Kapa and Womenʻs Spaces

In Hawaiian thought, kapa in particular was the space of women. It was an art form that had a special kapu (sacredness) to women and is associated with its tutelary deity, Hina, the archetype of womanhood throughout the Pacific. When a child was born, the child would be wrapped in kapa (barkcloth). In early Hawaiian burials, the deceased would be wrapped in kapa and buried. That practice continued for makaʻāinana until the the 1850s. So a person entered the world wrapped in kapa lovingly made by women and was buried in kapa lovingly made by women. Women and the art of women therefore ushered in the transitions of life and kapa was the tangible symbol of the transitions of life.

The bark used to make kapa, the wauke or Broussonetia papyrifera, is not indigenous to Polynesia. It originates from South East Asia and was brought over to Polynesia some 3,000+ years ago by the first navigators. In Hawaiian legends, this is affirmed. One of the most well known kapa legends is in Nuʻuanu valley, there was a makaʻāinana (commoner) by the name of Maikoha. He was a good man. He had two daughters and when he passed away suddenly, his daughters were grief stricken and buried him by a stream. Hina, took pity on the daughters, Laʻahana and Lauhuiki, and from Maikohaʻs bones came the wauke tree. Lauhuiki became the tutelary patron of kapa preparation and Laʻahana became the tutelary patron of kapa beaters. While men could gather and prepare the dyes, it was women who had domain over the kapa making and the actual tools. It also should be noted that Hina gave the art not to chiefs and she placed a kapu.

In Hawaiian legends, too, there are stories of women giving birth to islands. Pāpā, the Earth Mother, is more known as Pāpāhānaumoku, Pāpā who gives birth to islands. Kapa was used to make the sails of long range voyaging canoes. Without kapa, sails couldnʻt be made and islands could not be discovered or “birthed”. When the kapa of a sail was to be replaced, the old kapa sail would distributed to families in the village who then would use it for burials–again echoing the cycle of life and symbolically linking the deceased with the “birth” of a new settlement or island.

While the male spaces were associated with order, defense and stability, the female spaces was associated with creativity, with breaking norms in order to create new traditions and norms, and with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Itʻs no co-incidence that the collapse of the Kapu System in Hawaiʻi was largely the work of two women. This is one of the reasons that ka mana wāhine (womenʻs strength) should always, always, always be included in social, economic and political movements and discussions because they give birth to generations, to islands, and to time.

Aliʻi Women Warriors

Traditionally, it was not uncommon for Hawaiian chiefly women to train and fight alongside their chiefly male counterparts (normally husbands, brothers or fathers). We often forget about these women who fought as equals with their men folk. But one such woman was Manono (II).

Manono II (died 1819) was a Hawaiian female chief and half sister to Kalanimoku and a cousin to Ka’ahumanu. Manono along with her second spouse, Keaoua Kekuaokalani, died fighting for the Hawaiian religion after Kamehameha II abolished the kapu system. Kekuaokalani, in addition to be chief priest of Kūkaʻilimoku, was perceived by many Hawaiian aliʻi to be the true heir of Kamehameha I. Manono went against her own family in order to support her traditional religion and her spouse. King Kalākaua wrote of this couple as the last “Knights of old Hawaiʻi” in his “Legends and Myths of Hawaiʻi”. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Manono II became a symbol of resistance to Westernization.

British missionary William Ellis of the London Missionary Society gives us the following account of Kekuaokalani and Manono:

“The small tumuli increased in number as we passed along, until we came to a place called Tuamoo [Kuamo’o]. Here Kekuaokalani made his last stand, rallied his flying forces, and seemed, for a moment, to turn the scale of victory; but being weak with the loss of blood, from a wound he had received in the early part of the engagement, he fainted and fell. However, he soon revived, and, though unable to stand, sat on a fragment of lava, and twice loaded and fired his musket on the advancing party. He now received a ball in his left breast, and immediately covering his face with his feather cloak, expired in the midst of his friends. His wife Manono during the whole of the day fought by his side with steady and dauntless courage. A few moments after her husband’s death, perceiving Karaimoku [Kalanimoku] and his sister [Kahakuhaʻakoi Wahinepi’o] advancing, she called out for quarter; but the words had hardly escaped from her lips, when she received a ball in her left temple, fell upon the lifeless body of her husband, and instantly expired. The idolaters having lost their chief, made but feeble resistance afterwards; yet the combat, which commenced in the forenoon, continued till near sunset, when the king’s troops, finding their enemies had all either fled or surrendered, returned to Kairua [Kailua-Kona].”

In Hawaiian accounts, Manono sees her spouse being hit with a musket and rushes to him and covers his face with his cloak. She loads his gun, shoots his rifle a couple of times, and is herself shot. Her body falls next to Kekuaokalani, holding his hand.

There is also a mele which recalls the last moments between Manono and Kekuaokalani on the eve of the Battle of Kuamoʻo:

E Manono la, ea,
E Manono la, ea
Kau ka ‘ope’ope,
Ka ulu-hala la, ea

Ka uluhe la, ea,
Ka uluhe la ea
A hiki pu’unana
Hali’i punana

No huli mai
Huli mai ‘oe la
Moe kaua
Hali’i punana

No huli mai
Huli mai ‘oe la
Moe kaua

Moe aku kaua
O ka wai welawela
O ka papa lohi
A o Maukele la.

Moe aku kaua;
O ka wai welawela,
O ka papa lohi
O maukele.

A kele, a kele
Kou mana’o la ea
A kele, a kele
Kou manao la ea

Come now, Manono,
Come Manono, I say,
Take up your bundle
Through groves of pandanus.

Amid wild stag-horn fern,
Wearisome ferns lie our way.
Arrived at the hill top
We’ll smooth out the nest

That we may snuggle close
Turn now to me dear,
While we rest here,
Make us a little nest,

That we may draw near,
Turn your face this way, dear,
While we rest here,

Rest you and I here
Near the warm, warm water
And the smooth lava plate
Of Maukele

Rest you and I here
Near the warm, warm water
And the smooth lava plate
Of Maukele

Little by little
Your thoughts will be mine,
Little by little
Your thoughts will be mine

Women Regiments, Rebel Warriors and Female "Bandits"

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Sometime ago while research the ʻĀlapa regiment of Kahekili II in the Hawaiian newspaper, Kuokoa, I came across oral traditions about moʻolelo about a group of “bandits”. They were called bandits by the ruling aliʻi and by the men of their time. They were originally formed by King Piliwale as a body guard for his daughter and air, Kūkaniloko. Kūkaniloko would become Oʻahuʻs first queen regnant. This group of women were called the Moʻo Alā–translated as black lizard–unit. They were originally boxers hand picked by Piliwale to protect his daughter from her rivals. They served under Queen Kūkaniloko and Queen Kalaimanuia, both of these female monarchs created the infrastructure that made Oʻahu prosperous. These “Moʻo Alā numbered 40, had removed their hair (even on eye brows), and painted themselves in black kukui nut paint and wore garments of shark skin (perhaps as a cape or as something else?) when in parade. Hence the name “black lizards”. These women were present in repelling the invasions of Kauaʻi and Maui to Oʻahu. During the reign of King Kahikapuamanuia, there was a fall out and they were disbanded officially from court. But they did not obey. Instead they became a guerrilla army sacking royal storage houses and giving them to the poor. They conducted psychological warfare by pretending to be ghost marchers while sacking temples that took too much from the commoners. Good priests and chiefs were rewarded with help and protection. They recruited from the commoner women and was adept in the Koʻolau mountains. Corrupt lowland chiefs were done away and the Aha ʻUla (the Ruling Council) of Oʻahu worried. Their ideology was the most dangerous to them for they desired to do away with the aliʻi system and began governing themselves that defied the stratified Hawaiian system. The aliʻi labelled them as Kanaka ʻaeʻa or outcasts. Despite launching raids into the mountains and doing all sorts of nasty things, Kahikapuamanuia failed. Then King Kākuhihewa ascended the Throne. Kākuhihewa was much more brainy than his father. Instead of combating these women, he brought them into his government and into his army. He began to appointment more konohiki (low ranking laiʻi and commoners) to positions of importance. One of the commanders became a kahu to his children. In time, the wāhine of the Black Lizards became part of Kākuhihewaʻs court in Waikīkī. But the fierceness and fighting techniques of these women would inspire later elite Hawaiian armies including the ʻĀlapa regiment.

Recognizing Hawaiian Women in Hawaiian History

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In reflecting on the way that many local women are dismissed in Hawaiian history and culture discussions by outsiders and even at times by our own men in the Hawaiian community, maybe this is be a wake up call in understanding and revisiting the way women are thought of in history in general but in Hawaiian history specifically. 

Many people know the attached painting. Itʻs the “Battle at Nuʻuanu Pali” by Herb Kane. Kane was a native Hawaiian artist and historian of extraordinary ability. Most people see this painting and look at the men hanging off the cliff. But in this Kane painting, there are women. There are women warriors fighting on both sides. Thatʻs historically accurate because we know that Kaʻahumanu for example fought in that battle. We know that Hawaiian women could be warriors. They could be soldiers. Under Kamehameha I, women were included in his regiments as well as war councils. They were female “generals”. But that was not unusual nor uncommon. Chiefly women for centuries fought along their fathers, brothers, husbands (yes husbands), and their kings. These pūʻalihine or women warriors were given the same rigorous combat courses and sweat just as hard as the men besides them. They not only gave the lāhui (nation) the ultimate gift of children but the ultimate sacrifice of their own.

The women have been in this painting since Kane painted it but many havenʻt really noticed that they are there. Thatʻs the same way we view too much of our history. Due to our internalized colonialism, many again just see the men. Thatʻs the way in general history by Europeans and Americans has been written. The focus has been on the men, their heroism, and their actions that shaped the course of their history. But Hawaiian history is different. Hawaiian culture was different. we need to look at things differently and can not allow a haole or colonial view of our history and our culture to define not only our Hawaiian women but to dismiss them, their contributions and their viewpoints from the history of our lāhui. O ka lāhui i ke kamaliʻi nui o nā wahine. The nation is the greatest child of women.

Hawaiian Fisher Women and Divers

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In ancient Hawai’i, the Hawaiian men usually were the ones that hunted, planted, harvested, cooked and fished. There were, however, roles in each of the above too for women. For example, when it was time to plant, women were present and handed over the seed or taro corn to men. The belief was that things grew better when there the presence of both males and females and is linked to mo’olelo about Kū and Hina as well as Papa and Wākea. This was also symbolic of the way Hawaiians reared children–women giving birth and men caring for the child. When it was time to harvest, women helped with the peeling or cleaning–again this is linked to Kū and Hina and to burial rituals of the makaʻāinana. The last face a person saw before passing was usually their mother, their wāhine (spouse) or some other beloved female figure.

Between those times women often would wait, weave their lau hala or feather works, or sing on the side of the taro paddy or agricultural development. This continued well into the 19th century. The famed “taro patch” slack key tuning style is said to have been developed by women in the early 19th century entertaining their kāne in the taro patch with their guitars. Women by the way learned the play the guitar from paniolo or cowboys but developed their own tuning and styles.

With fishing, men normally did most of the fishing. In smaller communities, women also fished. One area, however, that was almost exclusive to females was diving. The thought was that a woman who had children was a better diver than men because they had developed a stronger set of lungs. Men also could dive, but women were thought to be better. Some of the things that women would dive for was pearl clams, mussels, and certain sea urchins. Pearls were sought after luxury items particularly black pearls. But clams, mussels and sea urchins were considered to be fatty foods. Fatty foods were usually given to pregnant women in the belief that it made child birthing easier. So in other words, women helped out other pregnant women in diving for clams and mussels. Clams and mussels were also sought after by the aliʻi particularly if they were pregnant or wanted to be more virile (especially true of the men).

(Photo: Hawaiian fisher woman from the 1890s)

Menstruation through the Lens of Hawaiian Culture

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One of the negative impacts that Westernization and colonialism brought to Hawaiʻi was the way we understand women in Hawaiian culture. Take for example a womanʻs menses. There are several terms for a womanʻs menstruation. Hanawai, kahe, maʻi (wahine), heʻe koko, wai, wai ʻula, wai o ka wahine, waimaka lehua. We tend to think of maʻi as meaning solely diseased or sick but it also referred in general to the genitals of either male or female (i.e. hula ma’i). In the writings of David Malo, he uses maʻi (despite the other terms) and that is translated as unclean or sickly. Due to this translation and other Calvinist views on Hawaiian culture in our educational system, generations of women have been taught that they are to be ashamed of their bodies and of their gender. Most Hawaiians today actually use the term ma’i or ma’i wahine to mean menstruation. Malo and other noted Hawaiian writers of the 19th century should be taught within the context of their own biasnesses because to do so has lead to notions that ancient Hawaiians had some sort of patriarchal system and women in general were viewed unclean, dirty, flawed and diseased–all of which is wrong. The term kahe for example means menstruation as well as male circumcision/supercision (yes Hawaiians practiced that before Christianity). Nothing negative there. Hanawai means to irrigate or to flow as a river or ‘auwai as well as menstruation. Nothing negative there either.The other terms such as waimaka lehua, heʻe koko, etc all carry powerful positive connotations. Out of all the many other terms to use, the term ma’i with it’s connotations to diseases was used to refer to the menstruation cycle and many Hawaiians today know only that term–which is very unfortunate for the self-confidence of Hawaiian women who should be celebrated not admonished.

But Hawaiians did not have a negative or embarrassed view of a woman’s menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle of women was a process that helped to ensure the coming of the next generation. Hawaiians thought it cleaned out the blood and helped to clean out the naʻau (conscience) of pilikia (problems). I know that when a woman had her first menstruation, she was taken to the Hale Pe’a (the Menstrual House) with her female relatives and they celebrated it because it meant that her body was preparing to become one with Papahānaumoku (linking her to the Earth Mother who births lands) and Hina (linking her to the Moon Goddess and the Eternal Woman). She was unclean in the sense that males were not allowed to touch a woman undergoing her menstruation and all her normal chores and duties would be suspended except for lau hala weaving and kapa making. Special sweet and fatty foods would be brought to her to ease discomfort, though in cases of severe pain or blotting, noni juice would be used. Softened lau hala mats and pillows on a raised bed made of rocks and wood was usually also found in a Hale Peʻa in order to make it easier for her to stand up or sit down. This was a time of reflection and being able to have a break from the issues of the community.

In larger settlements, the Hale Peʻa were also normally located near a womanʻs temple and a special pond or stream was dedicated to women undergoing their hanawai. The Hale Peʻa was also where aliʻi and makaʻāinana women could mingle freely without social distinction. In smaller communities, the Hale Peʻa would be located somewhere in the Western most side of the family housing complex–the Western direction signaled the realm of the ancestors.

The recent activity with Pele reminded me of this. The ways I know is that we were taught that the lava flows were like hanawai (menstrual) cycle of Pele because like a womanʻs menstrual cycle, it prepared for the birth of new life and it was cyclical. The thought was that there would be one major eruption every generation and just as a womanʻs hanawai cleaned out the blood to prepare for the next generation, Pele cleaned out the ʻāina. So in that a womanʻs menstrual cycle can be seen as powerful as Peleʻs eruptions and vice versa.

Menopause In Hawaiian Culture

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I’ll just give some mana’o on menopause from a Hawaiian perspective based on talking story with kūpuna in Papakolea and Hawaiʻi island as well as from research primarily from Mary Kawena Pukui. 

In Hawaiian, menopause is referred to by three terms: Hoʻokiʻo; lele; and mau. Kiʻo refers to a small pool used to stock fish. Hoʻokiʻo therefore would mean something like to become a stockpile of fish. Lele is commonly used to mean to fly or disembark but in this case means to cease the menses. Mau is commonly used to mean to continue and in this case refers to the menstrual cycle being stopped. None of them negative. In fact, those three terms are also used in aspects of childbirth and fishing.

Hoʻokiʻo, though, is the most common term. Fishing is often a metaphor in Hawaiian mythology for discovering new islands. Māui, for example, fished out the islands. Fish itself could and would be used as a substitute for blood offerings in the old Hawaiian religion.

From the kūpuna that Iʻve talked with, it seems that that is the general idea of what menopause was for women. It was a transition for women to discover aspects of their personality without the obligations of child rearing and to enhance their skills and knowledge to pass it on to their moʻopuna (grandchildren), nieces, nephews, and the community at large. It was also a time when women were to be guided because the thought too was that it was during menopause that a woman would have an awakening in her spiritual gifts–gifts that she would use when she would rejoin her ancestors in Pō and become an ʻaumākua (guardian spirit) to her family. For some women, this also meant that the ties between them and Haumea (the childbirth patroness) and Hina (in her role as helping the hanawai or menses) were given over to a specific Hina-hanaia-i-ka-mālama (Hina who worked the moon), an aspect of Hina (the moon goddess and Eternal Female) associated with the ebbing moon and the deep seas. Hina-hanaia-i-ka-mālama should not be confused with Hina-hānai a-ka-mālama (Hina who nourished the moon). Hina-hanaia-i-ka-mālama is a very specific sea goddess who guards the deep oceans and who also helps to take spirits from the leaping places to Pō to meet the ancestors. She is invoked also in the final rites as a ply to a mother to take the soul to the Realm where the ancestors wait. The fact that menopause seems to be tied with both fishing and this particular deep sea goddess suggests that Hawaiians saw menopause not as the end of life or the drying up of a person but a soul transitioning to becoming her own person and becoming someone to be invoked from beyond.

Pele and ʻAi Lāʻau

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There seems to be much misunderstanding about Pele, her family, and her legends. I have read in a post from a malihini (who obviously hasn’t read much on the Pele lore) crediting the forest eater god, ‘Ai Lā’au, as being the one “eating” Leilani Estates. The undertone of that of course is based on Western sexism–that men only have the power to destroy. 

ʻAi Lāʻau was an ancient Native Hawaiian akua whose home was Kilauea. As the name implies, he lived off of burning forests. When Pele arrived on the island of Hawaiʻi, ʻAi Lāʻau knew his power to be weaker than hers and eventually fled. Sometimes ʻAi Lāʻau was invoked when clearing forests to make way for loʻi or taro terraces but he largely disappears from Hawaiian mythology. The general theme in many Hawaiian myths is quite the opposite of what that malihini commentator stated. One of Pele’s titles literally meant earth eater so Native Hawaiians did recognize that aspect of her and her ability to destroy and create lands–on her own. Several Hawaiian stories speak of her burning lehua grooves and forests as punishment for misdeeds and slights in fact.

In addition, Pele, as well as other Hawaiian female deities like Papa and Hina, are normally always stronger than their male counterparts–and in fact their male counterparts often weakens them with their fickle emotions. This would make sense to someone who understands the Hawaiian language and deep culture. Men had to build heiau and conduct rituals to invoke the mana of the ancestors that women already naturally possessed. Thatʻs why thereʻs fewer female temples–women did not need the rituals.  In stories such as Pele, we find the creative and destructive side of nature and when I mean nature I mean nature as in the environment but also in human nature as Kanaka Maoli once (and still do) view it. This thought of crediting a long forgotten male akua over a female akua– that many still believe in–is simply iʻa palahō (rotten fish) compared to the rich, nuanced and powerful roles Hawaiian women played in Hawaiian mythology and in Hawaiian society (then and now).

The Role of Hawaiian Women

One of the side affects of colonialism in most areas in the Pacific had been the introduction of a rigid system of gender roles.  In my own understanding of traditional cultures through Oceania, most indigenous peoples acknowledged not two genders but three. The Bugis in Sulawesi in Indonesia for example have five genders. In other places in Polynesia such as Tahiti, Māhū (homosexual and/or hermaphrodite) were thought of as being a third gender and as a normal part of natural diversity. Different Native American nations (I won’t call them tribes) also have the concept of people with “two spirits”.  This is mainly because traditional and indigenous cultures saw gender not as being simply physiological, but being spiritual, emotional, and natural in the sense that it is observed in nature. Often, these same cultures also place women in deep and meaningful roles either as priestesses or a keeper of traditions and oral history.  
In old Hawai’i, women enjoyed certain prerogatives that even until today is not comparable. Women were allowed to have multiple husbands. Ka’ahumanu had at least five husbands besides Kamehameha the Great. Kamehameha the Great had to moe kapu (kowtow) to Keopuolani, his highest rank wife.  Men cooked and farmed while women produced art work particularly of lauhala (pandanus) and feather works which were used as an inheritance, a high value trade item, an offering and/or as part of taxes (yes they had taxes back then). The upbringing of children was not the sole responsibility of women but was shared often with the kūpuna as grandparents had rights too. Women had their own priesthoods and temples. Inheritance of titles and rank itself was often decided through matriarchal line as French ambassador to the Hawaiian Kingdom Marie Gabriel Dosseront d’Anglade noted in his memoirs A Tree in Bud.  While David Malo would write repeatedly that women were “unclean” in his Hawaiian Antiquities, women and māhū were renowned for being kāula (prophets) and haka (oracles). These haka were attached to mo’o or kihā deities. While ordinarily women were not allowed into luakini class heiau, these haka were escorted by special divination priests (kahuna pu’uone not to be confused with kahuna kāula who could be male, women, or  māhū and served a different function) to the hale puʻuone to advise the male chiefs during a particular day of the month.  Women acting as oracles is of course not unique. Ancient Philippines had babaylans that did similar functions.  The Dalai Lama of Tibet still consults with the Nechung State Oracle who uses male and female oracles who act as kuten or mediums. 
As it was explained to me by 
It is therefore not coincidental that the entire kapu system of the old Hawaiian religion–the social and religious legal system that lasted for over three hundred years–was overturned by a two women, Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani. If women of old Hawai’i had not been at least equal to that of their male counterparts or did not have an acknowledged and recognized spiritual role in Hawaiian society, Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani could not have overturned the kapu
With the introduction of Christianity in 1820, the worldview of Hawaiians was made to conform to that of the New Englanders. During the early years, missionaries needed the patronage of the Hawaiian nobility (ali’i) who at that time was being led by Ka’ahumanu, a woman, so the brunt of the changes was at first born by Hawaiian commoners by the slow introduction of Christian-based laws and Western norms through the public school system.  Dr. Jon Kamakawiwo’ole Osorio’s Dismembering Lāhui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887 and Sally Engle Merry’s The Cultural Power of Law eloquently testify to that.  With the recognition of Hawaiian independence in 1843, it also signaled the shift of the Hawaiian ali’i to become more like Americans and Europeans. In a way, the recognition of Hawaiian independence was a triumph of diplomacy but it also marked the beginning of intense self-colonization and from that point on, the missionaries became an power within the kingdom. While in the very early years of his reign, King Kamehameha III, still attended state functions dressed in a malo, after 1843, Kamehameha III began to increasingly appear in Prussian and French military uniforms.  Hawaiian ali’i women began to wear English corsets, to curl their hair in the latest American fashion. They were taught in schools how to cook, how to be an obedient housewife, and how to rear children in the manner expected of them. Male primogeniture in property rights, in inheritance, and in the line of succession to the throne replaced the old system.  In the churches, only males were allowed to become seminarians, pastors, priests, and bishops. Slowly, patriarchy was seen as normal civilized behavior and .   
 the roles  of males, far more than females, have lost much  of their 
value since Western contact (Cook & Tarallo-Jensen, 2006; Howard, 1971, 1974). It 
is generally assumed that Hawaiian matriarchs keep traditional Hawaiian culture 
alive both at home (Ito, 1999) and in the social and political realms (Linnekin, 1990; 
Trask,  1993). This  general trend may  be related to  evolutionary  explanations  of 
parental behavior (i.e., reproductive roles) of why mothers tend to invest more in 
their child’s upbringing than fathers (Blum, 1997) and that kinship systems favor 
the maternal side (Rossi & Rossi, 1990).