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Subject:  Hawaii Expedition

Agent of Record:  Judd H. Burton, MA

Expedition Date:  10-17 March 2007

Report Date:  19 August 2007



“Cultural Sketches of the Island of Hawaii

Hawaii is a bustling micro-melting pot of different peoples and their cultures.  It is a paradox of the familiar and the exotic.  With the advent of the American acquisition of the islands in the middle of the 19th century, and the advent of globalism, Hawaii became a crossroads and settling ground for Portuguese, American, Filipino, Japanese, and a host of other immigrants.  Of course, the beating heart of the islands is the Polynesian culture.  It is often taken for granted that indigenous Americans immediately equates to the American Indians.  However true this may be, there are certainly other ethnicities who qualify as Native Americans.  An intriguing example is that of the Polynesian peoples who first inhabited the Hawaiian Islands.  In March of 2007 my wife and I went on a trip to the island of Hawaii, accompanied by her parents and her brother and his wife.  While I had been to Oahu on a tour with Cisco Junior College in 1995, I had never been to the island of Hawaii.  This excursion turned into an expedition for me, as much of the site-seeing we undertook concerned the indigenous culture of Hawaii.


It was a delightful and enlightening expedition, if not a much-needed one.  We were both exhausted from work.  And to make matters worse, I sprained my right foot the Thursday before we were to set out.  It gave me an appreciation for the hardships of the field that previous explorers, anthropologists, and archaeologists have had to endure.  The plane ride was an exercise in patience and pain, as my foot throbbed despite efforts to stop the swelling.  Endure it I did, but in spite of the pain, it did nothing but spice up my experience in Hawaii.


After the ordeal of the plane ride came the welcoming embrace of Hawaii.  That evening we landed without any trouble and could feel a lot of the world’s concerns already melting away with the caress of sea breezes and tropical air.  The city of Kona awaited, as did a soft bed and a cup of Kona coffee.  The small bungalow we rented accommodated us comfortably, with two bedrooms, a living room with a pull-out couch, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a small deck (which was a good venue in which to drink coffee and write).



The people of Hawaii, that is the natives, and their culture, are linked to the larger Polynesian culture of the South Pacific.  The peoples within the Polynesian triangle—Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand—all share similar language and culture.  They were skilled astronomers, navigators, and sailors, and often ventured far out into the Pacific on epic voyages of exploration.  Their shipbuilding abilities were equally impressive, as evinced by the sturdy canoes and outriggers upon which they traveled.  The earliest Polynesian settlers ventured from the Marquesas and established a presence in Hawaii as early as the third century AD.  Waves of migration followed, no doubt, and a group of Tahitians settled in the Hawaiian Islands around AD 1300.


The immigrants brought with them their culture, subsistence, and building methods.  Agropastoralism included the growth of taro (kalo), banana (mai’a), coconut (niu), and breadfruit (ulu), and livestock such as pigs.  From the remnants of their houses (hale) and temples (heiau), archaeologists conclude that the earliest settlements were on the south coast of the island of Hawaii, with expansion inland occurring upon the increase of the population.


The typical village was comprised of a number of elements, characteristic of settlements.  The Heiau, as mentioned, was the temple.  The King—the high chief—resided in a structure known as the Hale ali’i.  Women and children were forbidden from entering.  The Hale pahu housed all instruments and implements necessary for the Hula ceremony.  Another reliquary of sorts was the Hale papa’a, which contained weapons and hunting tools.  An important profession in the village was the weaver, who resided in the Hale ulana.  There were also mess halls, one for men and women—the hale mua and hale ‘aina respectively.  The canoe-builder also had a place of honor in the community and worked in the hale wa’a.  The Hale lawai’a held the most prized possessions of the village—the fishing tack.  Nets, hooks, and line were all made here.  Finally, the Imu, or cooking pit, was naturally a central element of the village.


Socio-politics within ancient Hawaiian society are best classified as feudal in nature.  Land was administrated by delegation of authority.  A caste system delineated the lines of division in society.  The Ali’i, or nobility, sat firmly at the top, with a King ruling an island and lesser vassal chiefs ruling divisions of the island.  The Kahunas were next to the ali’i in importance.  They were the priests, artisans, carpenters, boat-builders, bards, historians, judges, and physicians.  In many ways, their diverse professions and functions resemble those of the Druids of ancient Britain.  The Maka’ inana, or commoners, were common laborers, working as fishermen and in other simpler professions.  The Kauwa were the slaves and outcasts, most likely captives or descendants of captives.  They worked for the chiefs and also served as human sacrifices.   


Religion in Hawaii, as in most societies, was an integral part of culture.  The kapu system, based on taboos, influenced everything from the most mundane of tasks to politics.  The theology outlined the correct way to live and behave, and in its attention to proper rite, was similar to ancient Roman religion.  Mana was the powerful supernatural force that people sought to make use of, the most potent of which resided in the ali’i.  Violation of kapu was punishable by death.  The Hawaiians worshipped deities from a vast pantheon, the major ones of which shall be illustrated in the section devoted to religion and mythology.


European discovery in the late eighteenth century changed the course of Hawaiian history.  With the subsequent westernization of the islands, indigenous culture receded into the shadows, becoming secondary to an increasingly diverse multi-ethnic population.  However, the natives of Hawaii are still alive, and in many respects, much of their culture survives—albeit in an altered and modified version—to this day.



My first direct exposure to the indigenous history of the Polynesians came in the form of petroglyphs.  Admittedly, my knowledge of Hawaiian petroglyphs was extremely limited, though being an anthropologist from Texas, rock art has been of interest to me for some time.  So much to my delight we spent an afternoon exploring the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological District on Hawaii’s west coast, to the north of Kona in Waikoloa.  Before viewing the petroglyphs however, one was obligated to make about a 25 minute hike to the site.  Undaunted, I pressed on, though the trek actually takes about 35-40 minutes with a sprained foot.  The trail that one must take hardly would remind a person of the typical image of Hawaii.  The ground, sure enough was black and brown—evidence of the islands violent volcanic past.  However, vegetation was sparse on the floor of the thicket, and the trees were quite gnarled, with dingy green leaves.  One might mistake the environs for a Texas mesquite thicket in the middle of a dry summer—such was my impression.


The physical distress to my foot was worth it though, as we came upon the field of petroglyphs.  Before us lay an expansive long-dried river of lava rock.  The petroglyphs were etched into the ancient lava rock by artisans of ages past.  They stood as mute testimony to the religious beliefs and customs of the Polynesians.  Their gods and heroes lay in silence, striking numerous poses as evidence of their prowess and majesty.  Indeed, what we saw was nothing less than scripture for these people.  In a non-literate society the symbology of their gods in these rocks spoke volumes about the requirements and placation of the gods, and ensured the permanence of their “words” in this stone book.


I made my way around the field considerably more slowly than the rest of our party.  In a word, I was captivated.  For all intents and purposes we were in a grand cathedral of the ancient Polynesians.  This was something elemental and mystical, and I could only take pause as the shadows flitted around the glyphs and the light breeze blew the yellowed leaves into the crevices of some of the images.


The petroglyphs consisted of grooves and scoops, most rendered in “stick man” fashion.  Many of them, in fact some 80% as I understand, were depositories for umbilical cords.  Such deposition after the birth of a child was believed to confer long life upon the infant.  The glyphs record the passing and in some cases caste-designation of families and troops.  Images of paddlers, fishermen, runners, surfers, marchers, warriors and chiefs, and also canoes, sails, animals, tools and numerous geometric symbols canvas the hardened lava river.  Some of the glyphs may date from the era of some of the earliest Polynesians in the islands, this group having arrived there from the Marquesas Islands around AD 750.



The ancient Polynesians were polytheistic, and like many ancient peoples, their pantheon was a profusion of anthropomorphic and animalian deities with a myriad of functions.  They interacted with men on a daily basis and the Polynesians developed a system of beliefs to commune with the gods and placate them. 


In Hawaii, there are four main gods:  Lono, Ku, Kane, and Kanaloa.  Lono was the god of clouds and storms, whose rites included games.  Thunder, lightning, earthquakes, rainbows, rain, wind, waterspouts, whirlwinds, clusters of clouds, and gushing mountain springs were all Lono’s signs and symbols.  Like the Canaanite Baal, he was also a god of the harvest.  Ku, along with his consort Hina, were the rulers of the earliest of Polynesian gods.  Ku represents the east and is associated with the rising of the sun.  In many ways, he freed persons from their transgressions, which most likely has something to do with his connection to sacrifice and prisoners.  People prayed to Ku for good fishing, a good harvest, and long life.  Kane was the god of forests, trees, and procreation.  He created all things and all worlds.  In some respects, he is reminiscent of the Greek Pan and the Egyptian Khnum.  Lastly, Kanaloa is the god of death, darkness, water, and squid.  Fishermen sometimes sought his protection but he was generally considered dishonest and not trustworthy.  Kanaloa and his followers fought against Kane and were cast down to the underworld (which may account for Kanaloa’s association with the Christian devil).


Certainly, there is a host of secondary gods within the Hawaiian pantheon.  The god that leaves a striking impression to visitors, perhaps even moreso that the primary gods, is Pele.  Pele was the goddess of fire, lightening, dance, volcanoes, and violence.  She originated in Tahiti, but her temper cost her dearly, and she was banished from her home.  She traveled with her brother, the shark god, eventually settling in Kilauea on Hawaii.  She often went among mortals, testing them and interacting with them.  Pele’s court may still be seen in the smoldering crater of Mauna Loa, the world’s largest volcano.



Another site of absorbing interest in the Place of Refuge or “Pu ‘uhonua O Honaunau” in Polynesian.  Much as the name suggests, in ancient times this site was designated as a safe house of sorts for persons caught in the currents of Polynesian law—most often those swept up on the wrong side of it.  Those who broke a law of the gods, or kapu, could come here for atonement.  These persons could be absolved of their wrong by a priest.  Such concepts are not unique to Polynesian culture, as one need only look to the Old Testament for the ancient Jewish practice of designating cities of refuge in Israel.  There are a number of reconstructed enclosures and structures at the site, utilized for work, play, and also for ritual.  One such structure—a recreation of the Hale O Keawe Heiau—is said to have housed the bones of numerous chiefs whose reigns and lineages merited the preservation and reverence of their remains.  The Heiau was built by a Kona chief named Kanuha.  It is believed that the bones entombed there provided additional protection.  Their mana, or great impersonal, magic power, was a potent protector and apotropaic.


A number of Tiki effigies also stand at the site, representing the gods of the ancient Polynesians.  Lono, the god of storms and the harvest is prominent, especially around the temple which is dedicated to him.  The tikis represent his various aspects, as enumerated in the previous section.


The Heiau is another sacred space at the Place of Refuge.  It is a temple comprised of a stone platform, often with various structures built upon it.  The Heiau at this site is now devoid of structures.  Only the Kahuna (priests) and certain ali’i (chiefs) were permitted on the Heiau to perform rites.  Plant, animal, and human sacrifice were all integral parts of ceremony there.  With the abolition of the kapu system in 1819 and the advent of Christianity in Hawaii, Kamehameha II decreed that the Heiau were no longer necessary.


As a matter of leisure, the ancient Polynesians also played a game similar to checkers and chess called Konane.  Players executed moves on a stone board, the papamu.  Small indentations, or puka, held black and white pebbles, which opposing players utilized.  King Kamehameha himself was an excellent Konane player.


The Place of Refuge was as much a place of work as worship.  A number of restorations stand in place of work bays that once stood at the site.  Here, industrious ship-builders constructed the token outrigger, a boat with a main canoe body stabilized by a pontoon, either to port or to starboard.


The great basalt stone wall, some 17 feet wide, ten feet high, and 1,000 feet long, existed to separate the sacred from the profane.  It divided the area of the temple from the palacial dwelling of the ali’i—the chiefs.  Sacrifices and other rites were carried out by the Kahunas and chiefs on this structure as well, which stands as a colossal polylith on the beach.



In the highlands of Hawaii, our troop ventured to a number of small hamlets, catching only glimpses of how the present population of Hawaii lives in such surroundings.  Personally, I had the distinct impression of being back home in Texas in the typical small town, with its old brick buildings and fading dry goods and Coca-Cola logos on old (in some cases decrepit) store walls.  The view downhill to the ocean was nothing short of breathtaking, with its swaying greenery, vibrant flowers, and the mist of a rainy day.


In Kalukalu we caught an ethnographic snapshot of the lifestyle of an English adventurer and entrepreneur living in Hawaii in nineteenth century.  Nicholas Greenwell explored Australia, California, and numerous other places before lighting on Hawaii.  In 1850 he purchased the track of land known as Kalukalu to build his homestead.  The Greenwells operated a general and supply store, providing dry goods, dress, tack, and everything in between to the Westerners moving to the region.  The Greenwell store was established in 1875 and serviced the Island for a number of decades.  Greenwell utilized his land in a number of ways, growing native and new crops such as corn, pumpkins, oranges, sugarcane, pineapple and tobacco.  He also established dairies in the highlands, became the school agent for Hawaii, and oversaw a cattle and sheep ranch.  Nicholas and his wife Elizabeth had ten children and found themselves in the midst of a growing multicultural environment.  Greenwell was a most amazing man, as evinced by the multitude of endeavors under his direction.  He spoke fluent Hawaiian, French, and also spoke Portuguese.  Nicholas Greenwell died in 1891, leaving behind a legacy of industries, such as ranching, citrus farming, and coffee plantations.


The Kona Historical Society has done a marvelous job of preserving this aspect of Hawaiian history.  The volunteer curator of the shop-turned-museum engaged herself in a wonderful display of ethnoarchaeology.  She conducted herself as the store-owner and clerk.  We all picked up a grocery list on the way in, so as to act the part of the customer.  As we entered, we noted the shelves lined with sugar, flour, coffee, coffee grinders, lamps, canned beans and tomatoes, and a mountain of other necessities.  I came to light next to an old saddle whose leather was cracked from, no doubt, many years of use and wear in a bygone era and profession.  In turn, we each asked for an item in the store and our curator not only handed the item to us, but outlined its function, if not immediately known.  I have a soft-spot for small town museums, and this one made for a pleasant and informative visit.



Without a doubt, the restaurant that we frequented the most was Lulu’s.  Located in Kona, Lulu’s offers a mixed fare, with local flavor and traditional American dishes.  Climb the great white stares and you are in an open-air eatery complete with a nice selection of beverages, burgers, and puffer-fish lanterns.  In fact, there was a veritable profusion of puffer fish lanterns.  Also, I don’t think I have seen so much legal tender in one place, for the walls were literally plastered with dollar bills.  I wonder if George Washington ever imagined that his image would find such sanctuary as on the walls of a burger joint in Hawaii. The view was excellent, as we had easy visual access to the huge turquoise waves as they crashed against the black volcanic rock.  Lulu’s was a fantastic respite from all the walking that this expedition entailed.



An integral component of the expedition concerned the natural features of Hawaii.  Hence the naturalist in each of us was satiated by the staggering beauty of some of the more remote areas of the island.  After piling into our mini-van, we headed to the other side of the island and arrived eleven miles north of Hilo, at Akaka Falls.  The Akaka Falls are located on the Kolekole Stream.  The word “Akaka” means “split” or “rent,” which is appropriate given the appearance of the falls.


No amount of viewing photographs prepares one for the majesty of the falls.  A hike along the path allows one to view the myriad of flora that grow in the park.  The deep gorge, from which the falls are visible, comes up rather suddenly, and the falls strike your eyes.  The precipitous height—some 442 feet—and the roaring of the falls makes for a memorable impression.  It is enough to make a man feel quite small in the scheme of nature.  But, no expedition would be complete without a dizzying height from which to view portions of the landscape.



Carl Linnaeus himself would have had a field day in these gardens. A dazzling array of floral specimens resides in this visually stunning botanical preserve.  It is located in the valley opening into Onomea Bay.  Dan J. Lutkenhouse purchased the land in 1977 and began to develop the project that became the garden.  There are over 2,000 species of plants in the gardens, covering some 17 acres.


It occurred to me as we made our way through the gardens the extensive nature of Polynesian herbalism and naturopathy must have.  The ethnobotany of the Polynesians is certainly not un-studied, as we know a good deal of their plant diet and use of plants for medicine.  They utilized such plants as olena, or turmeric, which is a member of the ginger family and made remedies for respiratory and joint ailments.  Hawaiians used Noni for circulatory health and gastric ailments.  Kalo, or the ever-present taro root, was also good for general health.  Each, along with many more specimens, may be found in the gardens and in Hawaii.


While I enjoyed the gardens and found them of absorbing interest, I also found it to be one of the more difficult legs of the journey.  The path through the gardens was situated on the side of a hill, and the incline made both the descent and ascent daunting, given the state of my foot.  Were it not for the beauty of the gardens and the picturesque vista of the bay at the bottom, I should have considered the endeavor ill-thought.



One of the last stops on our excursion was Pele’s seething cauldron, the volcano Mauna Loa, with its smaller offspring, Kilauea.  Ever active, steaming, and sending forth a river of lava to the Pacific, Kilauea is a massive monument ever engaged in the exercise of building the Island.  A sea of trees is interrupted by a circular black swath, a hellish abyss hissing with pillars of white steam.


I had never seen anything like it in my life.  The first thing that I noticed was the steam rising above the trees, as if some boiling concoction were being prepared in a colossal pot below.  Descending the steps with my wife, I came to a railing, and there below us was the vast crater.  It was blackened and seemed almost on the verge of rumbling.  The air was still and damp, as if some primal event of massive proportions was about to happen.  Fortunately for us, there was no volcanic cataclysm.  However, as we drove through the park, we saw all around us the remnants of volcanic cataclysm.  Craters dotted the landscape and roads were closed because of lava flows hardened into immovable road-blocks.


At the park, there is also a fairly extensive field of petroglyphs.  As we neared the region where Kilauea meets the see, the landscape looked alien—truly exotic.  It looked like another planet, minimal vegetation and heaps of black on black volcanic rock.  Once again, it took a hike to get to the petroglyphs, but this time, the hike burned up all of our daylight.  Upon viewing the petroglyphs, we had to hike back in the dark with only one flashlight.  We made it there as dusk was falling, and the walk was a test to our senses and my foot.   


Aptly, Kilauea means “spewing.”  She is ever sending forth lava, creating new land on the island.  Like Vesta’s fire of Roman antiquity, it is constantly burning.  One of the lasting images of the trek was the sight of a river of lava.  I could see in the distance the slow, deliberate movement of the recently emerged magma.  It was eerie, like a glowing red serpent snaking toward the sea.  Once again, I felt very small, this time in the shadow of Kilauea.



The crowning experience of the expedition was the luau, the traditional Hawaiian feast.  The celebration consists of the feast of numerous foods accompanied by music and hula dancing.  The luau is actually descended from an older feast known as the paina.  Foods consumed at the luau include a diverse selection.  Poi is a paste made from the taro root and is generally tangy from fermentation.  Poke is cubed raw fish seasoned with salt, nut oils, and herbs.  Kalua pig is the central part of the luau feast, which is roasted in the imu cooking pit.  Rice, coconut pudding, beef, and seafood also figure into the fare.  Beverages included beer, spirits, wine, soda, water, and everything in between are available for consumption.


The dancing regimen was entertaining and informative.  The skilled performers wove a tapestry of the history of Polynesia, and the myriad of peoples who comprise Polynesia, including the Maori, Tahitians, and Samoans.  The dances from various lands had religious, theatrical, and in some cases, martial functions. 


In many ways, the luau is a microcosm of the Hawaii experience.  The people of Hawaii are extremely friendly and warm, and these are the exact sort of emotions that this occasion elicits.  So, with a full belly, warm wishes, and a sort of bitter-sweet sadness, I remarked at the amazing glimpses of Polynesian culture we had seen over the course of the week, and imagined what wonderful mysteries could be garnered from a week…a month…even a lifetime on this enchanting island.

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