Introduction: Hawaiian Fishing Traditions
Dennis Kawaharada / 2006
I love fish, to eat ‘ama‘ama
Sam Alama’s “‘Ama‘Ama”
Hail to the manini and the popolo
Lot Kauwe’s “Aloha Ka Manini”
Before the introduction of haole foods, Hawaiians recognized two main classes of food: ‘ai, or vegetable food, particularly taro and poi, but also sweet potato, breadfruit, yam, and other produce of the land; and i‘a, or seafood. While pig, dog, chicken and wild birds were eaten, and might also be called i‘a (meat), fish was the main source of protein. ‘Ai was the bland staple, i‘a the tasty accompaniment that made eating a delight. Seafood was eaten live, raw, baked, broiled, dried, and fermented. The word ‘ono, “delicious”; describes the wide variety of seafood that pleased the palate. Songs such as Sam Alama’s “‘Ama‘Ama” and Lot Kauwe’s “Aloha Ka Manini” sing praises of tasty fish.
With a knowledge of fishing areas and seasons and an array of implements that included hooks and lines, lures, nets, basket traps, poisonous plants, and spears, a fisher supplied his family or his ali‘i with fish and shellfish from streams, fishponds, reefs, and ocean. Sometimes the catch was so huge, fish could be fed to the pigs and dogs, with some left over to dry as food or fuel for fire; some was left to rot. Those fishers that could supply large amounts of fish from ponds or catches at sea were believed to possess mana kupua, or supernatural power, to attract fish at will or make them multiply. Successful fishing implements, such as hooks or cowry shell lures became famous and were prized, passed on to heirs, and sometimes fought over.
This collection of Hawaiian fishing stories celebrates the great fishers of ancient times, who were known for their abilities to bring in extraordinary catches and for their victories over adversaries, including supernatural eel (puhi), octopus (he‘e), and shark (mano). Two of the most famous fishers were Ku‘ula-kai, who along with his wife, Hina-puku-i‘a, became deified and worshiped as ‘aumakua of fishing because of their power over fish; and their son ‘Ai‘ai, who traveled around the islands establishing fishing grounds and shrines and teaching the people how to catch fish. Other notable fishers whose stories are told in this collection include ‘Ai‘ai’s son Puniaiki and the ali‘i .Nihooleki, who possessed pearl-shell aku lures (pa hi aku) that could bring in canoe loads of fish; Puniakai‘a, an ali‘i of Kane‘ohe, noted for his friendship with Uhumaka‘ika‘i, a parrot fish who was the parent of all fish and who could draw fish to shore from all directions; and the mo‘o woman Kalamainu‘u, who learned from ‘Ounauna (hermit crab) how to make and bait the hina‘i hinalea, a basket trap for catching hinalea.
In addition to memorializing the great fishers of Hawai‘i, these stories express two socioeconomic concerns: the conservation of fish resources and the fair and generous distribution of the catch. The fishing ‘aumakua Ku‘ula-kai and Hina-puku-i‘a and their son ‘Ai‘ai were known not just for fishing, but for propagating and conserving fish. ‘Ai‘ai punished the wanton fishing of ‘o‘opu and ‘opae in Wailau, Moloka‘i, by getting his parents to use their supernatural powers to take away the catch. The ali‘i of Hawai‘i used kapu to prevent the people from overfishing an area or from fishing during spawning season. Hau tree branches indicated a kapu against shore fishing along a stretch of beach.
An important fishing kapu concerned the ‘opelu and the aku, two highly prized fish caught in great numbers in Hawaiian waters.‘opelu was netted from July through January. Walter Paulo and Eddie Ka‘anana, two ‘opelu fishermen from Miloli‘i, told me the best time for catching this fish is in October. ‘opelu was placed under kapu in February, until the end its spawning season, around July. The kapu on aku was lifted in February at the end of the Makahiki, the annual four-moth long harvest festival; aku was taken by trolling with lures through mid-summer during the period when ‘opelu was kapu. Aku was placed under kapu in July, when the ‘opelu kapu was lifted and it could be caught and eaten again. The exact dates of the kapu were at the discretion of the fishing experts and priests. This kapu had religious sanction: both fish were sacred to the descendants of Pa‘ao, a high priest, because the aku and ‘opelu saved him from storms sent by his brother Lonopele during a voyage from the South Pacific to Hawai‘i. (See “The Story of Paao and Lonopele,” Pukui Folktales 68-70; “The Story of Pa‘ao,” Kamakau, Tales 3-5.) The kapu protected these fish from overfishing and from being killed during their spawning seasons and hence insured their survival; breaking the kapu could result in death.
Kamakau describes the fishing kapu during the reign of Kamehameha (b. 1736-d. 1819): “He placed restrictions on sea fisheries for periods of five months, and on the sixth month when the restriction was removed and fishing was allowed all over the land, the king and the commoners were usually the only ones to share the first day’s catch, and the landlords and the commoners the second day’s catch. After this the restrictions were removed, allowing all to fish for six months. At the end of this period restrictions were again placed over certain fish in order that they might increase. These restrictions were also extended to the deep-sea fishing grounds where the kahala were caught and the fish that go in schools, such as deep-sea squid, uhu, aku, and flying fish” (Ruling Chiefs 177- 8).
Mary Kawena Pukui explains how the fishing kapu worked in the district of Ka‘u on the Big Island both to allow people to use the resources and to insure a continuous supply:
In 1839 King Kamehameha III divided up ancient fishing rights, giving “one portion of them to the common people, another portion to the landlords [konohiki], and a portion he reserves for himself.” He kept for himself “certain species from the fishing grounds seaward of the reefs” (MacKenzie 174). The fishing grounds outside the coral reefs were open to all “the Kilohee ground [area where he‘e, or octopi were spotted and caught using a hook and line], the Luhee ground [area where he‘e were too deep to be seen but were caught with cowry shell lures], the Malolo [flying fish] ground, together with the ocean beyond” (174). The konohiki, or overseer, of an ahupua‘a was given the right to regulate fishing in the waters adjoining his ahupua‘a “from the beach at low watermark to the edge of the reefs and, where there was no reef, to one mile seaward of the beach” (175). “The konohiki could regulate fishing within these fisheries by reserving aside or placing a kapu on one specific type of fish for [his] exclusive use; or after consultation with the tenants, by prohibiting fishing during certain months of the year and during the fishing season, taking from each tenant one-third of the fish caught in the fishery” (175). Conflicts sometimes occurred between the konohiki and tenants, and had to be resolved in court.
Kapu on catching or eating a certain kind of fish might apply to a family if the family’s ‘aumakua, or ancestral god, had a fish form. For example, members of the mo‘o, or lizard, lineage avoided eating ‘o‘opu, or goby fish, a sea form of the lizard, for fear of eating an ancestor or a family member whose spirit had entered the fish after death. Other families avoided eating shark or eel or other sea creatures or plants for the same reason. The breaking of the kapu was believed to cause sickness or death. The transformation of people into ancestral animal form, which is the basis for this kapu, is common in traditional Hawaiian stories. Animals and plants were of the same order of being as people, not separate and inferior as in the mythologies of Christianity and European Science. A person could befriend, speak with, and be helped by a fish, as in the story of Puniakai‘a; or turn into a fish, as in the story of ‘Ai‘ai or in the story of Nihooleki where the hero and his friend, the pig-god Kamapua‘a, dive into the water at Kaua‘i and surface at O‘ahu, having traveled from one island to the other in their fish forms. (One of the forms of Kamapua‘a, lit. “Pig-child,” was the humuhumu-nukunuku-a-pua‘a, a trigger fish, lit. “humuhumu with a snout like a pig’s”.) Whatever the religious or sociological reasons for the kapu on eating fish, the end result was that certain families protected and cared for certain species of fish or other animals and plants with which they shared ancestral connections, and in turn, these ‘aumakua protected and cared for the families. (Conservation methods similar to those practiced in Hawai‘i have been noted on islands throughout the Pacific. For example, see Tomoya 22.)
Like the fishing kapu with its threat of the death penalty, narratives could be used to frighten people into obeying the rules of conservation:
The fair distribution of the catch was always a concern of the community. The first fish was usually offered to the fishing ‘aumakua on a ku‘ula, or fishing shrine. Also called a ko‘a, the shrine could be a stone, a pile of stones, or a stone platform near shore. Sometimes there were two shrines, one for the male ‘aumakua and one for the female.
After the offering to the ‘aumakua, the catch was shared with the fisher’s relatives. When fishing required more than one person, the catch was distributed among all involved. Kamakau describes the division of the catch after fishing with a bag net, which required a team of workers: “When the canoe fleet reached shore, fish would be given to the divers and the helpers: to those who had gotten the nets ready on land; to those who had set the net for the fish to enter the papa [middle portion of a bag net], and to those on the canoe which had carried the nets. When the fish was distributed, the largest portion went to the fisherman. His wife also got a large share for herself and her relatives. She got several canoe loads, for she had a major right (kuleana nui) in the net” (Kamakau, Works 64). The fisherman also gave fish to those who had provided him with equipment lines, nets, and canoes. The fair distribution of food was a Polynesian tradition that could be very exacting in practice. Te Rangi Hiroa describes the distribution of fish after a community effort with nets in the Cook Islands:
The head fisherman took the large fish of a similar kind and laid out one for each family [involved in the fishing]. He then added fish in turn to each heap until the pile was exhausted. Chiefly families were given priority in distribution of the better or larger fish, and a family of greater numerical numbers might be given a few extra. The official distributor used his own judgment based on a thorough knowledge of the number and status of the various families. No squabbling took place at the distribution, but persons who felt that they had not received their just due might nurse a grudge that flared into acts of hostility. The customary method of distribution is still carried out, and it is characteristic of Polynesian hospitality to give shares to resident Europeans even though they may not assist in the fishing operations. (Arts and Crafts of the Cook Island 209)
If the fishing was done for or by an ali‘i, the fish belonged to him and he had the right to distribute the catch, but he was obligated to do so generously. Kamehameha was noted for being generous with his catch: “He would often go out with his fishermen to Kekaha off Ka‘elehuluhulu [North Kona] and when there had been a great catch of aku or ‘ahi he would give it away to the chiefs and people, the cultivators and canoe makers” (Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs 203). On the other hand, the following story from “The Despotic Chiefs of Ka‘u,” told by Kali‘ihue Alakaihu, tells of the fate of a greedy chief:
In the story of Ruatapu from “Traditions of Aitutaki, Cook Islands,” an ariki of Mauke named Moenau, notorious for his greed, is also killed: “He would seldom go fishing, but would go down to the beach and meet the canoes coming in from fishing. He would then help himself to any fish he fancied, often taking all the fish from one canoe and leaving the owner to go home hungry without any fish for his family.” Finally, two men lured Moenau into a trap with an offer of taro and fish. When he sat down on their snare, they caught him by the testicles and pulled the rope tight, then speared him to death and threw his body into a cave (Low 173-174).
Te Rangi Hiroa reports a similar Rarotongan story, where the punihsment is exile rather than death. A greedy chief would sit by a path and wait for fishermen to return; the passing fishermen were obliged to open their baskets and allow him to pick out the best fish.
His method was to hold up one finger and say, “Give me a fish for this.” If there were any fish left when he had exhausted both hands, he started on his toes. The people prepared to rise against him, but one of his leading mataiapo [district chief] conveyed a warning to him in a subtle manner. He asked the chief to accompany him on a walk through the village to see his people; but as the two men approached each house, its door was closed against the chief. At the end of the village, the mataiapo said to him “You see the feeling of the people against you. My advice is that you go before anything happens.” That night the chief fled with his wife to another village. (Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands 209-10)
Lt. David Porter, in Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean (1822), reported a similar story in the Marquesas Islands, where a chief of Taiohae was expelled because he was “a notorious glutton”: His offense…was the frequent waylaying of the poorer class on their return from fishing and taking from them fish: they therefore rose in a body and drove him from the valley” (Thomas 103).
The story of ‘Ai‘ai suggests that generosity in distributing the catch should extend even to strangers. At Koanui, a fishing ground outside of Ma‘ulili Bay near Kipahulu on the southeast coast of Maui, ‘Ai‘ai is said to have given his first catch to an unsuccessful fisherman who drifted by. ‘Ai‘ai put the man in charge of the fishing ground and told him, “When you come here to fish and see a man approach you in a canoe and float alongside you, if you have already caught a fish, give it to him as I have done to you, without regret, and thus get a good name for yourself and be known as a generous man. If you follow this advice, great benefits will come to you and your relations.” A similar customary generosity was also reported in Samoa: “Fishermen, on coming in, must give a fish or a portion of fish to anyone they meet in the water of the lagoon or on the shore” (Te Rangi Hiroa, Samoan Material Culture 519).
Titcomb says that in old Hawai‘i any person, even a child, was allowed to walk up to a pile of fish and take one, as long as it was for his or her own use: “It was thought displeasing to the gods to demand the return of fish taken without the right” (8). This practice of feeding strangers received the sanction of law during the reign of the O‘ahu ali‘i Kuali‘i Kunuiakea Kuikealaikauaokalani. According to the kanawai (law) Ni‘aupi‘o Kolowalu, “farmers and fishermen had to welcome strangers and feed the hungry. If a man said he was hungry, he must be fed. If he invoked this kanawai, then the food became dedicated and could not be withheld by the person whose food it was it was lost to him through the kanawai, and he had to give it up. But a person who invoked this law of the king took care that he invoked it rightly, lest the punishment should be upon himself. If he invoked the kanawai only to rob another of food and provisions, then the burden of the punishment would rebound upon himself. The wrongdoer who had refused him food, and who had been about to die because of that, was released” (Kamakau, People 14). The taking of food from others had to be for need; pili wale “living off others” was discouraged. In the story “Na Piliwale” (Wichman 18-25), two supernatural sisters, who gluttonously devour the food of their hosts, are tricked into exposing themselves to sunlight, which turns them into two rocks still pointed out today.
The ideal of sharing the catch was not always the practice. Kamakau notes that a “bad” person who did not want to share his or her he‘e (octopus) catch with others, would hide part of it in the sea and after the dividing was over, would go back out to get the hidden portion (Works 71). Furthermore, although the god ‘Ai‘ai shared his knowledge of fishing with all the people, Hawaiian and other Pacific island fishermen often guarded their rights to certain fishing grounds and kept their techniques and fishing spots secret. Kamakau says Hawaiian fishermen would sometimes paddle out of sight before pulling up their catches so that no one would know exactly where the fish were taken: “In this way those who had secret fishing grounds kept their locations from becoming common knowledge. That is why most of the fishing grounds of ka po‘e kahiko are unknown to their descendants and their locations have been lost” (Works 79).
But while secrecy and greed were not unheard of, the sharing of the catch was the norm. The sharing took place not just within a fishing community living along the coast, but between the members of an extended family community, or ‘ohana, some of whom lived on the coast and fished, and some of whom lived in the uplands and farmed or gathered food from the forest:
The saying “O ko-a-uka, o ko-a-kai” (“The uplander, the lowlander”) meant “The upland native gives his products to his lowland kinsman, and the lowlander to his upland kinsman” (Handy and Pukui 183). A similar system of exchange existed between inland dwellers and coastal dwellers on other Pacific islands, with the food products of the land (the Hawaiian ‘ai) complementing the food products of the sea (the Hawaiian i‘a). Bronislaw Malinowski notes in the Trobriand Islands off Papua New Guinea “fishing can be done all year round, and has developed into a regular trade, as the villagers are often requested by an inland community to provide fish in exchange for yams” (88).
This interdependence of land and sea, embodying the ideal health and integrity of extended island families, is often represented in traditional Hawaiian stories by a pair of characters (a mother and a son, a husband and a wife, a brother and a sister, two brothers), one living in the uplands and one living near the sea, sharing their products with each other. Ku‘ula-kai, the fisherman, and Ku‘ula-uka, the farmer, could live in harmony, because their domains did not overlap unlike the domains of the Biblical brothers, Abel the sheepherder and Cain the farmer, who, according to one commentator, may have come into conflict over land use.
The punishment of stingy behavior is a common motif in traditional stories. For example, after his wife neglects to welcome and feed the pig demi-god Kamapua‘a, the fisherman Nihooleki abandons his wife on Kaua‘i and returns to O‘ahu. In the story of Ke-ahi-a-Kahoe (“The fire of Kahoe” a peak in the Ko‘olau mountains overlooking Kane‘ohe), Pahu, a stingy fisherman of He‘eia, gives his brother .Kahoe, a generous farmer of Ha‘iku, “only the left over bait fish”; Kahoe discovers the stinginess. When famine comes, the stingy brother cannot ask the generous brother for food and must watch in silence from a distance the smoke from Kahoe’s cooking fire (Sterling and Summers 206).
The following story describes a trick played on a stingy woman who doesn’t share her catch with her family:
The flying eyes suggest the importance of the eyes in fishing, some methods requiring a kilo, or spotter, stationed on a headland overlooking the sea or sometimes on a canoe at sea. The kilo watched for ripples or patches of different colors or reflections in the sea surface or on the sea bottom in shallow water to locate schools of fish and direct the fishermen toward them. A good kilo could spot a school a mile away. For this work, the kilo received a large share of the fish caught. In this story of Namakalele, however, the unnaturalness of the flying eyes also seems to suggest the unnaturalness of the mother’s behavior her stinginess toward her own family.
The stingy wife motif is also found in the story of Ku-ka-‘ohi‘a-a-ka-Laka (a forest god, one of the ‘aumakua of canoe carvers):
The story implies that stinginess makes human life, which is intrinsically communal, impossible: because of the stingy wife, the people in the story become violent and are transformed into nonhuman beings rats, a spring, a tree. The rat in one Hawaiian tradition is characterized as “an indolent, ill-bred fellow who depended on his wit in thieving” (“‘Iole the Rat and Pueo the Owl” in Pukui Folktales 51-52). Thus, the metamorphoses of Kauakuahine’s husband and children into rats also suggests that antisocial behavior and social breakdown result from stinginess. Alternately, the rat is known in tradition as a savior. When the stingy Makali‘i gathered up all the food of the land into a net, causing a famine, the rat nibbled through the cord of the net, releasing the food and scattering it across the land (Beckwith 433 ff.)
Of the denizens of the sea, none captured the imaginations of Hawaiians as did the shark. Many shark stories are told in Hawai‘i, and there are many traditional beliefs about sharks.
Hawaiians fished for and ate two varieties of sharks that did not eat humans, the hammerhead and the white-tipped shark (Titcomb 107). Shark teeth were used to make weapons and tools for cutting, and sharkskin was made into drumheads. According to J.D. Holt, a young boy with “the mana of innocence” was chosen “to tie ropes of braided coconut fiber around the tail of a shark. The shark would be dragged out of the sea so that its skin could be used for making drums” (“Rainbow Under Water,” Recollections).
The niuhi (tiger or great white shark) was hunted in a rite of passage for warriors. (See Appendix 1, “Hawaiian Fisheries,” 98-99.)
Sharks were also gods and ‘aumakua, or family gods. (See Appendix 2, “Hawaiian Shark ‘Aumakua.”) Ancestral shark-gods called mano kumapa‘a were humans given their shark forms by the gods and worshiped by their descendants (Kamakau Works 74). Kamohoali‘i, the king shark of Hawai‘i, and Ka‘ahupahau, the queen shark of O‘ahu, who lived at Pu‘uloa, were mano kumapa‘a. Both forbid their followers to eat humans.
A mano kanaka, or shark-man, born of a shark god and a woman, was capable of transforming himself from shark to human and back. “Nanaue” tells the story of one who was fed meat by his grandfather, against the prohibition of his father, Kamohoali‘i. Nanaue became ravenous for flesh and followed people down to the sea and ate them. When the identity of such a shark-man was discovered (by a shark mouth on his back), he was put to death.
An ‘aumakua shark embodied the spirit of a person deified after death by his or her family. This ‘aumakua was a helper at sea who could calm rough waters, help with fishing, guide lost canoes back to shore, or drive off man-eaters. Families with shark ‘aumakua knew them by appearance and name and where they lived in sea caves. The kahu, or caretaker, fed them ‘awa and cleaned the barnacles off their bodies and eyes. Such a deified shark was also called ‘unihipili and could be sent by a family to take revenge on enemies.
Thus while some sharks were worshipped as gods and ‘aumakua, others were greatly feared: “Some were evil, some were man-eaters, some were as fierce and untameable as lions, who even devoured their own kahu who had transfigured and deified them” (Kamakau, People 76). “Punia” tells of a shark who devours Leimakani; Leimakani’s son, Punia, avenges his father by killing the shark.