Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Traditional Hawaiian Life

Aloha and Welcome to this installment in the LEGENDARY SURFERS series on Traditional Hawaiian Life.

Early Twentieth Century surf great Tom Blake felt the article in the Hawaiian Annuals of 1896, translated by Nakuina, to be “the finest contribution on old surfriding in existence.”76

The “native from Kona,” whom Nakuina translated, not only described surfing during his time, but also told of competition and betting being integral to Hawaiian surf culture:

“Surfriding was one of the favorite sports, in which chiefs, men, women and youths took a lively interest. Much valuable time was spent by them in this practice throughout the day. Necessary work for the maintenance of the family, such as farming, fishing, mat and tapa making, and such other household duties required of them and needing attention, by either head of the family, was often neglected for the prosecution of the sport. Betting was made an accompaniment thereof, both by the chiefs and the common people, as was done in all other games, such as wrestling, foot-racing, holua, and several other games known only to the old Hawaiians. Canoes, nets, fishing lines, kapas, swine, poultry and all other property was staked, and in some instances, life itself was put as a wager. The property changing hands and personal liberty or even life itself sacrificed according to the outcome of the match, the winners carrying off their riches, and the losers and their families passing to a life of poverty or servitude.”77

The ali‘i took great pride in the skill, grace, speed, and courage involved in surfriding. They often performed in public, sometimes to court a visiting queen from another island, sometimes as part of a gathering of island chieftains. Most often, however, gambling was a part of a contest or competition. Indeed, gambling and competition were major elements in the pursuit of surfing. The fact that betting accompanied nearly every contest was no doubt an important incentive for the popularity of the sport.

“Before a surfing contest in which chiefs were competing, a dog might be buried in an underground oven and baked, so that the contestants could periodically replenish their strength during the match. If the contest was one of pride, the chiefs would gird themselves in tapa loincloths dyed red. When preliminaries were over and all the bets were in, the competing surfers paddled out to a predetermined position to wait for a swell to come through. As soon as a large wave rose up behind them they paddled, caught it together and rode until they reached a pua (buoy) anchored inshore. The first man to the buoy won the heat. Probably several such rides determined the winner of the contest.”78

The American Anthropologist of 1889 documents a variance to this kind of contest featuring surfriders starting from shore. “The riders sometimes also raced to the kulano, or starting place. Standing on the boards as they shot in was by no means uncommon. Men and women both took part in this delightful pastime, which is now almost a lost art... Racing in the surf is called hie-eie-nalu, ‘hie-eie’ meaning to race and ‘nalu’ meaning to surf. Two champions will swim out to sea on boards, and the first on arriving on shore wins.”79

There were other kinds of ocean competitions, also, involving canoes and sleds. Noted anthopologist Kenneth Emory documented that, “The wave sought in surfing by board or canoe was one that welled up high and smooth, and did not break quickly or all at once. That sort of a wave was called an ohu, or opuu, whereas the long wave breaking all at once was called Kakala.”80

One kind of match pitted a chief’s surfboard against another chief and his land-locked holua sled. At Keauhou, on the western side of the Big Island, one can still see the stone holua slide stretching several hundred yards down the mountain slope to the shore at He‘eia Bay. A grass house once sat at the bottom of the slide and beyond the house, out to sea, was the noted surfbreak of Keauhoua. When the largest wave of a swell’s set was spotted heading toward shore and the center of the surfing area, an assistant would wave a tapa flag from his position at the grass house. A young chief at the top of the slide would then run a few powerful steps, throw himself and his narrow sled belly-down on the slide, and plummet seaward. At the same time, out at sea, a surfer would catch the wave that had triggered the signal and race the sled to shore. The first to reach the grass hut was the winner.81

“Wagering on such matches,” noted Finney and Houston, “by contestants as well as spectators, was a favorite and often fanatic pastime that occasionally overshadowed the sport itself.”82

In Hawaiian Antiquities, published by the Bishop Museum in 1951, Nineteeth Century Hawaiian scholar David Malo agreed that, “Surf-riding was a national sport of the Hawaiians, on which they were very fond of betting, each man staking his property on the one thought to be most skillful... Hawaiians were much addicted to gambling, even to the last article they possessed.”83

This passion for gambling was unusual for Polynesians as a whole. In the other island groups, betting was either unknown or otherwise not practiced. Because of this, Kenneth Emory advanced the theory that Hawaiians actually got gambling from shipwrecked Japanese fishermen, prior to European contact. However it started, by the time the Europeans first started to observe life in the Hawaiian chain, gambling was an essential aspect connected to sports of all types. An excited native might impetuously wager canoes, fishing nets and lines, tapa cloth, swine, and sometimes his own life or personal freedom, all on the outcome of a match. The consequences were often dramatic. To the winners went the spoils. For the losers, it could mean death or a life of servitude for himself and his entire family.84 The dangers of such a contest are illustrated in the legendary match between Uni-a-liloa and Paiea.85

Mele and Hula

Having no written language, the Hawaiians developed the mele (poetry and music) and hula (dance) to convey the stories handed down from generation to generation. Meles always contain subtle, hidden meanings:  1) the ostensible meaning; 2) the sexual double meaning; 3) a mythological, historical or topographical meaning (usually religious) or; 4) a kauna, or deeply hidden meaning.

The mele is presented in either oli form or hula. The oli form is a recital method of chanting or intoning, unaccompanied by any musical instrument, with a limited tonal range which was practically monotone. Hula was a physical interpretation of the words of the song, augmented by ornamental gestures which expressed the different meanings a mele contained. According to legend, the first hula was danced by the goddess Hi‘iaka on the black sand beach at Puna on the southern coast of the Big Island. Hula later became the primary function of the goddess Laka. Although it – along with other Hawaiian traditions – suffered greatly in the 1800s, hula is alive and well, today, and is practiced by both women and men who graduate from a halau (school) under the teachings of a kumuhula (master).

Traditional Hawaiian musical instruments include: ipu hula (gourd drum); ka-laau (the gourd’s beating stick); ohe keeke (unstripped bamboo struck to make a clanking sound); pu-ili (section of bamboo split into long, slender teeth, struck against each other against the performer’s body, producing a rattle sound); pahu (hollowed coconut trunk with shark skin head); pu puhi (conch shell horn); pu-nui (drum with cords used in tying it to the knee of the beater); ohe hano ihu (nose flute); uliuli (rattle gourd made of coconut containing seeds or pebbles, trimmed with feathers and tapa, shaken by the hula dancer); and ili-ili (castanets made of smooth pebbles, clicked together by hand).

The following is the mele of Naihe, a man of strong character, but not a high chief. He was born in Kona and resided at Napoopoo. His mother was Ululani. His father was Keawe-a-heulu, who was a celebrated general and strategist under Kamehameha I:86

He Mele-Inoa (No Naihe)

A Name-Song, A Eulogy (for Naihe)

Ka nalu nui, a ku ka nalu mai Kona,

Ka malo a ka mahiehie87

Ka onaulu-loa,88 a lele ka‘u malo.

The huge roller, roller that surges from Kona,

Makes loin-cloth fit for a lord;

Far-reaching swell, my malo streams in the wind;

O kakai89 malo hoaka,90

O ka malo kai,91 malo o ke alii.

E ku, e hume a paa i ka malo.

Shape the crescent malo to the loins –

The loin-cloth the sea, cloth for king’s girding.

Stand, gird fast the loin-cloth!

E ka‘ikai92 ka la I ka papa o Halepo;93

A pae o Halepo i a nalu.

Ho-e‘e i ka nalu mai Kahiki;94

He nalu Wakea,95 nalu ho‘ohua.96

Haki opu‘u97 ka nalu, haki kua-pa.98

Let the sun guide the board Halep,

Till Halepo lifts on the swell.

It mounts the swell that rolls from Kahiki,

From Wakea’s age onrolling.

The roller plumes and ruffles its crest.

Ea mai ka makakai99 he‘e nalu,

Kai he‘e kakala100 o ka moku,

Kai-ka o ka nalu nui,

Ka hu‘a o ka nalu o Hiki-au.101

Kai he‘e-nalu i ke awakea.

Here comes the champion surfer,

While wave-ridden wave beats the island,

A fringe of mountain-high waves.

Spume lashes the Hiki-au altar –

A surf this to ride at noontide.

Ku ka puna, ke ko‘a I-uka.

Ka makaha o ka nalu o Kuhihewa.102

Ua o ia,103 noha ka papa!

Noha Maui, nauweuwe,

Nauweuwe, nakelekele.

The coral, horned coral, it sweeps far ashore.

We gaze at the surf of Ka-kuhi-hewa.

The surfboard snags, is shivered;

Maui splits with a crash,

Trembles, dissolves into slime.

Nakele ka ili o ka i he‘e-kai.

Laliali ole ka ili o ke akamai;

Kahilihili ke kai a ka he‘e-nalu.

Ike‘a ka nalu nui o Puna, o Hilo.

Glossy the skin of the surfer;

Undrenched the skin of the expert;

Wave-feathers fan the wave rider.

You’ve seen the grand surf of Puna, of Hilo.104

The Makahiki

The Hawaiian luau is named for the taro tops traditionally served at this feast. “The custom of the luau,” wrote Tom Blake, “is a happy note in old Hawaiian life. The luau, meaning feast, was an excuse for hospitality on a grand scale, music, dancing, eating, awa drinking, chanting, love making.”105 The grand Hawaiian luau amounted to the Makahiki, a four-month-long celebration.

Surfing was integral to the annual Makahiki. The ancient festival coincided with the rise of winter waves in the fall season. The Makahiki began when the Huihui – or Makali‘i – star group made its first evening appearance in the eastern sky. Greek astronomers called the Makali‘i the Pleiades – or “seven little sisters” – and this is how they are most commonly known in the Western World, today.106 In our time, the Pleiades show in Hawai‘i at the present time around the middle of November. In other latitudes and in other eras the date is different. Around the year 1000 A.D., the Pleiades would have risen at sundown in the Hawaiian Islands about November 5th; 2000 years ago, on October 20th.107

Lolo was the patron deity of the Makahiki festivities between mid-October and mid-January. During that time, Hawaiians stopped work, relaxed, and passed much of their time dancing, feasting and participating in sports. Religious ceremonies and a kapu on war was also part of this most special time of the year.108

Thousands gathered to watch tournaments; prominent of which were the surfing contests. A particular akua pa‘ani (special god of sport) usually presided over each contest. Kenneth Emory wrote, “No important contest was engaged in without approaching the gods with prayers and offerings to win their favor. Some god presided over every sport. When a man felt he was in harmonious relations with the mysterious forces about him he was quite likely to accomplish superhuman feats of strength and skill.”109

Interestingly and somewhat disappointingly for some, nowhere in the whole colorful collection of ancient Hawaiian gods is there mention of a special deity for surfing. In Tahiti, Ellis recorded the presiding god of surfing was Huaouri. His Hawaiian counterpart can only be assumed, but remains nameless and unknown.110


The possibility of a surfing god is strengthened by the existence of more than one heiau for surfing on the big island of Hawai‘i. Heiau – ancient Hawaiian temples, shrines, or places of worship – were built sometimes in connection with a community, with an individual god, or a certain activity. Types of heiau known to us, today, include:

• hei-au ho‘ola – for treating the sick.

• hei-au ho‘o-ulu‘ai – for the increase of crops; where first fruits were offered.

• hei-au ho‘o-ulu i‘a – where fish were offered to insure good fishing.

• hei-au ho‘o-ulu ua – where offerings were made to insure rain.

• hei-au ka-lua ua – for stopping the rain

• hei-au ma‘o – small temporary heiau covered with tapa stained green, used for the ho‘oulu ‘ai ceremony to bring food.111

• hei-au po‘o kanaka – where human sacrifices were made.

• hei-au wai-kaua – for services to bring success in war.112

John Francis Gray Stokes (1876-1960), in his archaeological study Ancient Worship of the Hawaiian Islanders, identified the seaside heiau at Kahalu‘u Bay on the Kona coast as a spot where locals made offerings and prayed to their gods for good surfing conditions.113 The Ku‘emanu Heiau is a large structure built of lichen-spotted black lava rock. Stokes recorded locals as describing this as, “a heiau for surf-riders, where they could pray for good sport.” The compound contains a stone pool convenient for rinsing water from bodies after surfing. Stone terraces are a dominant feature of the temple and these are so aligned that from the upper level, spectators could easily watch surfers riding waves less than a hundred yards away. Good sized surf still breaks offshore at Ku‘emanu, directly in front of the heiau.114

The Ku‘emanu religious site is very similar to another heiau fronting the sea at Holualoa, a few miles north of Kahalu‘u. This site is known as Keolonahihi Heiau. A pool and bleacher-like terrace are features there, too, and it also faces a once-well-known surfing area. Both places, in fact, were noted in earlier times for the good surf close-by. At Keolonahihi, King Kamehameha first learned to surf. Local chiefs favored the surrounding lands because of abundant food and good surf the area produced. Ke-olo-na-hihi as a name is significant in itself, since it means “the olo of Hihi.115

Most of the Hawaiian heiau are overgrown and obscured by tropical vegetation, much as the ancient surf culture of Hawai‘i and Polynesia is hidden from us, today. Some heiau are easy to see, like the one at Kapa‘a, on Kaua‘i. Others require solid determination by the average seeker to find and identify.




76  Blake, 1935, p. 44. Blake misspelled Nakuina as “Nakoina.”

77  Blake, 1935, pp. 44-45.

78  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 51.

79  Anthropologist, 1889, quoted in Blake, p. 48. He‘e-nalu is misspelled.

80 Emory, Kenneth P. “Sports, Games, and Amusements,” Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, Chapter 14, the Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, Hawai’i, 1933, p. 149.

81  Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 51-52.

82  Finney and Houston, 1966, pp. 51-52.

83 Malo, David. Hawaiian Antiquities, BP, Bishop Museum, Special Publication 2, 2nd Edition (translated by Nathaniel Emerson, 1898; First published 1903), Honolulu, Hawai‘i.  See also Finney and Houston, p. 52.

84  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 52.

85  See Gault-Williams, “Ancient Polynesian Surf Legends.”

86 Emerson, Nathaniel B. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, The Sacred Songs of the Hula, ©1965. Originally published by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909, pp. 35-37.

87 Mahiehie – A term conferring dignity and distinction.

88 Onulu-loa – A rolling wave of great length and endurance, one that reaches the shore, in contrast to kakala.

89 Kakai – forty.

90 Hoaka – A crescent; the name of the second day of the month. The allusion is to the downward curve of a large number (kakai) of malo when hung on a line, the usual way of keeping such articles.

91 Malo kai – The ocean is sometimes poetically termed the malo or pa-u of the naked swimmer or surfer. It covers his nakedness.

92 Ka‘ika‘i – To lead or to carry. The sun is described as leading the board.

93 Halepo – Emmerson believed this to be the name of Nahie’s surfboard. A surfer he knew said it is the name given to the surf at Napoopoo, in Kona.

94 Kahiki – Tahiti or any foreign country.

95 Wakea – Legendary leader of the Polynesian migration. See Chapter 4: “Ancient Hawaiian Surfers.”

96 Ho‘ohua – Applied to a rolling wave, one that rolls on and rises in height.

97 Opu‘u – Said of a wave that completes its run to shore.

98 Kua-pa – Said of a wave that dies at the shore.

99 Maka-kai – The springing-up of the surf after a period of inactivity.

100 Kakala – Rough, heaped-up, one wave over-riding the other; choppy sea.

101 Hiki-au – Name of a Heiau.

102 Kuhihewa – Short for Ka-kuhi-hewa, a distinguished king of O‘ahu.

103 O ia – Surfboard pearled; the board dug its nose towards the reef or into the sand.

104 Emerson, Nathaniel B. Unwritten Literature of Hawaii, The Sacred Songs of the Hula, ©1965. Originally published by the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909, pp. 35-37. Not an exact rendition of Emerson’s translation. I’ve made some of the terms more contemporary. Note: last nine verses omitted as they do not apply to surfing.

105  Blake, 1935, p. 31.

106  See Pukui and Elbert, 1986.

107 Bryan, E.H.  “Astronomy and the Calendar,” chapter 23 of Ancient Hawaiian Civilizations, A Series of Lectures Delivered at The Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, C.E. Tuttle Company, Inc., ©1965.  Ninth Printing, 1981, pp. 252-253.

108  See Pukui and Elbert, 1986.

109  Emory, 1933.  Quoted in Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 54 and the 1996 edition, p. 48.

110  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 54 and in the 1996 edition, p. 48.

111  Malo, p. 158.

112  Pukui and Elbert, 1986.

113 Stokes, John Francis Gray. “Heiaus of Hawaii,” Ancient Worship of the Hawaii Islanders, compiled by William T. Brigham, first director of the Bishop Museum. Published in 1919, ©1991 by the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, pp. 67-70.  Quoted in Lueras, 1984, p. 33.

114  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 55 and the 1996 edition, p. 49.  See also Lueras, 1984, p. 33.

115  Finney and Houston, 1966, p. 55 and the 1996 edition, p. 49.

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