“The World we used to Live In:” A Hawaiian Perception of Land

#170 in the Moʻolelo series. When I was writing my PhD dissertation (Kuleana: A Genealogy of Native Tenant Rights, 2013, UH Mānoa), I would at times have to cut sections out because they didnʻt keep with the flow of the work. Rather than deleting them, I kept them in a file called “extras” for later use. Looking into this file, I found it contained 75 pages of material! One such section I post below.

Andrade (2008, 1) begins his book Hāʻena with a passage that evokes a Hawaiian perception of land:

In Hawaiian ways of the perceiving the world, Hāʻena is a place situated below the wind, close to the taproot of the earth, where the sun enters the sea at Haleleʻa (House of Pleasure), Kauaʻi o Manokalanipo (Kauaʻi of the legendary Manokalanipo). One translation of the name Hāʻena is ʻHot breath,ʻ a reference to the sun and to the volatile, voluptuous Pele, whose amorous adventures are recorded on the land there. Hāʻena is also where the mountain Makana calls, as if it were a sweetheart. 

Carlos Andrade, Hāʻena
Haleakalā, Maui

Andrade’s lyrical description focuses on Hawaiian points of reference – orientations of winds, sun, and earth. His invocation of the image of a “sweetheart”  illustrates an affective relationship with land that is not exclusive to Kauaʻi. [Note: since the time this was written, Carlos Andrade has become very controversial in helping Mark Zuckerberg to “quiet” land titles on Kauaʻi]. That it is described as “below the wind” suggests Malo’s (1951, 12) description of concentric circles “used to designate space above and below.” His reference to Pele’s “amourous adventures” shows the inscription of histories on the land, what Andrade (2008, 35) calls the “storied landscape.”  In the Maui chant ʻOni ke Kula o Kamaʻomaʻo (Kanahele, n.d., 66), land is described similarly:

He nani Kuahiwi o Haleakalā

Ua laʻa ia wahi kula Honua ula

Kiʻekʻie ka makemake i ka leo o kaʻu ipo

Beautiful is the mountain of Haleakalā

Dedicated is that little plain, Honuaʻula

High in the estimation, in the praise of my lover

History was inscribed in Hawaiian traditions, which “pinpoint places as landing spots of ancestral navigators, as locations where the people emerged into the world, or as arenas in which they lived, fought battles, engaged in love affairs, and buried the dead. These named places were, and still are, considered sacred…” (Andrade, 2008, 2). 

Oliveira (2006, 22) posits nine senses through which Hawaiians apprehend land and landscape: besides the traditional five senses, na‘au (intuition), kulaiwi (place), au ‘apaʻapaʻa (ancestral time), and moʻo (connection to past, present and future). Thus, place itself is a sense. Hawaiians employed methods of apprehending the physical world that transceded the physical. Such methods included hōʻailona – signs in nature, which alternately were considered direct communication from akua. Desha (2000, 35) notes an instance of the war god Kūkāilimoku being “consulted” on matters of war. The kahuna of Kalaniōpuʻu, Holoʻae, said: “inā wau e kū i ka pule, a i hele auaneʻi nā hulu i luna o ko akua a kolili, a i lele auaneʻi a kau ʻole i luna oʻu, e kuʻu lani aliʻi, e hoʻike mai ana ko akua e hoʻomoe ke kaua a ka lā ʻapōpō, a ʻaʻole hoʻi e neʻe kaua aku i kēia ahiahi”[1]

Frances Frazier (2000) translates: “when I offer a prayer, if the feathers on top of the god flutter and fly and do not alight upon you, my heavenly one, your god is telling you to lay aside battle until tomorrow and not go to battle this evening.” 

The use of such hōʻailona – “omens,” signs in nature, or as Jung termed these occurances, “synchronicities” – suggests a worldview that transcends the materialist, even the Marxist, conception. Vine Deloria (2006) describes an indigenous world in which spiritual forces, or direct communication from deities are not merely taken seriously, but taken for granted. He calls this “the world we [Native Americans] used to live in.” In their description of the “organic relationship of the people to the land,” Handy and Handy (1972, 42) describe Hawaiian sense of connectedness to place using European notions of nationhood:

The German theory of Geopolitik emphasizes the concept of a mystical or spiritual identification of a nation with the homeland – not just the ʻVaterland’ ideal, but the actual physical land on which they live and from which they draw their sustenance. In these days of transience and displacement, this reality may have become blurred. But the concept has very real relevance to the relationship which existed from very early times between the Hawaiian people, be they chiefs or commoners, and their homeland- perhaps peculiarly so between the commoner (makaʻainana) who was a planter and his land (ʻaina).

This is abundantly exemplified in traditional mele(songs), in pule(prayer chants), and in genealogical records which associate the ancestors, primordial and more recent, with their original homelands, celebrating always the outstanding qualities and features of those lands. But it is equally exemplified by the strong attachments, evident even among the dislocations of today, which the kamaʻāina (“child of the [specific] land,” or native) has for her or his place of origin.

Handy and Handy (1972, 43) note that the reasons for kamaʻāina pride and identification with places of origin “differed from ʻāinato ʻāinaand island to island, but the identification was everywhere an essential reality.” As with Hegelian and Wagnerian pre-unification “German” notions of patriotism and the Vaterland, Hawaiian identification was originally with the specific place but evolved in the ninteenth century to an identification with the nation as a whole. The shift toward a “Hawaiian” national identification was a response to threats against that nationhood. 


[1]Desha wrote this article on March 26, 1921 and it was published in He Moʻolelo Kaʻao no Kekūhaupiʻo: Ke Koa Kaulana O Ke Au O Kamehameha Ka Nui in 1996 (ed. Lōkahi Antonio).

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