Volume 59 1950 > Volume 59, No. 3 > The Polynesian family system in Ka-'u, Hawaii, by E. S. C. Handy, p 232-240
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THE unique physical environment of Ka-'u was a potent factor in conditioning, if not determining, the form and nature of the dispersed community ('ahona) described in the first article of this present series. Actually, the cultural pattern conforms to the traditional Polynesian form. It may be said, therefore, that the physical environment conditions the functioning mechanism of adjustment: but it would be incorrect to say that the physical environment determines the form or pattern. Nevertheless, the particular form which the Ka-'u community manifests, as a variant from the basic norm (if there be a norm) of old Polynesian community as an aggregate or complex of families, can not be brought into true focus except against the background of the Land ('Aina). The 'Ohana as a functioning social mechanism operates within the milieu of sea, shore, coastal and inland slopes and uplands, subject to weather, sun and moon.

The physical environment, in its specific factors and phenomena, is also the material upon which and out of which the legendary drama of Ka-'u is wrought with the patterns of inherited traditional Polynesian lore. This legendary setting must likewise be understood in specific detail as a factor affecting the functioning of the 'ohana. Shark, caterpillar and gourd, certain rock formations, trees, volcanic and meteorological phenomena are kupuna (forbears) of particular families and persons: relationship, tabus, in fact every phase of personal and family life, are contingent upon affinity arising herefrom.


The dispersal of the households comprising the extended family ('ohana), the types of structure constituting the domiciles, the means of livelihood and exchange of products

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Map of Ka-'u District, Island of Hawai'i.
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of sea, land and handcraft between individuals and households were all affected by topography, rainfall and vegetation, the nature of the shore and the sea offshore, by climate and weather and the cycle of the seasons. Readers not intimately acquainted with rugged and windswept Ka-'u—and few today, even in the Hawaiian Islands, know this district of the Island of Hawaii well—will have an entirely false picture of this unique country if they conceive it to be like any other part of the Hawaiin Islands or any other area in Polynesia.

The accompanying figure gives a cartographic sketch of the nature of this southern segment of Hawaii, where vulcanism is still in its most active phase. The various zones of sea and land and their uses are indicated.


A deep-sea fisherman's view of the southern flanks and “foreland” (Ka Lae) of Hawaii looks over a white line of surf breaking against abrupt lava walls along the whole coast. Along this shore (kahakai) there are occasional minute indentations—Wai-o-Ahukini, Ka-Alualu, Waikapuna, Honuapo, Punalu'u, Keauhou hardly deserving the name of bays, flanked by short narrow beaches of black smooth lava pebbles or black sand. There are no coral reefs, there is no white sand. Near the bays and beaches are coconut trees, houses, canoe sheds. Beyond the shore the immediate landscape is one of rough irregular exposed black lava interspersed with small bushes and sparse tufty grasses, green from December till May, dry for the rest of the year. In the old days many footpaths meandered seaward through this wide wasteland from the higher slopes miles inland, where there was soil enough for gardens. The scattered homes and gardens of this lower zone of habitation were those “of the seaward slopes” (ko kula kai), where sweet potato and gourds were cultivated but little else. These households had relatively easy access to the sea and consequently depended on shellfish, seaweed and inshore fishing, and had these for exchange with relatives living farther up the slopes.

Moisture increases and evaporation decreases with altitude here, so beyond the kula kai (the lowest habitable zone) were the dwellings “of the upland slopes” (ko kula - 235 uka), less accessible to the sea, but increasingly favourable for gardening. In addition to sweet potato, dry land taro of the variety called Paua was planted, and sugar cane flourished. (This is the zone of super plantations today.) Beyond this the open slopes (kula) become fern lands, then gradually merge with the lower forest (wao). In this zone where fern, bushes and small trees prosper other varieties of upland taro requiring more water were cultivated, under mulch to keep in the moisture. This continued right back into the lower forest. Here were the wild bananas, wild yam (Dioscorea), arrowroot (pia); and tree fern (Cibotium), whose starchy core was eaten, extended down into this zone from the rain forest.

These zones were not fixed as to altitude. On the east, the wet uplands were wetter and extended lower than on the west, which was both beyond the range of heavy precipitation from trade winds and cut off somewhat by the shoulder of Mauna Loa running to Kalae.

Quite distinct from the rest of Ka-'u is the valley of Waiohinu, which is flanked in such a way by the mountain side that it escapes the violence (and evaporation power) of both trade and southerly winds, while receiving a generous share of rainfall. This was the locality chosen by the chiefs (ali'i) for their residence.

William Ellis gives a good description of this choice locality as he saw it in 1819. 1

“Our path running in a northerly direction, seemed leading us toward a ridge of high mountains, but it suddenly turned to the east, and presented to our view a most enchanting valley, clothed with verdure, and ornamented with clumps of kukui and kou trees. On the south-east it was open toward the sea, and on both sides adorned with gardens, and interspersed with cottages even to the summits of the hills. A fine stream of fresh water, the first we had seen on the island [they had landed at Kailua, in Kona] ran along the centre of the valley, while several smaller ones issued from the rocks, on the opposite side, and watered the plantations below . . . then continued our way along its margin through Kiolaakaa, walking on toward the sea until we reached Waiohinu . . .

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“Our road, for a considerable distance, lay through the cultivated parts of this beautiful valley. The mountain taro, bordered by sugar-cane, and bananas, was planted in large fields on the sides of the hills, and seemed to thrive luxuriantly. On leaving the valley, we proceeded along by the foot of the mountains in a line parallel with the sea, and about a mile and a half from it. The country appeared more thickly inhabited, than that over which we had travelled in the morning.”

Beyond the zone of habitation of this land of wide spaces, on a clear day, the eyes of our deep sea fisherman will see the heavily forested zone (wao akua, jungle of gods), where his great koa (Acacia koa) trees cut for canoe hulls are growing. Beyond that the verdant rain forest, frequently swathed in cloud. And on up beyond, the bare, sweeping majestic curve of the bare flanks of the great active volcano, Mauna Loa. In January and February snow may be seen mantling the summit. And when the volcano is erupting, this summit, in fact all the forests of Ka'u, may be shrouded in a pall of smoke, and at night the lurid red of Mokuaweoweo's fountains and rivers of molten lava illumine the whole sky above these slopes.

It is profoundly significant that the Hawaiians of Ka-'u did not fear or cringe before, or hate, the power and destructive violence of Mauna Loa. They took unto them this huge Mother mountain, measured their personal dignity and powers in terms of its majesty and drama. They named their land “The Breast” (Ka-'u). They loved Pele, whose home was their land: they endured her furies, and celebrated the drama of creation with which they lived so intimately in the songs and dances of the sacred hula, which dramatizes the myth of the “Woman of the Pit” (the crater, Kilauea) and her “family,” embodied in cloud, thunder and lightning (Lono), in the forest and verdure (Wahine Omao, “Green Lady”) in Hiiaka “of living waters,” the healer, and other cosmic terrestrial forces that encompassed them.

We have gone thus fully into the description of the extended, fragmented terrain of Ka-'u because this explains the dispersal of the extended 'ohana. There could be no greater contrast than between the compact Samoan village or the Maori pa, composed of households of interrelated kin- - 237 ship groups, and the dispersed community of 'ohana in Ka-'u. All are basically Polynesian. And Ka-'u, for all its uniqueness, is typical of the Hawaiian Islands. There were no true villages in Hawaii. Yet the Hawaiian is essentially “old Polynesian.” The tendency to close community of domicile in New Zealand was, we presume, due to the early stage of pioneering which existed, and to tribal rivalry, which ultimately would have given way to alliances and larger areas of continuous settlement held together under dominant leadership, comparable to Hawaii. Were there tendencies in this direction in late pre-“discovery” Maori history?


The season of storm and rain was termed Hooilo, including roughly the period of November through March. It commenced with Ikuwa (October-November) whose name means “Loud-voice,” when Lono's thunder resounds over uplands and plain. Now the long drought of summer, when the intense heat of radiation of sun on black lava combined with the steady tradewinds made the kula kai seared and dry as a black tropical desert and the kula uka brown and arid, gives way to moisture-laden southern warm fronts pressing inshore, as tradeswinds lapse. November is a noisy month with variable strong winds; and with the winds comes the roaring and pounding surf on Ka-'u's lava-walled shores and small steep beaches. Commencing now, and continuing through the rainy months until March, there was and is little deep-sea fishing, and inshore fishing depended on those occasions when the sea was not too rough. Equally, in olden days, upland work, such as cutting timber, stripping bark for cloth and for fibre, collecting wild foods, hunting birds, was gradually abandoned because of the rains. It was a time of the indrawing of households into their respective homesteads: a time for work that could be done under a roof and out of the wind.

Welehu (November-December) commences the period of southerly (kona) storms.

O Welehu ka malama, kau ke po'o i ka uluna:

Welehu is the month to lay the head on the pillow.

Women occupied themselves with making baskets and mats (salt baskets of doubled pandanus leaf, with lids; lighter baskets, with lids, for dried fish; small thick mats - 238 for drying salt, broad-strand mats for floors, finer mats for bed space, rough mats for covering the oven. Most of the spinning of cord, with fingers rolling coconut or olona fibre on the thigh, was done by womenfolk. Men repaired their houses, and in the Mua (men's house) or outside, worked on weapons, fishing and hunting gear, made utensils of coconut-shell (cups), gourd, wood, or stone. Men also spun cord and made their nets for fishing, for carrying food containers.

The names of the months in their order throw light on the round of the year and the family's seasonal activities:

Ikuwa (October-November)—“Loud voice”: This is the time of thunder in the uplands, wind in the lowlands, and crashing surf along shore. (A child born in this month will be a loud talker.)

Welehu (November-December)—The “ashes” (lehu) of fires for cooking, wormth and drying “sift” (we), as the wind swirls about the eating and work sheds.

Makali'i (December-January)—The “little eyes” (makali'i) or shoots of yams, arrowroot, turmeric, looking like points or eyes (maka), are showing.

Ka-elo (January-February)—“The (ka) drenching” (elo) time, as the rainy season and southerly winds culminate and subside, as northerly winds push in. This is the month when migrating birds are fat and greasy (eloelo).

Kaulua (February-March)—“Two together” (ka, the, lua, double), i.e., partly cold and partly warm: alternating cool and warm spells. Kaulua means also “of two minds,” “indecisive”: the weather is “undecided,” so people are uncertain whether to go mauka or makai, go out or stay in.

Nana (March-April)—The word means “animation.” Life in plants shows vigour, young mother birds (kinana) are on the move, fledgelings (pupua) are trying to get out of nests.

Welo (April-May)—“Vining out” (like a tail, welo): The sweet potatoes, yams, morning glory and other vines are spreading with litle shoots like tails.

Ikiiki (May-June)—“Warm and sticky,” uncomfortable: Now there is little wind and it is humid.

Ka'aona (June-July)—“Pleasantly (ona) rolling along (ka'a).” The serenely moving puffy clouds (ka'alewalewa) roll along mountain and horizon. Ona means lure in fishing: figuratively, then, attractive, alluring.

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Hina-ia-'ele'ele (July-August)—“Dark ('ele'ele) clouds inclining (hina-ia) mountainwards.”

Mahoe-mua (August-September)—“The twin before (first twin).”

Mahoe-hope (September-October)—“The twin behind (second twin).”

These two months, in weather, are as alike as twins. Rains and wind alternate with good weather.

Let us return now to our description of living and work of the seasons in the old days. With the ground well soaked, and with the ending of the heavy rains that wash out the tilled soil on slopes, every household turns in February and March to the planting of their taro, sweet potato, gourds (in the lowlands), paper mulberry and olona (Touchardia latifolia) for fibre (on the upper slopes), yams and arrowroot in the upland. But this season of planting is a time of scarcity of land foods: last year's supply has been consumed and this year's crops but newly planted. Yams (Dioscorea) or Uhi, and arrowroot or Pia, are in the early stage of growth. There was in normal years enough wild banana and tree-fern pith. Consequently this is the season when those of the upland households (ko kula uka) go into the lower forest for tree-fern starch and wild banana; while those to seaward (ko kula kai) are busy with the inshore fishing, and the collecting of shellfish and seaweed. It is a time when the intra-familial commerce of exchange between households is actively revived. This is a spreading-out time: mountainward, and seaward, a time of mobility and intercourse, of work and sport.

During April, gardens are tended; by May plants both domesticated and wild are growing vigorously, and in May quick-growing varieties of sweet potatoes can be eaten, and wild yams and arrowroot are coming to maturity and can also be eaten. They come into their prime in late May and June. Now we are in the early hot season (Kau—pronounced like “cow”). This is the time when women are working at making bark cloth (kapa) at home. Men are active hunting in the forest, fishing at sea, busy with their nets, canoes and gear at the halau (shed) by the sea. By June, wild foods are abundant in the forest, potatoes plentiful. Inland women-folk migrate to the shore, and there live in caves and shelters. With their fishing baskets (hina'i), salt and fish - 240 baskets, mats and utensils, they catch small fry like manini spawn, collect and store salt that has dried in the pools in black lava depressions by the shore.

Summer is the time for deep-sea fishing in particular. (In the old days inshore fishing was restricted during spawning season, from February to late May.) In July gourds (and, after introduction, melons) ripen on the kula kai. It is increasingly hot and dry. Upland farmers have mulched their taro and potato patches with dried grass and fern. August is hot, but some dark clouds appear and bring showers: as they fall, the mulch is turned back from plants, then replaced when the rain has soaked in. At the shore in caves, and at home, salt and dried fish and octopus are stored in quantity, against the rainy season.

Then come the twin months, September-October, Mahoemua (Twin-before) and Mahoe-hope (Twin-behind, or after), with increasing showers and rough seas alternating with fine weather. The wild ground growths in the uplands are dying down; it is time to harvest potatoes ere the heavy rains come; it is time to be industrious at deep-sea fishing on good days, ere the winter storms commence. Great pieces of the larger firm-fleshed fishes (bonito, tuna, albacore, swordfish, dolphin) are sun-dried to preserve them till eaten. Sweet potatoes are likewise preserved by cooking and sunning.

Originally it was our plan to cover the subject of physical environment and legendary setting in one article. It became evident, however, that these topics, though closely related and interdependent, are so loaded with detail in the compact form which this presentation necessitates, that a long article covering both subjects would make very heavy reading. We trust and hope that since both of these articles are short, our readers will favour us with careful attention to details in each, for we are not either in the present or in succeeding articles reciting facts about the land, and its people's beliefs, simply because they are interesting, but because those facts and the lore relating to locale and history together form the stage and the “back-drop,” so to speak, for our depiction of the relationship system as a functioning mechanism of psychological, social, and economic adjustment.

1   Journal of a Tour Around Hawaii, Boston, 1825, pp. 103-105.