There is still dispute and controversy as to the identity and origin of the first human settlers in the Hawaiian Islands, although most scholars agree, thanks to recent radiocarbon dating, that the initial voyagers sailed from distant islands, known by Polynesians as Kahiki, in the South Pacific, most likely the Marquesas, in the eleventh century A.D.

Around 1200 b.c., the farmers and fishermen who had migrated over centuries from Asia to Australia, Indonesia, and New Guinea began to move slowly across the Pacific, sailing to Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, which lie only a few days’ sail from one another, where they became the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. After almost two thousand years, the islanders began to venture farther, eventually reaching Hawai‘i to the north, New Zealand to the southwest, and remote Easter Island to the east. Historians once believed that many of the islands in the Pacific were discovered by fishermen who had been blown off course, although the fact that the first voyagers to Hawai‘i carried with them crops, seeds, and animals, as well as women and children, suggests that the journeys were deliberate and well-prepared.

The double-hulled outrigger canoes of the settlers were eighty to one hundred feet long, rigged with masts, and triangular sails woven of lau hala (the dried leaf of the hala, or pandanus tree). A raised platform, screened and roofed with mats, was lashed across the hulls for the women, children, animals, plants, and, not least of all, the images of the gods that the travelers carried with them. When there was no wind, men sitting two to a bench would paddle with the guidance of a master steersman, who, trained since childhood, used his deep knowledge of the sky, wind, clouds, ocean currents, temperatures, and the habits of sea creatures and birds to guide the canoes across the ocean.

The small companies of perhaps fifty men, women, and children brought with them dogs, pigs, and chickens, as well as food and water. They had seedlings of hibiscus, sugar cane, bamboo, mountain apple, coconut, breadfruit, mulberry, and tubers of wild ginger, kalo (taro), yam, turmeric, and sweet potato. They are thought to have first landed on the desolate southernmost tip of Hawai‘i Island, where the land rises gently to the summit of Mauna Loa. The settlers named their new home Ka‘ū, or “the breast that nursed them,” although the leeward coast would have been dry and hot, with little fresh water. Parts of Ka‘ū are now covered with layer upon layer of lava from successive eruptions. At the time of the first settlers, though, it would have been wood and brush land, interspersed with broad prairies of native grass. (The now ubiquitous kiawe tree was introduced in 1828 by Father Alexis Bachelot, the head of the first Catholic mission; the sugi pine arrived in 1880; the Australian bluegrass gum in 1870; and the bagras eucalyptus in 1929.)

The settlers would have known at once that their new home would not give them all that they needed. There was no reef and few beaches and coves, which meant that there were insufficient amounts of shellfish and seaweed, foods essential to Polynesians, but they would have seen, too, that it was a safe place in which to live, where they would not be threatened by enemies, human or animal. In his 1993 book, The Gifts of Civilization: Germs and Genocide in Hawai‘i, microbiologist, historian, novelist, and professor at the University of Hawai‘i, O. A. Bushnell observes: “Only the sea was treacherous, but only occasionally, and Polynesians are accustomed to the moods of Kanaloa [the god of the sea].”

The environment of Hawai‘i Island, owing to trade winds from the northeast, the height of the mountains, and the warmth of the surrounding ocean, can shift within a few miles from bog to rain forest to coastal shrub, all with widely different levels of wind and rainfall. In the north, on the windward side, the earliest Polynesian settlers of the eleventh century would find streams and springs, grasses, and trees. Thanks to the lush inland forests, the island would have been less windy than it is now, and there would have been more rainfall (eighteenth-century travelers describe snow on Mauna Loa in July and August).

The hills of Kohala in the north would have been rolling grassland, much as they are today, with an occasional grove of native ‘ōhi‘a trees. In time, the settlers ventured to other islands in the archipelago. Cultivation began in Waialua Valley on O‘ahu, and Hālawa on Moloka‘i. On Hawai‘i Island, fertile Waipi‘o Valley was settled, and the sloping mauka (inland) highlands of Kona, Ka‘ū, and Kohala, as the settlers sought the verdant valleys where water could be found, spreading across the hills and plains overlooking the ocean to settle on land where soil and rainfall were sufficient for their simple needs. In the beginning, the settlers lived in caves, low rock shelters built on hillsides or near the ocean, and in lava tubes, which are formed when a river of hot lava forces a path under lava that has already cooled and hardened. They built houses of grass in small villages near rich fishing grounds, although bays and inlets amenable to fishing or the use of canoes were few in relation to the length of coastline. To bring their canoes safely ashore, ladders were built with wooden runners or steps to make easier the task of pulling canoes from the rough surf, and over sharp lava. Those living near the shore bartered fish, seaweed, shellfish, and salt for the produce grown by those living in the hills and gulches. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) described the sharing of food during her childhood in the book The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘ū:

In the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, [people traveling between Hilo and Ka‘ū] often stopped at my aunt’s to pass the night—usually unexpected. There was no market . . . and whatever of fish and meat there was, was salted. The family gave guests poi—paste made from kalo—and the best salted meat, even if it was the last . . . Cowboys came too, tired and hungry, to share the salted fish, or meat with poi. Sometimes, they came with a portion of a wild bullock or pig—then there was fresh meat. But only for that meal.





Portrait of Hawaiian woman with necklace, graphite on paper, George Henry Burgess, 1870


As the settlers began to clear the endemic vegetation to grow the subsistence plants they brought with them, many native plants disappeared from areas of cultivation. The forest was both altered and exploited as trees were used to make canoes, house posts, religious statues, weapons, and utensils. The bird population, with few if any predators before the arrival of the settlers, was reduced by hunting, both for food and later to make kāhili (royal standards) and lei, and the feather helmets and capes worn by the chiefs. More than six hundred species of fish were once found in Hawaiian waters, and fish were farmed in carefully tended ponds built along the shore with sluice gates to allow passage of both fish and clean tidal water. Sweet potato and arrowroot, gourd vines, (the small evergreen Cordyline fruticosa), sugarcane, breadfruit, and coconut were planted. Kalo was tended with reverence, and the preparation and eating of it was an act complex in meaning. A square mile of kalo was capable of feeding fifteen thousand people; forty square feet could support one man for a year. As there were no fireproof cooking utensils or vessels—no iron or clay with which to make them—food, usually eaten cold, was first cooked in lined pits in the ground, or in calabashes into which hot stones had been dropped.

Unlike rice, which causes an acid reaction in the body, kalo is full of vitamins A and B. It was early remarked by Europeans that Polynesian chiefs were unusually well developed in contrast to the ethnic stock from which they most likely descended, and it has been suggested that the switch from an acidic starch (rice) to that of poi was responsible for the robust health and beauty of the ali‘i.



    High chief, wearing a mahiole or feather helmet, painting in oil by John Webber, 1787


Poi, rich in mineral and organic salts, was largely responsible for the large jaw structure of Hawaiians and their exceptionally fine teeth. The uniformity and strength of their teeth were later to astonish foreign sailors (no difficult task given the teeth of eighteenth-century English and Irishmen), as was the size of their bodies, particularly those of the ali‘i, which in both men and women was frequently more than six feet in height. The Reverend Charles S. Stewart, who served as a missionary on Maui from 1823-1825, found the ali‘i, who were not simply local nobility but thought to be avatars of the gods, superior to commoners in their physical appearance. In his Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands During the Years 1823, 1824, and 1825, he wrote:

They seem indeed in size and stature to be almost a distinct race. They are all large in their frame, and often excessively corpulent; while the common people are scarce of the ordinary heights of Europeans, and of a thin rather than full habit . . . although little more than twenty-five years old, [one chief] is so remarkably stout, as to be unequal to any exertion, and scarcely able to walk without difficulty. This immense bulk of person is supposed to arise from the care taken of them from their earliest infancy . . . Many of the common people . . . have a great beauty of person, though of a less noble scale.

The first people to settle Hawai‛i lived secluded and isolated lives until the beginning of the fourteenth century, when, according to Polynesian folklore, legends, and chants, a second migration of voyagers made the journey north from Tahiti, a distance of 2,626 miles. The later migrations are known as the Long Voyages. Like the earlier journeys, they are now thought to have been forays of exploration, rather than a flight from internecine struggle, war, famine, or epidemic. The travelers brought seeds and animals with them, but they also carried new gods, powerful beings who demanded the enactment of a system of strict kapu.


young woman ca 1880 A.A. Montano.jpg

     Young Hawaiian woman wearing maile lei, eight hundred years after the first settlers from Polynesia arrived in the Islands, photograph by A. A. Montano, ca. 1880

For perhaps one hundred years, there was sporadic warfare between the original settlers and the aggressive newcomers from Tahiti. The Tahitians prevailed, and those earlier settlers who did not become assimilated through marriage were believed to be transformed over generations into the elusive nocturnal elves known as Menehune. Whimsically and perhaps guiltily described as our memories of the past, the Menehune are said to have found refuge in the mountains, where some people still claim to hear their plaintive sighs and murmurs, although the ability to see them is denied to all but their own kind. They are thought to creep after dark from the caves and hollow trees where they live, summoned to build in one night a ditch, or a heiau, or a house constructed of the bones of birds.

As the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants slipped into servitude. Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwā, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwā, who were regarded as foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwā were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, and Kalaemamo in Kona on the Big Island, they were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwā.

Dusky Native Women

alekahi gulch
Alakahi Gulch, which leads into Waipiʻo Valley

If a person were to walk east from Pololu, he would eventually reach Waipiʻo Valley in the district of Hamakua. Visitors may visit Waipiʻo by car, inching down a treacherously winding and narrow road that seems made to discourage any outsiders from coming into the valley. Many Hawaiians still live in Waipiʻo, unlike Pololu and Honokāne. The trail from Pololu soon disappears in heavy brush, what was left of the overgrown trails made by the workers on the Kohala Ditch finally swept away for good by the earthquake of 2006. A friend who knows the valleys well sometimes walks to a small cabin built in the mountains for the men who once worked on the ditch, a climb that takes ten hours, although, he says, it is faster coming out. Recently he gave me a cutting of the rare mountain rose, lokelani, that grows deep in the valley, where, he said, it was not doing very well. Too many wild pigs, and too much guava.

Crossing the stream for a picnic at Waipiʻo (the writer John Wray is on the far left, Wheelock Whitney is holding my hand, and John Stefanidis in on the far bank, removing his shoes)
Crossing the river for a picnic at Waipiʻo (the writer John Wray is on the far left, Wheelock Whitney is holding my hand mid-stream, and John Stefanidis is on the far bank, removing his shoes)

The historian John Papa I’i described a trip Kaʻahumanu made by sea to Waipiʻo:

Ka’ahumanu’s circuits of the land were always by canoe, for she had learned all about canoeing and surfing from Kamehameha, her cousin, lord, and husband . . . She boarded a canoe and sailed to Waipio, while the king and chiefs traveled over land. When the canoes arrived . . . the waves were very rough, and there was no place to land. Therefore, Ka’ahumanu ordered the paddlers to go out and come in a second time. This time they were close to the back of a wave that rose up directly in front of them, and she encouraged her paddlers to head for it. The canoe came up very close to it and as the wave rose up to a peak and spread out, the craft rode in with the foam to where the prows could be caught by the men on shore. Those on shore remarked to each other how cleverly they were saved, and this became a great topic of conversation.

Sometime in the year 1780, a lack of food thanks to the provisioning of Cookʻs ships led King Kalaniōpu’u of Hawaiʻi Island to move his court from Kailua to Waipiʻo Valley, where he called a council of chiefs. Limbs shaking from a lifetime of drinking ʻawa, Kalaniopu’u formally declared his oldest son, Kiwala’o, heir to the kingdom, and named Kamehameha high chief of Kohala, giving him land that already belonged to Kamehameha by inheritance. More important, however, he bequeathed to Kamehameha the guardianship of the feathered war god, Kūka’ilimoku, whose name means The Island Snatcher, and the attendant responsibility of conducting rites and tending the god’s heiau. Kalaniōpuʻuʻs gift gave to Kamehameha a significant political and religious advantage over other high chiefs. The war god—a wickerwork head five feet tall, to which thousands of small red, yellow, and black feathers had been painstakingly attached, its gaping mouth lined with dogsʻ teeth—was carried into battle by a special priest, and the terrifying screams that poured from its mouth were said to be the cries of the god himself.

Moore garden Hilo
R. and Q.’s garden in Wainaku, with Hilo Bay in the background
Kaiwiki Road in Hilo, in a workersʻ camp built in the Forties by a long-gone sugar plantation
Kaiwiki Road in Hilo, in a workersʻ camp built by a long-gone sugar plantation

My two younger brothers live in Hilo, a town on the east coast of the Island, about an hour south of Waipiʻo, which in many ways remains the same as it was in the Fifties. There are no good hotels, no good beaches, but there is an old theatre, the Palace, which has been restored and given life by my brother R. and his wife, Q., and which has resumed its place as the center of the community, where one may see everything from a local talent show to a concert by the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra. There is also a very good green market on Saturday, with unfamiliar fruits and vegetables among the passionfruit, papaya, white pineapple, starfruit, orchids, anthurium, and mangos, grown in small gardens by local Japanese, Filipino and more recently- arrived Cambodian farmers. A hula contest called the Merrie Monarch Festival is held each spring in Hilo, in which dozens of troupes representing different hula schools, or halau, from all the Islands and the mainland compete for prizes. I am always a little depressed by it — too much make-up, too much synchronized enthusiasm, not enough wildness or even spontaneity — but I also understand that it is impossible for hula to have retained its original meaning (human sacrifice, the consumption of small dogs, and the marriage of brothers and sisters are also no longer in common practice). It is, however, extremely popular with local people as well as visitors. Great care is taken by the various halau to replicate what is thought to be original choreography, if it can be called that, as well as costumes and the singing of chants. As nothing was written down by the Hawaiians until the missionaries devised a transcription of their language, no records were kept other than oral histories. There are some nineteenth-century engravings made from drawings by the shipsʻ artists who sailed with Cook and Vancouver, as well as other travelers, that give an idea of what was worn by the dancers, but that is all. Certainly the breasts of the women dancers were not covered, and I long for the day when a smiling troupe glides onto the Hilo stage with bare breasts.

Hilo sunrise
Hilo sunrise

The sight of men and women dancing the hula was particularly disturbing to the Congregationalist ministers and lay workers who arrived in the Islands after 1821. In his journal, the missionary Hiram Bingham described a ceremony he witnessed at the compound of the high chief Boki, where hundreds of male and female dancers had gathered to sing and dance ten days earlier in a celebration that would continue for several months. The dancers, adorned with leaves, flowers, and dog’s teeth anklets, were insufficiently clothed for Bingham, and he condemned the dancers as incitements to lust. A statue of Laka, goddess of the hula, stood at the entrance to Boki’s yard, and the dancers bedecked her image each day, further upsetting Bingham who complained to Boki that the idolatrous image should be removed. Boki, with his customary humor, told Bingham that he was welcome to the statue when the hula ceremonies were complete. Boki agreed, however, that the dancers, if allowed to dance undisturbed each morning and night, would attend the mission school by day. Other men, less encumbered by the Divine, did not hesitate to admire the dance, and particularly the dancers. Mark Twain found Hawaiian women irresistible, even in the shapeless shifts known as Mother Hubbards made for them by the missionaries, later to become the muumuu worn by haoles and Hawaiians alike (he and Robert Louis Stevenson could not resist comparing the skin of Hawaiian women to chocolate or leather).

I saw long-haired, saddle-colored Sandwich Island maidens sitting on the ground in the shade of corner houses, gazing indolently at whatever or whoever happened along . . . I met dusky native women sweeping by, free as the wind, on fleet horses and astraddle, with gaudy riding-sashes streaming like banners behind them . . . I breathed the balmy fragrance of Jessamine, oleander and the Pride of India . . . I moved in the midst of a Summer calm as tranquil as dawn in the Garden of Eden . . . At night they feast and the girls dance the lascivious hula hula—a dance that is said to exhibit the very perfection of education motion of limb and arm, hand, head and body . . . performed by a circle of girls with no raiment on them to speak of . . .

Later that year, Twain was unable to contain himself at the sight of girls swimming naked in the ocean:

At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down to look at them . . . when they rose to the surface they only just poked their heads out and showed no disposition to proceed any further in the same direction. I was naturally irritated by such conduct, and therefore I piled their clothes up on a bowlder (sic) in the edge of the sea and sat down on them and kept the wenches in the water until they were pretty well used up.

A tattooed dancer in a voluminous kapa skirt, from a drawing by the ship's artist Jacques Arago, 1819. Her short hair is died blonde at the hairline with a bleach made from lime and ki juice, as was the fashion
A tattooed dancer in a voluminous kapa skirt, from a drawing by the ship’s artist Jacques Arago, 1819. Her short hair is dyed blonde at the hairline with a bleach made from lime and ki juice, as was the fashion

The only dance that Captain George Vancouver did not like was the hula maʻi, performed in celebration of the genitals. Mary Kawena Pukui writes in her book, The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u, Hawai’i:

Every child of chiefly or priestly family had a special name given to his genitals. Meles [songs] were composed for them, but they were not necessarily descriptive of the genitals. In the older days every [hula] school chanted such meles without thought of immodesty or wrong of any sort. The genitalia of the first-born male or female were also given particular physical care in early infancy. This care was therapeutic in the sense that it was intended to guarantee health and efficient coition; and had also its aesthetic aspects, since the sexual act was accepted without shame in those days as being both creative and one of the supreme pleasures.

I have always wanted to see a hula ma’i, but they are rarely performed now. Last summer, at a book festival, the Hawaiian historian, kumu hula, and chanter, Nathan Napoka, was present at a talk that W. gave about his book of hawk photographs, for which Mr. Napoka had written an essay. Mr. Napoka brought with him from Maui a young woman who is his dance student. He himself had been been taught by the late ʻIolani Luahine, a devotee of the hawk god, and one of the last female dancers to perform in the old style.

IMG_0571The young woman with Mr. Napoka danced that day in honor of the hawk, and then performed a hula ma’i with all of the wit, joy, elegance, seduction, and sensuousness for which the native Hawaiian was known, and those of us who saw it were astonished and moved, mournfully aware that we might never see a hula ma’i again.

Untouchables and Other Beloved Persons

A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast
A restored heiau at Lapakahi on the Kohala coast

During the eleventh century, as the number of new settlers from Polynesia grew, the original inhabitants from the earlier voyages of the eighth century slipped into servitude. The historian Mary Kawena Pukui believed that the outcast slaves known as kauwa, kept for human sacrifice, may have been the descendants of the earliest people. Kauwa, who were known as corpses or foul-smelling things, were tattooed on their foreheads and made to hide their heads under pieces of kapa. Like the Untouchables of India, kauwa were scapegoats born into and imprisoned within an abhorred class. Confined to certain districts such as Makeanehu in Kohala, which is between Pololu and Kawaihae, near the restored national historic site of Lapakahi. Kauwa were forbidden to marry outside their caste, or even to enter the house or yard of a man who was not kauwa. If a child was born of a union between a commoner or chief and a kauwa, the child would be dashed to death against a rock, and the disgrace felt for generations. Kauwa were buried alive next to their dead masters, and often served as proxies for chiefs who had been sentenced to death for infractions of kapu, their heads held under water until drowned. If it was discovered that a kauwa was among a man’s ancestors, the man’s eyes would be gouged from his head. IMG_0553Unlike the despised kauwa, a valued attendant in a chief’s household was the punahele, or favorite, who had been adopted or taken in by the chief, and who might be the son of a friend, or a foster son (the custom of hanai, in which a child, usually the first-born son and daughter, was freely given to a grandparent or friend or relative to raise). Regarded as sacred to the chief, a favorite had the right to enter the kapu places. The favorite was not the same, however, as a moe aikāne, or a man’s male sexual companion. A shocked John Ledyard, an American from Connecticut who in 1777 accompanied Captain Cook as a marine on HMS Discovery, wrote that chiefs eagerly sought the most beautiful young men in the Islands, whom they brought to court and kept close to them. The chiefs, who were jealous of any unwelcome attention paid to their favorites, appeared to Ledyard to be very fond of the boys, and to treat them with more kindness than they showed women. The Kohala high chief Kamehameha, later to be the greatest of Hawaiian kings, was twice described at age twenty-five as being extremely affectionate with a favorite. David Samwell, a surgeon traveling with Cook, wrote in his journal that Kamehameha had a young male companion with him when he visited Cook’s ships in 1778:

“Kamehameha, a chief of great consequence and a relation of Kariopoo [Kalaniōpu’u], but of a clownish and blackguard appearance, came on board of us in the afternoon dressed in an elegant feathered Cloak, which he brought to sell but would part with it for nothing but iron Daggers, which they of late preffered to Tois (sic) and everything else; and all the large Hogs they bring us now they want Daggers for and tell us that they must be made as long [as] their arms, and the armourers were employed in making them instead of small adzes. Kameha-meha got nine [daggers] of them for his Cloak. He, with many of his attendants, took up his quarters on board the ship for the Night: among them is a Young Man of whom he seems very fond, which does not in the least surprize (sic) us as we have had opportunities before of being acquainted with a detestable part of his character which he is not in the least anxious to conceal.”

Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona.
Swimming with my childhood friend at Mahukona

A few miles north of Lapakahi is Mahukona, a small bay with dangerous reefs where Cook first traded nails and trinkets for fresh water, yams, bananas, and pigs with the Indians, as Cook called them. Later a cement landing was built with a rail line to carry sugar cane to the ships that would take it, along with half-drowned cattle, to Honolulu and on to the mainland. On a hill above the bay are the remains of a heiau, said to be a navigatorʻs temple, which was partially destroyed during World War II when it was used as a machine gun site. In her book, Kohala Āina, Sophia Schweitzer writes that, “Archaeological records mention a cave nearby as another possible heiau. The author Violet Hansen was told that Charles L. Wight, then railroad president…stumbled upon the cave in the late 1800s. He said he found ‘idols, stone objects, and artifacts.’ Story has it that Wight removed the objects and then lost a finger the next day in an accident. He returned everything, and sealed the cave.” Every now and then, a consortium of developers tries to buy Mahukona to build hotels and a shopping center and a subdivision, but so far they have been thwarted by local activists.

The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.
The house in North Kohala where my friend’s father lived as a boy. His family started one of Kohala’s first sugar plantations.