A Search for Ku‘ula-kai

Dennis Kawaharada from Storied Landscapes

Hana, on the east tip of Maui, is famous for its low sky (Laniha‘aha‘a) created by clouds borne on easterly winds, gathering on the slopes of Haleakala. Standing on Ka‘uiki, the hill above Hana Bay, the demi-god Maui pushed the sky up to make room for human activities. This steep-sided hill, rather small in reality (400 feet high) looms huge in the imagination:

Shooting up to heaven is Ka‘uiki,
Below is the cluster of islands,
In the sea they are gathered up,
O Ka‘uiki,
O Ka‘uiki, mountain bending over,
Loosened, almost falling, Ka‘uiki – e.

(Beckwith Laieikawai 340)

Atop this hill the prophet Hulumaniani built a heiau and prayed to his Akua to reveal to him the location of the princess La‘ieikawai. Hana was also known as the home of ‘Aikanaka, an ancestor of the ruling chiefs of the Big Island of Hawai‘i, and his wife Hinaikamalama, who leaped to the moon from a hill in Hana to escape the unpleasant task of disposing of her child’s excrement. Later, Hana was the site of a battle fought by the Maui chiefs against ‘Umi, an invading chief from the Big Island, who had crossed the ‘Alenuihaha Channel in a fleet of canoes; and around the fortified hill of Ka‘uiki, battles between the warriors of Hawai‘i and Maui were waged “for more than half a century” (Beckwith Laieikawai 339).


During my childhood in the 50’s and early 60’s, my family visited Hana once a summer. At that time, I knew nothing about the traditional history of Hana. Hana was just a small town, a day-long excursion for fun from my grandmother’s house in Kui‘aha, a small pineapple plantation town on Maui’s north shore.

My paternal grandparents, descendants of farmers from Hiroshima Prefecture in Japan, had immigrated to Hawai‘i in the early 20th century; after saving his money, my grandfather bought some land in Kui‘aha in 1929 and he and his wife opened a restaurant to serve breakfast and lunch to workers from the Pa‘uwela Pineapple Cannery across the road. My father grew up in the house beneath the restaurant overlooking Kui‘aha Gulch, where my grandparents had planted mango, avocado, lichee, and banana trees and raised ducks and pigs to support a family of ten children. In the early 50’s, my father and mother, a Nisei from Hilo, settled in Kane‘ohe, O‘ahu, where I grew up, one of three children. Once a summer we visited my grandmother on Maui.

To get to Hana from Kui‘aha, we took the “Hana Highway,” a narrow coastal road which cuts across pasture lands, then winds into gulches and out around headlands. On one side, smelling freshly green from early morning showers, a tropical forest slopes upward toward the two-mile high volcanic dome of Haleakala; on the other side, brilliantly blue in the high summer sun, the Pacific Ocean widens to the horizon. We stopped to pick ‘ohi‘a ‘ai, juicy mountain apples, which ripen along the roadside in July and August; we swam in the mountain pools fed by streams and waterfalls flowing through the wettest terrain on Maui. One summer, one of the nearly dry streams was swarming with ‘opae (freshwater shrimp) so many in the shallow water, we could scoop them up with our hands.

What brought me back to Hana in 1991, two decades after my last visit, was the story of the Hawaiian fishing god Ku‘ula-kai, given to me by a friend, Esther Mo‘okini, a Hawaiian language teacher and translator of Hawaiian literature. The story was written down by Moke Manu, a native of Hana; translated into English by Moses K. Nakuina; and published in Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual in 1901 (reprinted in Manu 1-44).

Set in Hana, the story tells how a fisherman became deified as the god Ku‘ula-kai because of his mana in attracting and catching fish. Ku‘ula-kai, “Red Ku of the sea,” was married to Hina-puku-i‘a, “Hina gathering seafood.” The couple represents the male-female division of work in the kai, or sea: the husband fished from a canoe while the wife gathered seafood along the shore and on the reef flats. The god Ku, one of the four major Hawaiian gods, embodies the male energy of the universe; his name means “to stand erect”; he is balanced with a goddess, Hina (“to recline”), who represents the female energy.

Ku‘ula-kai’s brother, Ku‘ula-uka (“Red Ku of the uplands”) was a farmer. He was married to Hinaulu‘ohi‘a (“Hina of the ‘ohi‘a growth”), a deity of the forest and canoe-building. This couple represents the work of “uka,” or the uplands. The Ku‘ula brothers and their Hina wives, balancing uka and kai, land and sea, produced the necessities of life for the local community:

Sea (kai) - Land (uka)
to erect: Ku‘ula-kai and Ku‘ula-uka
to recline: Hina-puku-i‘a and Hinaulu‘ohi‘a

After placing Ku‘ula-kai in this mythological context, the story describes a rite of passage for Ku‘ula-kai’s son ‘Ai‘ai. One day a giant puhi (eel) named Koona came to Hana and began stealing fish from the pond Ku‘ula-kai had built to feed the ali‘i of Hana and the community. Ku‘ula-kai and Hina decided to give their son the task of killing the puhi.

This puhi was a famous god of the north coast of Moloka‘i, a worthy opponent against which to prove the mana of ‘Ai‘ai. One story tells of the puhi’s battle with a giant mano (shark) who had become an outcast for eating his two younger brothers. Cannibalism was abhorrent to the Hawaiian gods and, to punish the mano, the people of Moloka‘i were told not to feed him. Homeless and starving, he eventually invaded the puhi’s sea cave. The puhi fought with and killed the mano. The cave, called Anapuhi, “Eel cave,” is located in the cliffs just west of Ha‘upu (Summers Molokai 184-185).

The puhi eventually moved to a cave called Kapukaulua (“The ulua hole”), offshore of Hana, near the island of ‘alau, from where he began raiding Ku‘ula-kai’s fishpond.

‘Ai‘ai located the puhi in its cave offshore, hooked it, and had the people of Hana drag it ashore at Leho‘ula, where he slew it with lava stones. With this deed, ‘Ai‘ai revealed that he had the mana to carry on his father’s work. The backbone of the puhi, about 30 feet long, became petrified in the lava flats along the shore, where it remains – a monument to his heroic feat.

The kahu (caretaker) of the puhi then arrived from Moloka‘i to avenge the death of his god. He told the chief of Hana: “Your head fisherman [Ku‘ula] told me to tell you that your head should be cut off and cooked in the imu, and the flesh of your body should be cut up and salted and dried in the sun.” Enraged by the alleged insult, the gullible chief ordered his people to burn down Ku‘ula’s house, with Ku‘ula and his wife and son in it. As the house burned, a wind from the sea blew the flames back at the people who set the fire, killing all of them, including the puhi’s caretaker. Then Ku‘ula-kai and his wife left their bodily forms and entered the sea as spirits, from where they control the comings and goings of fish. They took with them all fish from the seas of Hana to punish the ali‘i for his attack.

Like most traditional Hawaiian tales, the story ends with the triumph of the gods and the punishment of their enemies. ‘Ai‘ai escaped the burning house on a trail of smoke and entered a cave on Kaiwiopele Hill. He was befriended by a boy and, because of the kindness shown to him by the boy’s family, ‘Ai‘ai called on his parents to bring back the hinalea to the waters of Hana. The ali‘i who ordered the attack on Ku‘ula’s family met a fitting end: he choked to death on a hinalea sent to him from ‘Ai‘ai’s first catch.


I was interested in such fishing traditions because my father, who died in 1971 when I was 20, had been both a fisherman and a boat-builder. He built three boats, the last one 30-feet long, with an inboard diesel engine. He had a boat slip at He‘eia Kea Pier in Kane‘ohe Bay and on weekends, went trolling for aku, ‘ahi, ono, and mahimahi and bottom fishing for hapu‘u, weke‘ula, moano, and various kinds of snappers – ‘opakapaka, ‘ula‘ula, and uku. One of my earliest memories was night fishing on the bay by gas lantern light. I fell asleep in the cabin of our 22-foot boat anchored in the lagoon, off the edge of a reef, gently rocking, wavelets lapping against the sides. As I grew older, he took me farther out. At a spot for moano just inside of Moku Manu Island, he cut the engine and as we bobbed and drifted among the swells, we lowered lead-weighted hand-lines with multiple hooks into about 60 feet of water. I was amazed the first time I pulled up my line, and three reddish moano, about 8-9 inches long, were attached to it. Every so often my father would start the engine and move the boat back over the spot where the moano were biting.

At home, my mother dipped the fish in batter and fried them, the skin turning a crisp brown. The soft, flaky meat was ‘ono:

‘Ono, ‘ono wale mai la no ka hoi ka i‘a o ke kai
(Delicious, delicious – the fish of the sea)
A he moano kai lena, ‘Ono! ‘Ono!
(The moano of the yellowish sea, Delicious! Delicious!)

(Titcomb 110)

My father’s youngest brother, Aki, told me he and my father had started fishing with their father along the north coast of Maui, at spots on both sides of Pa‘uwela Point and Kui‘aha Bay, which they called “Coconut Beach.” Aki remembers: “Pop walked 2-6 miles from home to his favorite fishing holes – Lighthouse, Shark Hole, Coconut, Ma-ke Place, High Stone, Pandan Island, Straight, and Suda. The three boys liked to go to Coconut to poke fish. Pop enjoyed catching fish such as aholehole, mamo, menpachi [‘u‘u], papio, moi, po‘opa‘a, kupipi, moano.” My aunt Hazel remembers that as a treat for his children on New Year’s day, my grandfather presented them with “one aholehole each for good luck.”

Years after my father’s death, I wondered how he had gotten into building boats and deep sea fishing, how he had found the spot for moano in the “yellowish sea” (where the reefs starts dropping off into deep water) of Kane‘ohe Bay. Had someone told him about the spot, or did he find it by luck? He had the spot triangulated and could return to it whenever he wanted moano.

After a good day of fishing, he and his two friends would lay out a variety of colorful fish on the lawn; if there was a lot of small fish, some might be sold at Dote’s Market or be given away to neighbors and friends. The big fish were divided up among the fishermen. Sometimes my mother would give me a sea bass to take to the family of my best friend, a Chinese-Portuguese boy who lived up Kea‘ahala Road.

My father told my mother he wanted to retire from his job as a radio technician (he was only in his late 30’s) and work as a fisherman; all she had to do was make enough money to pay the rent and buy rice.

The story of Ku‘ula-kai evoked memories of my boyhood fishing trips with my father and our summer car rides to Hana. It also raised some questions in my mind: where was Leho‘ula? Were the petrified remains of the puhi slain by ‘Ai‘ai really there? Around this time, I began to be aware how little I knew about these islands that I called home. I had learned nothing about Hawaiian traditions during my colonial education in Hawai‘i. In my 17 years of schooling in Hawai‘i, including five years at the University of Hawai‘i, not a single traditional Hawaiian story had been required reading. My teachers, many of whom, like my parents, were born and raised in Hawai‘i and educated in the same public school and university system I had attended, spoke no Hawaiian and knew almost nothing about the 2,000-year-old traditions of the kanaka maoli – the first people to discover and settle the islands. The most famous place in Hana was the Hasegawa General Store, established in 1910 – as if history had begun there with the plantation era and the sale of consumer goods.

On our family trips to Hana, we were third-generation tourists traveling through a tropical landscape, ignorant of the stories associated with the landscape, the record of human life from the preceding centuries. After a while, physical landscapes became boring, which is perhaps the reason I had not returned to Hana in 20 years – the same hill, the same tree, the same fern, the same waterfall, the same road. Where were the spirits of the land? Was it possible to claim to know, to be a part of, to dwell comfortably in a place without honoring ancestral spirits and traditions which humanize every landscape?

The very idea of humanity required such an honoring; yet the Euroamerican colonial enterprise that had spread to all parts of the globe, including Hawai‘i, had been disrespectful of indigenous peoples and traditions. The contempt toward natives was crystallized in such characters as the 17th century stereotype of Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Subhuman, half-man, half-fish, a fool lusting after Prospero’s daughter, Caliban represents the “Savage” that Europeans believed inhabited the Caribbean islands and other parts of the world. The notion of the superiority of Europeans and their culture has been perpetuated in British and American colonies through education, with its usually uncritical required readings of Shakespeare, Defoe, Kipling, London, and other writers who created patronizing or demeaning stereotypes of native peoples and societies. American missionaries and schoolteachers who came to Hawai‘i attacked the native culture as “savage” and “pagan” and worked to suppress it. The Reverend Sheldon Dibble, a missionary-teacher at Lahainaluna High School in the 1830’s, who taught native scholars such as Malo and Kamakau, wrote:

The Hawaiians were sorely oppressed, wretchedly destitute, and exceedingly ignorant; stupid to all that is lovely, grand, and awful in the works of God; low, naked, filthy, vile and sensual; covered with every abomination, stained with blood and black with crime. Idolatry also reigned with all its obscenity, frantic rage and horrid exhibitions of bleeding human sacrifices. (qtd. in Bushnell 16)

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser commented in 1862 on a project to take a hula exhibition to San Francisco: “A man must be pretty hard up for employment to undertake an exhibition of these islanders and their disgusting dances in a civilized country and a refined community” (qtd. in Noyes 38); in 1903, the missionary D.L Leonard boasted of “success” in the islands, “…a region larger than several of our states has been redeemed from utter savagery…the natives are steadily disappearing in number and seem likely sooner or later to disappear” (qtd. in Noyes 38).

More recently, in his essay “Marrakech” (1939), George Orwell sarcastically mimics the British-European attitude toward non-Europeans:

When you walk through a town like this – two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in – when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces – besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects.

Later in the essay, Orwell refers to the “invisibility” of the native people. And American writer Joan Didion echoes his remarks 25 years later in an essay entitled “Notes of a Native Daughter”: “…it is characteristic of Californians [of Euroamerican ancestry] to speak grandly of the past as if it had simultaneously begun, tabula rasa, and reached a happy ending on the day the wagons started west” – even though these settlers were crossing a landscape that had already been inhabited for 12,000 or more years. “Native” history, for Didion, is the five generations of her family living in the Sacramento area.


The story of Ku‘ula-kai inspired me to revisit Hana to see if I could find the sites associated with the traditions of this fishing god. It was a way to remember my father and to honor some ancient gods of Hawai‘i. I wanted to look again at the places of my childhood with a different set of eyes, a different vision, based on a knowledge of stories that people the landscapes with ancient spirits.

I knew I would need the help of a kama‘aina to find the backbone of the puhi. My friend Esther Mo‘okini suggested I go and ask Clifford Hashimoto, the director of the Hana Cultural Center, about the location of this legendary place.

On the way to Hana, I stopped at Wailuanui, a site connected with the story of ‘Ai‘ai. At this bay, ‘Ai‘ai directed a friend in the capture of a giant he‘e (octopus) using the famous cowry shell lure Leho‘ula, bequeathed to ‘Ai‘ai by his father. This fishing expedition was a rite of passage for the friend, like the rite through which ‘Ai‘ai had passed in slaying the giant puhi that raided his father’s fishpond. The he‘e was attracted by the beautiful colors of the cowry shell and came out of its hole; when it rose to the surface on the shell, ‘Ai‘ai’s protege shoved a stone into its head and being powerless to remove the stone, the he‘e sank to the bottom and died. It was so large, only one arm could be transported back to Hana aboard the canoes. The body and seven other legs were left in the Bay, where they turned to stones visible above the waves today.

On my childhood visits to Hana, we had driven past the bay at Wailuanui without noticing it. This time I turned off the highway and followed the road down to the shore. Out among the waves, in the middle of the bay was a cluster of rocks: was this the remains of the he‘e killed by ‘Ai‘ai’s friend?

I found the Hana Cultural Center in two small buildings on a slope overlooking Hana Bay. I met the director in his office in an old one-room courthouse. He was part-Hawaiian, retired from military service. He had grown up in Hamoa, an area south of Hana town. We talked story a while and I told him about my grandmother’s restaurant in Kui‘aha, which he knew of. When I asked him about the Ku‘ula-kai story, he said that while the natives of Hana know the story, such old traditions were passing from living memory. When I asked him if the backbone of the puhi really existed, he said yes.

The conversation drifted into his family background. He told me his great-grandfather was one of the first Japanese plantation workers in Hawai‘i in the 19th century. His grandfather worked on the coffee plantations on the Kona coast of the Big Island and married a Hawaiian woman; his father moved to Hana. Coincidentally, The Hana News (July 1991), which I found in my hotel room, carried an interview with Hashimoto’s sister reminiscing about growing up in Hamoa. Her father, she said, “worked for the county. On the hillside by their home, he grew taro and planted sweet potatoes, cabbages, beans, pumpkin, squash and other vegetables for family use. … Everyone worked and help out in the house or garden. At home, the Hashimoto children spoke English only; the adults spoke Hawaiian when they didn’t want the children to know what they were talking about. Lani said her grandfather read Japanese newspapers, and translated the news into Hawaiian for his Hawaiian friends.”

Hashimoto promised to show me the backbone of the puhi the next morning. I met him at 7:30 a.m., and after breakfast, we stopped at the Hana Ranch office to get permission to cross their land. An office worker gave us the key to the gate blocking vehicle access to Leho‘ula Beach, where the Ranch had a camping and picnic area. We drove across the pasture to the rocky beach. It was an overcast morning, and surf was breaking over the near-shore rocks. Hashimoto said that when he was young, he would walk along the coast past this area to school and that back then the remnants of a wall could be seen underwater, possibly the wall of a fishpond. No remnants were visible now. The shore formed a right angle, so a single straight wall could create an enclosure where schools of young fish might be trapped and raised. But the area was exposed to the prevailing trade wind swells and the big north swells of winter. Whether it had walls “twenty feet thick and ten feet high and an inlet for the fish to go in and out” (Beckwith 20) or was “a small rock-lined pool…principally for small fish” (Sterling 142), the fishpond would have been battered by waves and regularly maintained or rebuilt.

We walked along a narrow path through a thicket of hau trees and out to a stretch of volcanic rock near the breaking surf: there, in the lava, appeared a thirty-foot-long formation that looked like the backbone of a puhi. At that moment I was transported from modern Hawai‘i into its ancient past: the spirits of Ku‘ula-kai, Hina, and ‘Ai‘ai alive in the landscape. What a reader gains from a story like Ku‘ula-kai’s is knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of pre-Christian, pre-capitalist, pre-colonial Hawai‘i and a closer connection to the land and sea. Like the many other stories from oral tradition recorded and published in Hawaiian or English during the 19th and 20th centuries (a literary tradition), the story of Ku‘ula-kai contains history and geography, as well as religious beliefs and values that contributed to the survival and well-being of the kanaka maoli for over 80 generations.

History: Ku‘ula-kai’s fishpond at the beach at Leho‘ula must have been built at the beginning of the period of population expansion in Hawai‘i, from 1100 to 1650 A.D. During this period, irrigation works, dry-land cultivation, and fishponds were developed and food production increased; at the same time, society became more stratified and ruling chiefs began to control larger areas of land (Kirch Feathered Gods 303-306). The chiefs became dependent on experts in fishing, farming, canoe building, and other arts to maintain their courts, make the land and sea productive, and feed the people. Experts of extraordinary talent were deified for their special mana and some (e.g., Ku‘ula-kai, a fisherman; Ku‘ula-uka, a farmer; Kumokuhali‘i, a canoe-builder) were given the name of Ku in honor of the war god whose mana had helped the ali‘i conquer and control their domains. These experts were inventors of new, more efficient ways of doing things, builders of heiau, roads, extensive wet-land and dry-land plantations, fleets of voyaging and fishing canoes, and fishponds; they used the mana of Ku for peacetime activities.
Fishponds were constructed with two facing walls of stone or coral, filled with rubble. Ponds with walls 5,000 feet long (He‘eia fishpond in Kane‘ohe Bay), 19 feet thick and 5.5 feet high have been documented (Summers Hawaiian Fishponds 5-6). Kamakau estimates that some of the fishponds would have required thousands of workers to build and maintain. Kikuchi believes that these large fishponds eventually served as status symbols for chiefs because they allowed the chiefs to enjoy “select fish on call” (299).

Geography: Place names and the physical features and resources of each place were memorized in stories rather than recorded on maps or in books. The stories were geography lessons that familiarized the listener with the landscape they lived in. The numerous place names suggest a large population with a detailed knowledge of the islands; nuances of the landscape were noticed. Perhaps the most famous examples of such geography lessons are found in the story of the navigators Paka‘a and Ku-a-paka‘a. It contains wind chants naming dozens of ahupua‘a (land sections) on each island and the winds associated with each – essential knowledge for sailing around the islands on canoes. (See Moses K. Nakuina’s The Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao.)

The story of Ku‘ula-kai also contains dozens of place names, particularly those associated with ko‘a, or fishing grounds. After his revenge against the king of Hana was complete, ‘Ai‘ai is said to have dedicated his life to teaching the people of Hawai‘i the arts of fishing and traveled from island to island locating or establishing places to gather sea resources on Maui, Kaho‘olawe, Lana‘i, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and Hawai‘i. For example, at Honoma‘ele, Maui, he established a ko‘a for ‘aweoweo; at Polihua (“Bosom [of] eggs”), a beach on the northwest coast of Lana‘i, he placed a stone to attract honu ashore to lay their eggs; at a beach near Kaunakakai, Moloka‘i, he discovered pua ‘i‘i (baby mullet) swarming near shore, and began a practice of kicking them onto the sand with one’s feet; on the cliffs of Makapu‘u, O‘ahu, he placed a fishing stone called Malei, to attract and multiply uhu, for which the sea below the cliffs is famous.

Religious Beliefs: The belief in the mana of stones to attract fish, even when the stones were placed on land, is based on the observation that fish congregate around rock and coral formations in the ocean to graze on limu growing on them or to hide in holes from predators. Malei, the uhu stone of Makapu‘u, is just one such fish-attracting stone. The first fish stone set up by ‘Ai‘ai, at Leho‘ula, was called Pohaku-muone (“Sand-stone”); another stone, called Ku-a-lanakila (“Stand in victory”), was set up at Hamoa; a third at Kau‘iki was called Makakiloi‘a (“Eyes of the fish spotter”).

Such stones have become the source of modern legends. One such fishstone, “formerly located in a place next to the fish pond of Haneo‘o [in Hana],” was taken home by a Japanese man named Murakami. He worshiped the stone by pouring sake (rice wine) on it, apparently hoping to “improve his luck in fishing”:

Many Hawaiians advised him that the stone would only cause trouble for him, but he disregarded this warning. Sometime after the “installation” his first son died in an accident; Hawaiians again remonstrated but their warnings were disregarded. After another period of time his second son became insane. (Sterling 150)

Finally, Murakami had the stone broken into pieces and thrown into an imu fire. (Burning in an imu was a traditional Hawaiian practice for destroying one’s enemies.) A terrible stench is said to have permeated the land around the imu. The story does not make it clear whether Murakami’s family was punished by the Christian god for worshipping a “pagan” stone; or by the Hawaiian gods, for moving the stone from its original place or inventing an inappropriate rite of worship.

Malei, the uhu stone of Makapu‘u, also figures in misfortunes. It is said to have been thrown into the sea, buried, or broken up by the haole keeper of the Makapu‘u lighthouse, who was told the stone was causing the illness of his Hawaiian wife; he himself died soon after getting rid of the stone (Sterling and Summers 258-259).

In traditional times these fish stones were sites of worship where the first fish caught were placed as offerings to give thanks to the gods and insure a future supply – one fish for the male (Ku) and one for the female (Hina). ‘Ai‘ai is said to have spread this practice throughout the island as a form of worshipping his father and mother, and his work made them the chief fishing gods of Hawai‘i.

These altars were constructed by placing a single special stone or groups of stones or a piece of wood inside a ring of smaller stones; or by piling up stones and coral into a mound. Such constructions were found throughout the islands along the coast. The piles of stones and coral seem to imitate the ko‘a, or coral mounds in the sea where fish congregate; these altars are called by the same name, ko‘a, or ko‘a ku‘ula, or simply ku‘ula; however, not all ko‘a were erected for Ku‘ula-kai. Kamakau notes that Ku‘ula, “a great fisherman of ancient times,” was “the main ‘aumakua of fishermen,” but there “were a great many fishing ‘aumakua, each related to his descendants, and each raised above [all others] by his own descendants” (Works 61).

A ko‘a could be dedicated to any of the fishing gods: “The people whose god was Ku‘ula built Ku‘ula ko‘a; those whose god was Kanemakua built Kanemakua ko‘a, and those of Kinilau, Kamohoali‘i and Kaneko‘a did likewise, and so there were many, many ko‘a” (Works 133). Traditions of fishing gods besides Ku‘ula-kai have been passed down: Maikoha (the god who transformed himself into a wauke plant, from whose bark kapa is made) had four sisters who are said to have transformed themselves into fishing spots or fishponds around O‘ahu: the sister Kaihuopala‘ai became a fishpond for ‘anae at Kapapaapuhi in ‘Ewa; the sister Kaihuko‘a changed into a fishing ground near Ka‘ena, where ulua, kahala, and mahimahi are caught. Ihukoko, a third sister, went to Kawailoa in Waialua, bringing aholehole with her; and Kaihuku‘una (“ku‘una” is a place where a fishing net was lowered and set) went to Lai‘e in Ko‘olauloa, bringing ‘anae to the area. Their oldest brother, Kane‘aukai (“Kane, the ocean traveler”) floated ashore as a piece of wood at Mokule‘ia and became a fishing god for the North Shore of O‘ahu. (Fish are attracted to things that float at sea, like pieces of wood – small fish for food or protection from birds, bigger fish to feed on the small fish.) A ko‘a was set up for Kane‘aukai at Keahuohapu‘u, the bluff on the south side of Waimea Bay dividing the district of Waialua from Ko‘olauloa; the ko‘a is said to attract ‘anae and kala, which are abundant in the area from April to July (Fornander, Vol. 5, 270-273).

Ethics: The story of Ku‘ula-kai is primarily a religious text. Ku‘ula-kai and ‘Ai‘ai, like other gods, established good practices and exemplify values. One such value is to work to benefit the people. Ku‘ula-kai is remembered for constructing the first fishpond to feed the chief and people of Hana; ‘Ai‘ai for teaching the arts of fishing and locating and establishing fishing grounds throughout the islands.

‘Ai‘ai also encouraged generosity. At Ma‘ulili Bay on Maui, when a stranger named Kanemakua (“Kane, the parent,” a fishing god) drifted by in a canoe, without a fish, ‘Ai‘ai gave him the first fish caught at the fishing ground, advising him to share whatever he caught with others and so become known for generosity. The traditional culture encouraged people to take care of not just themselves or their relatives, but guests and strangers as well. Stinginess and greed were punished; chiefs and others who did not distribute the wealth of the land and sea fairly were deposed or killed. One story tells of how the fishermen of Kaçu were angered by the greed of their aliçi, who always wanted to keep the entire catch of aku for himself. They loaded down his canoe at sea with fish so that it swamped, then left him to drown (Pukui Folktales 74-75). (The so-called “Aloha Spirit” represents the tourism industry’s commercialization of this tradition of generosity and hospitality, whose original purpose was to create community, not profit.)

The distribution of the catch became formalized to insure that everyone got a fair share. For example, the first day’s catch of kala (unicorn fish), taken with hina‘i (basket traps), was given to the chief, who gave 20-40 fish from each trap to the akua; from these, 3-5 from each trap went to the fisherman. On the second day the catch from the first trap pulled up was cooked and offered to the fishing ‘aumakua, after which the fish was free to be eaten by the fishermen and the heads of households. Then an offering was made to the female ‘aumakua and divided among the households living in the ahupua‘a (Kamakau Works 85).

‘Ai‘ai also taught conservation of fish and other sealife. At Wailau on Moloka‘i, he witnessed “wanton” overfishing of ‘o‘opu and ‘opae “without any thought of conservation for their propagation,” so he punished the people by making the ‘o‘opu and ‘opae disappear: “those in the water went up the stream to a place called Koki, while those in the gourds were turned into lizards which scampered away”(Manu 22-23). The practice of conservation was commonplace and widespread in traditional Hawai‘i. The rule was to take only what you needed and in such a way that whatever was gathered would regenerate by the following season (e.g., breaking off the branches of seaweed rather than uprooting the plant; not taking female fish during spawning season). The konohiki, or overseer, of an ahupua‘a was responsible for examining the condition of plant and animal life on the reefs. He could place a kapu on any form of life that needed protection (Titcomb 14). A person who broke a kapu could be punished or put to death – by a chief or a god. At Paumalu (“Taken secretly”), on the North Shore of O‘ahu, a woman who tried to take more he‘e than was permitted by the ali‘i and his konohiki had her legs bitten off by the guardian mano of the area (McAllister 151). (Recently, a diver spear-fishing at night near this same area was bitten by a shark.)

The basis of this conservation of resources was the rootedness of the people in the ‘aina and kai; an ‘ohana (extended family) lived for generations in the same place. They were nourished by the land and sea where they lived, directly accessing the food supply. The ideal was to protect the life of the land and sea for their descendants, in perpetuity; each generation was responsible for ensuring the food supply for future generations. The limits of resources on their small, isolated islands were clear; they could see the boundaries of the ahupua‘a that fed them, from this mountain ridge to that mountain ridge, and within these boundaries was everything they needed for their survival and well-being. The ‘ohana were in daily contact with the environment and could observe the effects of their activities on the plant and animal life. When fish were less abundant or schools of migratory fish were late in arriving, there must have been anxieties about the possibility of hunger or famine. The response was both practical (limits on the taking of fish) and religious (the worship of gods who could attract fish). Today, with most of our food and other needs imported, conserving island resources is not as obvious a need, or as high a priority, as it was in former times.


When my father brought home our first RCA black-and-white television in the 50’s, the images, music, and messages of modern American culture flowed continually into our living room, promoting youthful rebellion, individualism, and wasteful consumption of mass-produced food and disposable products. It was a culture created by capitalists whose mission was to exploit and profit from labor, resources, and markets on a global scale. Like the greedy eel who came to raid the fishpond of Ku‘ula and Hina, capitalism broke into Hawai‘i in the 19th century and disrupted the traditional economy and way of life. Television was just its latest tool for imposing its beliefs and values globally.

Capitalism detaches individuals from family and birthplace, offers jobs and livelihood to those willing to move where their labor or skills are needed. It draws the landless, the impoverished, the discontent, the refugee from home. Some of the factors in the disintegration of the ‘ohana rooted in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, have been identified by Handy and Pukui:

Partly as a consequence of the sudden abandonment of the kapu (legal tabu) system in 1819; partly due to the influence of foreign education imposing from the outset Euro-American principles, conceptions and ideals of marriage, relationship and duty: but chiefly as a secondary consequence of the marriage of Hawaiian women to white and Oriental men (often for the sake of economic security under the new system), the ‘ohana system has lost its integrity….

Along with the disintegration of the ‘ohana and concurrent economic changes has gone the removal from ‘aina or land of birth. When a Hawaiian woman married a man of another race it was not only likely to remove her and her children somewhat from the ‘ohana, but also from the ‘aina. Other influences, in Ka‘u as elsewhere, potent in separating individuals from homeland have been: in the early days the recruiting of native sailors for whaling; the establishment of the sugar plantations; ranching, which inevitably had the effect of disrupting native agriculture, the taking over of commercial fishing and favourable fishing localities by Orientals; the substitution of rice for taro in irrigated land (lo‘i), and of Oriental for Hawaiian labour where taro continued to be grown; and last but by no means least the steady flow of Hawaiians to Honolulu, the able-bodied men seeking work on the waterfront, in the public services and government offices, both sexes being drawn thither for purposes of being taught and of teaching, elders coming to be with their young folks, and many lured from the country by the excitement, sociability, and conveniences of city life. (15-16)


Other factors in the disruption of the traditional way of life included foreign diseases, which decimated the Hawaiian population and made the ‘ohana less functional; the conversion of land into private property (1848); the passage of a law allowing foreigners to buy and own land (1850), with a promise that it would attract foreign investment and bring wealth and prosperity to the islands by making possible the development of extensive ranches and plantations; the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy after it became an obstacle to foreign profiteers (1893); and five years later, the annexation of the islands by the United States (Kame‘eleihiwa Native Land 137-318).

A familiar story. Capitalists, backed by the military forces of imperialist nations, have been roaming the globe for centuries, competing for and taking control of land and resources. When the opportunities for profits diminish in one place, they leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere – kolea, as Pi‘ilani calls them, birds that come to Hawai‘i in the winter to get fat before flying off to their summer nesting grounds in Alaska.

The accumulation of capital has no limits – products are turned into money, which is stored in banks, invested, or spent. Driven by competitive greed and anxiety over not having enough, individuals exploit resources and reap profits beyond what they or their children would need or could spend in multiple lifetimes. The religions of capitalism preach that this world doesn’t matter (so why conserve its resources?); only the spiritual hereafter counts. On the other hand, to be wealthy in this life, not to suffer any physical wants, to be better off than others are signs of God’s love.


In 1989, a fleet of 13 long-line fishing boats owned by Vietnamese immigrants, refugees of a capitalist war, arrived in Hawai‘i via Louisiana, where they had been catching shrimp (Honolulu Advertiser August 29 B1+). Long-liners lay several miles of line, with hundreds of hooks, catching indiscriminately whatever swims by and throwing away what can’t be sold. They have been accused of decimating the world’s populations of swordfish, tuna, and sharks. The immigrant fishermen, all belonging to one extended family, once rooted in an ancestral homeland, now rootless, came to Hawai‘i because the weather was bad for half of the year in the Gulf of Mexico, and the competition for shrimp was fierce; they had heard that the weather was good in Hawai‘i and profits could be made in long-line tuna fishing. One of them summarized their motivation: “If over here good, then stay here. If not good, go somewhere else. We just want to make money.” After the fishermen encountered opposition to their rapacious method of fishing and discovered that they would have to give 10% of their profits to the local fishing auction agency (in the Hawaiian tradition of sharing a part of the catch with one’s community), they were considering moving on to Guam, where “They got no rules, a lot of fish, not so many boats.”

Local commercial fishermen, also profit-seeking, have overfished the waters of Hawai‘i, depleting the very resource that is their livelihood. After the abandonment of the konohiki and kapu system in the early 19th century, there was no regulation of fishing. Unclaimed inshore fishing grounds and all the fishing grounds beyond the reef were opened to everyone by Kamehameha III. The stocks of near shore fish dwindled as population increased, fishing methods became more efficient, and more and more people fished without limits on their catch.

In the 1980’s, the state and federal governments stepped in as modern konohiki and established conservation laws: controlling the number of commercial fishermen through licensing, limiting the size and number of fish taken, placing restrictions on types of equipment used, prohibiting fishing during spawning seasons or in designated areas, and so on. Still, local fishermen complain that fish and other seafood such as limu (seaweed) and ‘opihi (a shellfish) are scarcer now than ever before. Recently, the catch of choice deep-sea bottomfish (‘opakapaka, ‘ula‘ula, and uku) began decreasing dramatically around the major islands; and the state, supported by some worried commercial fishermen, is planning to restrict bottom fishing at designated fishing grounds during spawning season while doing research on how to re-build and maintain the stocks of these fish.


But governments have limited resources and personnel for enforcing their fishing laws. Today, conservation would work only if informed communities, rooted in place and committed to protecting resources for future generations, adopted restrictions on production and consumption, along with population and pollution controls. And such practices would have to be applied globally: fish stocks around the world have been “damaged by pollution, by destruction of wetlands that serve as nurseries and provide food, by the waste of unprofitable fish (called ‘bycatch’), and, above all, simply by overfishing. As a result of these changes, some fish stocks have collapsed, and many important groups of fish are fished either to the sustainable capacity or beyond it” (Parfit 9). The United States and Canada have fished out Atlantic cod and redfish and are now debating sustainable salmon quotas in the Pacific Northwest. While national laws apply out to 200 nautical miles from terrestrial borders, the ocean beyond can be regulated only by international treaties. Fish in open waters are being scooped up by giant high-tech trawlers, factories at sea, backed by national governments: “The hungry, restless, distant-water ships of Spain, China, Russia, Poland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and many others, forced from their traditional grounds by 200-mile limits or by stock declines at home, search the world” (Parfit 21).

As the high winds of greed sweep the fire of global capitalism from Europe and America across Asia, Africa, South America, and Oceania, consuming everything in its path, the ancient fishing gods may be forced to flee the burning planet, finding refuge elsewhere and taking all the fish in the seas with them.