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Hawaiian Fishing Traditions

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Photo: Ku'ialuaopuna

Dennis Kawaharada / 2006

Lua the Hawaiiana fighing art also encompasses many other arts within it. Lawaia practices are also aprt of this art. here we look at Dennis Kawaharada's writings on this topic. Mahalo Dennis for your ike.

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:

There was never a time when all fishing was tabu. When inshore fishing was tabu (kapu), deep sea fishing (lawai‘a-o-kai-uli) was permitted and vice versa. Summer was the time when fish were most abundant and therefore the permitted time for inshore fishing. Salt was gathered at this time, also, and large quantities of fish were dried. … In winter, deep sea fishing was permitted. … A tabu for the inshore fishing covered also all the growths in that area, the seaweeds and shellfish, as well as the fish. When the kahuna had examined the inshore area and noted the condition of the animal and plant growths, and decided that they were ready for use, that is, that the new growth had had a chance to mature and become established, he so reported to the chief of the area, and the chief ended the tabu. For several days it remained the right of the chief to have all the sea foods that were gathered, according to his orders, reserved for his use, and that of his household and retinue. After this, a lesser number of days were the privilege of the konohiki. Following this period the area was declared open (noa) to the use of all. (Titcomb 14)

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:

On O‘ahu there lived a woman who was noted for her ability to catch squid, of which the chiefs of high rank were fond. Any person who could catch a lot of squid was in demand. One day a great luau was to be given by a chief, and he wanted some squid, so he sent some of his men in search of someone who could catch squid. They brought the woman to him. He told her he wanted squid from a certain reef and asked her if she could catch some for him. She said she could catch all he wanted. She went down to the beach at the place designated by the chief, but before she entered the water, an old man met her. He told her the rules of the place: she was supposed to catch only a certain number and when she had caught that number she should go home, or something would be sure to happen to her. She called for her daughter, who had followed her, and told her daughter to come with her into the water. Another thing the old man told her was to go home when she said she would and not to stop for anything. The lady caught all she had been allowed by the old man, but she kept on fishing until she had more than she could handle. She sent her daughter to shore with half the load and told her she was going home, but instead she remained, for she saw a huge squid she wanted to get. Just then a large shark came and bit off her legs. She yelled for help. Her daughter came to her rescue, but too late. The woman died from the loss of blood and the shock. When the people examined her later, they found one deep gash on her right arm made by one of the shark’s teeth. They knew that it was done by a shark who guarded that particular reef. After that incident they named the place Paumalu …. (McAllister 151). [The name “Paumalu,” a land section on O‘ahu’s North Shore including Sunset Beach, means “taken secretly or illegally.”]

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.

Dennis Kawaharada / 2006

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:

A greedy chief was Ha-la-e-a. Every day he visited the fleet of fishing canoes and took all the fish for himself and his retainers. Then he would hold a feast, carousing and often wantonly wasting the food. As for the fishermen, they were obliged to catch the fish without ever having any to take home to their families. …This conduct of the chief greatly vexed the common people and they sought means to rid themselves of his oppression. They were tired of hearing the voice of their chief crying, “The fish is mine! Give me the fish!” At last came the season of the ‘ahi, and the head fishermen were summoned to accompany their chief to the fishing-grounds. So the fishermen gathered together and prepared their canoes, looking after the nets, the bait, and whatever else was required for the expedition. Then they secretly met and agreed they would deposit all the fish in the chief’s canoe and return to shore without even a backward glance. On the appointed day, the canoes came from Wai-‘ahu-kini [shelter on the Kona side of Ka Lae] to Ke-au-hou [in Ka‘u, near the Puna district]. When the first canoe-load of fish was conveyed to the chief’s canoe, the voice of the chief could be heard shouting, “Bring me the fish! Bring me the fish!” But when the second, third, fourth, fifth, and the succeeding canoes had deposited their loads into the chief’s canoe, and he saw his canoe was in danger of being swamped, he called out, “The chief has fish enough!” “Not so!” cried the men. “Here is all the fish the chief desires!” They piled in the last load and the chief’s canoe sank rapidly. The chief looked about for help, but all the canoes had gone back to land. So perished Ha-la-e-a in the sea, surrounded by the objects of his greed. (Pukui Folktales 74-75)

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:

‘Ohana living inland (ko kula uka), raising taro, bananas, wauke (for tapa, or barkcloth, making), and olona [for cordage], and needing gourds, coconuts and marine foods, would take a gift to some ‘ohana living near the shore (ko kula kai) and in return would receive fish or whatever was needed. The fisherman needing poi or ‘awa [a shrub used for making a narcotic drink] would take fish, squid, or lobster upland to a household known to have taro, and would return with his kalo (taro) or pa‘i-ta‘i (hard poi). A woman from seaward, wanting some medicinal plant, or some sugar cane perhaps, growing on the land of a relative living inland would take with her a basket of shellfish or some edible seaweed and would return with her stalks of cane and her medicinal plants. In other words, it was the ‘ohana that constituted the community within which the economic life moved. (Handy and Pukui 6)

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:

Keawe and his wife Keanahaki lived happily many years ago in Namakalele (“the flying eyes”), a small land section in Moanalua Valley on O‘ahu. Daily he went to the mountains to cut wood, gather plants, and do other chores. As soon as he could, he hurried home and then out to sea to fish. His whole day was filled in and he had little time for his family, which was steadily increasing. This routine life continued until after the birth of his sixth child. One day his wife said to him, “While you go to the mountains, I will fish.” Keawe agreed and then went to the mountains as usual, and Keanahaki started for the sea. On her way she felt peculiar and realized that another self was coming to her. Halfway down she stopped and chanted, asking that the lower portion of her body be made stationary while the upper portion went to sea to fish. She then continued to the shore, where she stood and again chanted, telling her right eye to fly to the sea and bring certain fish, then to her left eye to fly in another direction and catch other fish. After some time, she called her right eye to return. It fluttered back, bringing many fish. Later the left eye returned bringing more fish. These she divided into portions for her husband, children, and herself. Then she not only ate her share, but continued eating until only one fish remained. This she took home. When her husband saw this small catch, he naturally was disappointed. “Was this all your were able to catch?” he asked. “Yes,” she replied. For many consecutive times Keanahaki returned with only one fish, which greatly dissatisfied Keawe. He reasoned that a person could not continually have such bad luck. Then he learned from a friend that his wife was no normal being. She had unusual powers, he was told. As she stood by the shore, her eyes out at sea caught the fish. If Keawe would gather leaves from the ipu-‘awa‘awa (a type of gourd, with bitter pulp, grown on a vine; used medicinally), he would be able to catch and preserve the eyes of his wife, should he follow and watch her when she went fishing. So one day, Keawe pretended to go to the mountains as usual, then waited and watched for his wife to go fishing. When she did, he followed her. As soon as Keanahaki got to the shore, she again chanted for her right eye to fly over the sea and fish for certain fish and for her left eye to fly in another direction and bring in other fish. Watching her, Keawe was astounded. He came very close to his wife, but she could not see him, for her eyes were gone. When she called to her eyes to return, he caught them as they flew back with the fish. Carefully he wrapped each eye in some leaves of the ipu-‘awa‘awa. Then he gathered the fish and went home, while his wife stood on the shore calling for her eyes and wondering why they did not return. When Keawe reached his grass hut, his children gathered round and were proud of the catch their father had brought in. He left them admiring the fish and went to the hut to hide the eyes. He did not know that the smallest child, the sixth, had noticed the small bundle and followed and watched his father place it on a high ledge. In the meantime, Keanahaki waiting on the beach for her eyes to return became suspicious of what had occurred. Stumbling and groping, she slowly found her way home. There her six children gathered around. She asked them if their father had returned. “Did he bring anything with him?” “Yes,” they replied, “a large mess of fish.” “Didn’t he have anything else? A small bundle that he didn’t open?” No, five of them had seen nothing more; but the smallest told his mother he had seen his father with a small bundle wrapped in leaves and watched him place it on a high ledge. “Show me where,” the mother said, and the youngster led her to the place. After groping about Keanahaki found and restored her eyes to their sockets. (McAllister 94-5)

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):

Kuka‘ohi‘aakalaka (“Ku, the ‘ohi‘a tree of the forest”) was the brother, Kauakuahine (“The sister rain”) was the sister. They came from Kahiki and lived in Hawai‘i, the sister in ‘ola‘a with her husband and the brother in Kea‘au with his wife. The brother had no children, the sister had a flock of them. Her husband was a farmer in ‘ola‘a, the brother was a fisherman at Kea‘au. The sister often brought vegetables to the shore for her brother and took back fish for her family. The brother told his wife to give his sister an abundance of dried fish when she came with the vegetables. The wife hated to give up the fish and laid it under the sleeping mats. While the husband was out fishing, the sister came with vegetables and the wife said, “We have no fish, as you can see for yourself; all we have is salt.” The sister went and gathered coarse seaweed to take the place of fish. Again she came with vegetables and went back without anything. She was lucky to get the seaweed. This constant stinginess of her sister-in-law vexed the sister. It seemed to her useless to burden herself with carrying vegetables and take back in return only seaweed to her patient husband and children, and once when she came close to the house and her husband and children ran out to meet her, she gave them each a slap and changed them into rats, the husband into a large rat and the children into young rats. She herself became a spring of water where fine rain fell. While the brother was out fishing, the gods showed him how stingy his wife had been and how his sister had become a spring of water and her family had changed into rats. He was much distressed and returned home and asked his wife, “Did you give fish to our dear sister?” “Yes, I always give her fish.” He saw the dried fish laid flat beneath the sleeping mats and what a heap of them there were. He was very angry with his wife. “What a cruel woman you are! you have brought misfortune upon our little sister!” And with many words of reproach, he beat his wife to death. He ascended to his sister’s place in ‘ola‘a and saw the rats scampering about where the house had stood, and he shed tears of love for his brother-in-law and the children. He went straight to the spring, plunged in headlong, and was changed into an ‘ohi‘a tree. Only two blossoms this tree bears to this day, and when a branch is broken off, blood flows from the body of the tree. (Pukui Folktales 19-20)

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).

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