ‘Ku, Kane, and Kanaloa are supreme in Kahiki.’ The coming of Lono is heralded by cloud signs in the heavens and finally:

Lono and Keakea-lani,Living together, fructifying the earth,Observing the tapu of women,Clouds bow down over the sea,The earthquake soundsWithin the earth,Tumbling down thereBelow Malama.

Beckwith says that:

According to Kupihea the great gods came at different times to Hawaii. Ku and Hina, male and female, were the earliest gods of his people. Kane and Kanaloa came to Hawaii about the time of Maui. Lono seems to have come last and his role to have been principally confined to the celebration of games. At one time he was driven out, according to Kupihea, but he returned later. Kane, although still thought of as the great god of the Hawaiian people, is no longer worshiped, but Ku and Hina are still prayed to by fishermen, and perhaps Kanaloa–Kupihea repeating to me softly the prayer with which he himself invoked the god of fishes.
Of the coming of the gods he had explicit evidence to offer: “Ku and Hina were the first gods of our people. They were the gods who ruled the ancient people before Kane. On [the island of] Lanai was the gods’ landing, at the place called Ku-moku. That is the tradition of our people. Kane and Kanaloa [arrived there], but not Lono. Some claim that Lono came to Maui. It is said that at the time Kamehameha quartered his men at Kaunakakai on Molokai before the invasion of Oahu, he went to Lanai to celebrate the Makahiki [New Year] festival and on that occasion he said, ‘We come to commemorate the spot where our ancestors first set foot on Hawaiian soil.’ So it seems as if it must be true that the first gods who ruled our people came to Lanai.” (p11)

So Pa’ao most likely brought with him various clan legends about Kāne, Kanaloa, Wākea, Papa and a modified version of Kū in order to underpin not just the authority of the ali’i but to re-enforce that Hawai’i was as a  Mo’ikeha chant puts it:

Eia Hawai‘i, he motu, he tanata
He kanaka Hawai‘i, e –He kanaka Hawai‘i
He tama na Tahiti
He pua ali‘i mai Tapa‘ahu
Mai Moa‘ulanuiakea Kanaloa
He mo‘opuna na Kahiko, laua o Kapulanakehau
Na Papa i hanau…..

A child of Kahiki or Tahiti. An offspring.  When an island group is called a child of another island group, it denotes that group was in tributary or inferior relationship in ali’i-speak. During the Tongan-Samoan wars, the Tu’i Tonga, the Tongan rulers, would sometimes refer to Samoa as a child of Tonga. Samoan rulers would sometimes refer to Tonga as their child. This was done even in the 19th century when Enele Ma’afu of Tonga conquered parts of Fiji and described his realm as being a child of Tonga. If rulers wanted to express that their realms were equals, they would use the term for siblings or friends.

With the coming of Lono (whether he was an akua or some kind of prophet from a religious movement in the South like the Arioi as some speculate, we do not know), the tired population welcomed yet another innovation into the religious system and the Makahiki Festival was introduced which allowed the population some degree of relief from the restrictions placed by Pa’ao– similar to how a Mardi Gras where one can freely poke fun of norms and social conventions. The Makahiki Festival also allowed an avenue where people could channel their frustrations through sports–something similar to the Greeks and their Olympics and Americans and their Superbowl. Without the Makahiki innovation, Hawai’i probably would have seen more revolts. The ali’i were most likely also happy because the kapu system also restricted their interactions with each other and allowed them a time to rest before preparing for war in the next season.
The Makahiki Festival in Waimanalo
Furthermore, as an additional release valve, the reason that land tenureship was made flexible could have also been as a way to co-opt various ‘ohana and Kūlanakauhale (villages). By the time Pa’ao had arrived, larger extended families probably lived in Kūlanakauhale and met in hālau loa. The original meaning of hālau was not just school or a canoe shed, but it was a neutral area within a large settlement where several ‘ohana could meet and deal with common issues. These types of meetings in the hālau were originally led by experts (kahuna) considered to be neutral but in later times, by a konohiki appointed by the ali’i nui (high chief). If the land tenureship could change with the death of a new high chief, it meant that the appointments would also die with him. Therefore, an aspiring commoner could in theory gain an appointment as a konohiki therefore basically become a mini-ali’i in the kūlanakauhale.  In addition, by not having fixed land tenureship, it gave the ali’i nui a free hand in disbursing favored lands to his supporters– that is to say his favored ali’i and clans alike.  Those who did not support the ali’i nui were free to leave. This also favored ambitious ‘ohana who by supporting a winning ali’i nui, could displace a rival ‘ohana off their lands. This also favored a patron-client type of relationship that continues until this day.    

With the new combination of a stable hereditary aristocracy caste-like structure (introduced by Pa’ao), unfixed land tenureship, the sanctioning of a separate kahuna class (also introduced by Pa’ao and this new institution would in turn be obligated to support the state-sponsored clan founder mythology), and a valve to release social pressure (through the Makahiki), this created the Hawaiian mokupuni structure that reached its zenith under Umi-a-Liloa and was carried over until the 18th century.  

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