“Eia nā ʻĀina: Here are the Lands” – Origin of Hawaiian Land

#76 in the Moʻolelo series, this post is adapted from my chapter in The Clean Place: Honouring the Indigenous Roots of Turtle Island (Michael Hankard, ed. J Charlton Publishers, Canada 2018).

Most texts on land devote little more than a paragraph to traditional Hawaiian land tenure. Moffat and Fitzpatrick (1995) suggest the need for a reevaluation of traditional Hawaiian land tenure, which Sahlins and Kirch call an “overly simplistic theory of demographic determinism.” Moffat and Fitzpatrick note that while much has been written about the land tenure system:

recently published research suggests that much remains to be learned through archaeological investigation and reinterpretation of the oral tradition that is an important source of Hawaiian history. It is apparent that the writings of earlier – and very reputable – scholars presented too simplistic a picture of Hawaiian land use. Revelations from field archaeology, careful review of historic documents, intensive study of mahele [sic] records, and even efforts to revive the ancient loʻi … all point to a very complex and dynamic system.

Moffat and Fitzpatrick, 1995, 1

Like Anne Salmond (1997), I have sought to “gather fragments” and “grasp key patterns” in traditional land tenure, as a move toward filling these gaps. Ralston (1984, 21) notes that historians have presented “Hawaiian society as a homogeneous, monocultural entity,” focused on Hawaiian and foreign elites, and “it has been too easy to portray the maka’ainana submitting willingly or passively … to chiefly dictates.” The same is true for studies of Hawaiian land tenure, which, while not completely neglecting maka’āinana, often homogenize both the land tenure system and class agency (see Kame’eleihiwa, 1992).This article synthesizes multiple fields of research in order to expand what has thus far been a skeletal narrative in an undeveloped field. Much of the current scholarship fails to emphasize a central aspect of Hawaiian land tenure – the relationship between ‘āina and akua.


In Ka Mooolelo Hawaii, the first book on Hawaiian history, the Lahainaluna scholars wrote:

I ka manao o kekahi poe noonoo, aole paha aina maanei i ka wa kahiko, he moana wale no. Manao lakou, ua hoea mai na aina mai loko mai o ka moana, o na ahi pele ka mea i hoea mai ai.

[In the opinion of some learned people, there was no land here in ancient times, only ocean. In their opinion, the lands arrived out of the ocean and the lava (“ahi pele”) is the thing that made them arrive (my translation)].

The line “ahi pele” suggests the idea of the goddess Pele producing the islands, and contradicts other accounts, including Kumulipo, in which the islands were fished from the sea by the demigod Maui and given birth to by akua, particularly Papa-hānau-moku (Papa from whom lands are born) (Beckwith, 1970, 294). Kānaka Maoli are unconflicted over this ambiguity, as multiple versions of histories are a standard feature of Hawaiian moʻolelo, particularly in the case of “origin” stories, which concern deities.

McGregor summarizes Hawaiian origins in relation to deities:

According to the kupuna, Native Hawaiians respect, treasure, praise, and worship the land and all natural elements as deities and the source of universal life … At a [deep] level … ancestral chants trace Hawaiian origins to such great gods as Papa Hānaumoku, the earth mother and birth mother of the Hawaiian islands; Wākea, the sky father; Kāne, the springs and streams; Kanaloa, the ocean; and Pele, the volcano. Hawaiians are genealogical descendants of the earth, sea, sky, and natural life forces.

McGregor, Nā Kuaʻāina, 2007, 264.

She reiterates that the Kumulipo “establishes that Native Hawaiians are descended from, and thus inextricably related to, natural life forms and the spiritual life forces personified as deities” (McGregor, 2007, 13). But this descent is neither entirely linear nor unproblematic, but “grey” with genealogical continuities and ruptures.

Malo (1951, 3), in a dual genealogical approach, notes:  “In the genealogy of Wakea it is said that Papa gave birth to these islands. Another account has it that this group of islands were not begotten, but really made by the hands of Wakea himself.” Malo’s approach is “dually” genealogical in the sense that in sequential moʻokūʻauhau he shows the rupture created by varying accounts. Another account, recorded by Lahainaluna scholar Kaiʻaikawaha, (in Kikiloi, 2010, 113-115) appears to begin before the gods’ arrival in Hawaiʻi and continue on to the major Hawaiian islands:

Eia na aina i hanau mai ai maloko mai o ke kanaka i puka mai ai. O Papahanau moku ka wahine o ka Hanau—Akea ke kane, moe laua, ko ka laua keiki, a hanau mai ka laua hiapo he pohaku o Kahikiku, oia ka mua, hanau mai kona hope o Kahikimoe… 

[Here are the lands that were born from which the people emerged. Papahānaumoku the mother of birthing—Wākea the husband, they mated, and their children were begotten, and born was their first child a rock named Kahikikū, he was the first, born next was Kahikimoe…]

trans. Kikiloi

The chant continues naming islands not in the Hawaiian archipelago until Hawaiʻi is mentioned as the twenty-fifth child of the couple. Maui is the next island after Hawaiʻi.[1]This birthing of the islands suggests a familial relationship between kanaka and ʻāina, as gods are, in the view of John Kaʻimikaua (2000), “ancestors from the beginning of time.”

Kumu Hula John Kaʻimikaua

[1]The island named immediately before Hawaiʻi is “Polapola” (Borabora).

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