Introduction: Ancient O‘ahu

Dennis Kawaharada

These are stories of O‘ahu before high rises, freeways and hotels, before sugar plantations and pineapple fields, before churches and Bibles. Culled from the collections of Abraham Fornander (1812-1887) and Thomas G. Thrum (1842-1932), the stories present an ancient history of the island and its first people, telling of the heroes, ancestral spirits, and demigods who performed good works and punished evil-doers. (For a discussion of the works of Fornander and Thrum, see Leib and Day, 11-13 and 17-21.)

Some of these ancestors are remembered for making the land and sea productive. Maikoha, exiled from Kawaluna by his father for breaking kapu, went to live on Maui. Upon his death, he turned into the wauke plant, whose bark was used to make kapa cloth. In contrast to the Biblical Adam and Eve, who were exiled for eating fruit from the tree of life, Maikoha became a tree of life.

Maikoha’s sisters followed him and traveled on to O‘ahu, where Kaihuopala‘ai became a fishpond in Pu‘uloa on the south shore; her sisters turned into fishing grounds on the west and north shores of the island. Maikoha’s brother, Kane‘aukai, another fishing god, came after them, attracting various kinds of fish to Mokulei‘a and Waimea.

Other fishing gods of O‘ahu include ‘Ai‘ai, who established fishing grounds along the south shore of O‘ahu, and, later, around the rest of the island; and Puniakai‘a, who befriended the parent of all parrot fish in Kane‘ohe Bay and, with the help of his pet fish, called swarms of these fish to shore.

Other gods were famous for their good works. With his powerful hands, Kaulu smashed the heavy surf and swells of the ocean to make them smaller and less life-threatening. He traveled to the land of the gods to free his brother Kaeha, who was held captive there. When the gods refused to feed his brother (a grave sin), Kaulu stole food from their bountiful supply in the sacred land of Manowaikeoo.

Like Kaulu, the demigod Maui, of Wai‘anae, tried to make a sometimes harsh world more comfortable for humanity. In pan-Polynesian traditions, Maui is credited with finding new islands, discovering the secret of how to make fire, and slowing down the sun’s progress to make longer days for his mother to dry her kapa.

The version of the Maui tradition included in this collection tells of his attempt to pull the islands of Hawai‘i together. But Maui, unlike Kaulu, is a tragic figure, and his story reminds us of the frustrations inherent in human life. His attempt to join the islands failed because his brothers couldn’t resist the temptation to look behind them as they paddled their canoe. And unlike Kaulu, Maui failed in his attempt to steal food from the gods. The gods caught him stealing their bananas in Waipi‘o Valley on the island of Hawai‘i and killed him.

Some of the stories concern ‘aumakua, or ancestral gods, often in animal form, who protect their descendants from harm and provide advice and help. Among these gods were the ‘alae, or mudhen; the mo‘o, a mythical water-dwelling lizard; the pueo, or owl; and the mano, or shark. When Maui wanted to join the islands, he sought the advice of his ‘aumakua, the big mudhen of Hina. The young rain god Kauawa‘ahila created a new source of ground water in Makiki with the help of his mo‘o ‘aumakua. Kapo‘i and Kahalaopuna were defended by their owl ‘aumakua of Manoa Valley.

The story of Kahalaopuna depicts a conflict between two families with different ‘aumakua: Kahalaopuna and her owl god versus Kauhi, her jealous lover, and his shark god. Kahalaopuna’s life ended tragically because she entered the ocean, the realm of the shark god, ignoring the warning of her grandfather. Transformed into a shark after his death, Kauhi was able to snatch her from the waters of Waikiki and devoured her off of Wai‘anae.

But the shark was both an avenger and a protector. Ka‘ahupahau, the guardian shark of the people of Pu‘uloa, banned man-eating sharks from O‘ahu’s waters. She drove off the man-eater Mikololou, who came from the island of Hawai‘i looking for victims.

The twin themes of respect for life and the destruction of cannibals are woven into these stories. The collection opens with a story about how the trickster Kane‘opa, a visitor from Kaua‘i, killed off all but one of the cannibal spirits who once inhabited O‘ahu. These akua represent the antithesis of ideal behavior, which requires a host to provide for visitors (who are under a reciprocal obligation not to take advantage of their host’s generosity). The akua promised food and women to visitors, but after their guests fell asleep, the akua ate them. In a comic match of wits, Kane‘opa escaped from O‘ahu, then returned with a trick that used the voracious appetite of the akua to destroy them.

The demigod Kaulu also destroyed cannibal spirits—Haumea and the rat Mokoli‘i. And the story of “O‘ahunui” tells of the killing of a cannibal king after the king devoured two nephews who were potential rivals to his power.

Political authority in Hawai‘i was fluid; it depended on the king’s ability to maintain the good will of his subjects by maintaining the productivity of the land and sea, protecting his people, and distributing food and wealth fairly. Wrongs had to be righted, or the king lost the confidence of the people, and rebellion ensued.

When Kuali‘i, the king of O‘ahu, unfairly demanded a prized pig, the pig farmer Pumaia rebelled and battled the king’s men for it. After Pumaia was killed, his spirit continued to provide for his family by stealing from the king’s lands. To end the theft and save his own life, Kuali‘i was forced to feed and house Pumaia’s widow and daughter and take care of Pumaia’s bones.

Kipapalaulu, another king of O‘ahu, stole a miraculous aku-fishing lure belonging to Ku‘ula of Nu‘uanu. Ku‘ula’s son ‘Ai‘ai got it back not by fighting, but by marrying the king’s daughter. Through the return of the lure, both the life of the bird Kamanuwai and the righteousness of the kingdom were restored.

Perhaps the most famous tradition of O‘ahu concerns the pig god Kamapua‘a. Born in Kaluanui in the district of Ko‘olauloa on the windward coast of O‘ahu, this pig god rebelled against the king ‘Olopana because the king placed a kapu on all the chickens of his lands, reserving the right to eat them only for himself. To save his family from starvation, Kamapua‘a stole ‘Olopana’s chickens and destroyed all the warriors sent to capture him. Eventually, he conquered all of O‘ahu. In contrast to the greedy ‘Olopana, Kamapua‘a was generous: he gave away the most fertile, well-watered lands (“wai”-lands) to the priest Lonoaohi, who had saved his life, while keeping the less desirable dry leeward lands for himself and his family. (The pig god is associated with a dryland crop, the sweet potato.)

Like ancient petroglyphs, these pre-contact oral traditions are recorded on the land itself—the mountains, rocks, and place names of O‘ahu speak them. Stones in Wahiawa attest to the sin of the cannibal king O‘ahunui. A depression in a cliff at Kaluanui marks the place where Kamapua‘a lifted his family to safety from the attack of ‘Olopana. A stone in Waipahu is the one thrown by Maui to straighten his grandfather’s humpback. The island of Mokoli‘i, offshore of Kualoa, is part of the body of the cannibal rat-wizard killed by Kaulu.

No longer dependent on the fertility of the life-giving ‘aina, having grown up on imported food and goods produced and packaged thousands of miles away, many residents of O‘ahu no longer feel a connection to the land or a reverence for the ancestors who made the island productive and safe for humanity. Stories of the first people have been largely neglected and ignored by the colonial educational system in Hawai‘i. Yet the values embodied in these stories—hospitality, fairness, generosity, courage, and respect for the land and life—are part of a way of life that is as important as ever today. As our population increases, and the social and natural environments become more degraded, we are reminded that our well-being and quality of life, as in ancient times, depend on such values.

The stories in this collection, arranged by the six districts of ancient O‘ahu, connect us to the past and to ‘aina. The voices in the stories are alive the mountains, forests, fields, rains, streams, ponds, and seas that sustain us.

NOTE: For interpretations and background on some of the stories in Ancient O‘ahu, see Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place (Kalamaku Press, 1999).

Honolulu  2001