A Cultural History of Three Traditional Hawaiian Sites
on the West Coast of Hawai'i Island
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Overview of Hawaiian Prehistory


E. Major Aspects of Traditional Hawaiian Culture (continued)

7. Recreation and Art

     a) Games and Sports

While the ali'i and priests occupied themselves with political and religious issues, the commoners pursued activities related to the essentials of life — food, shelter, and clothing. Although this took up much of their day, they also found time for recreation in the form of games and sports, song and dance, and the execution of fine arts. These activities were undoubtedly a welcome relief from the pressure of daily subsistence activities. Races were a popular pastime, while many leisure hours, from birth to adulthood, were spent in the sea in swimming, canoe racing, and other aquatic sports. Surfboarding was the favorite recreational activity of the early Hawaiians and possibly the one at which they were most proficient. Games of skill and chance were also popular, including puhenehene and no'a, in which players had to guess on which person or under which bundle of kapa a small stone was hidden; konane, a variant of checkers played on a wood board or rock with black and white pebbles; and maika, in which players threw or bowled stone discs between two upright sticks set in the ground. These sources of amusement were almost always accompanied by some form of gambling, which was pursued very seriously.

In addition, the feudalistic nature of Hawaiian politics precipitated frequent wars over territory and succession. Therefore chiefs tended to encourage participation and development of expertise in such aggressive sports as dart- and javelin-throwing, wrestling, boxing, and archery as good training for combat. Sham battles were prevalent, and chiefs also held athletic games, especially during the Makahiki celebration, to entertain their people, to keep their subjects healthy and fit, and to identify those with special fighting skills. [220]

Hawaiian holua
Illustration 19. Hawaiian holua (sled). From McDonald, "Hawaiian Holua," p. 76.

One of the most interesting Hawaiian sports (Illustration 19) was reported on by Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who noted that

A favourite amusement of the chiefs was sliding down hill on a long narrow sled: this was called holua; it was not unlike our boys' play, when we have snow. The sled was made to slide on one runner, and the chiefs prostrated themselves on it. For this sport they had a trench dug from the top of a steep hill and down its sides, to a great distance over the adjoining plain. This being made quite smooth, and having dry grass laid on it, they were precipitated with great velocity down it, and, it is said, were frequently carried a half, and sometimes a whole mile. [221]

Caspar Whitney, visiting Hawai'i in the late nineteenth century, remarked that he

noted these old courses [of the holua] in my travels over the islands, very plainly marking several precipitous hill-sides, and suggesting a considerable amount of toil in their original making. [222]

Eight of these slides remain on the island of Hawai'i, five of them being found in or near Pu'uhonua o Honaunau.

The missionaries who arrived in the early 1800s worked diligently to end many of these ancient pastimes, both because of their perceived origin in "heathen" beliefs and because of the gambling that accompanied them. In addition, however, their practice waned as European influences extended throughout the islands and the Hawaiian value system and lifestyle changed. Many of these games were then given up in lieu of their foreign counterparts.

     b) Song and Dance

According to the Reverend William Ellis, "The Sandwich Islanders have various types of dances and participate in this amusement with great fervor." [223] Music and chanting, mentioned earlier in relation to religious temple ceremonies, also provided informal entertainment for commoner and ali'i alike. The famous Hawaiian hula linked music, dance, and poetry in a ceremony permeated with strong religious overtones. (The missionaries later preached against this dance as being lewd and immoral.)

     c) Fine Arts

The early Hawaiians created exquisite works of art and items of personal adornment as well as skillfully designed wood and stone weapons and domestic utensils and graphic and striking religious statues and sculptures. The most ornate examples of ancient Hawaiian featherwork — comprising the capes, helmets, and cloaks worn by the high chiefs as the visual symbol of their power — and items such as the lei palaoa (whale ivory pendant) of the ali'i are considered priceless objects today. The paper-mulberry tree was grown for its bark, which women soaked and pounded into a soft, pliable material (kapa) for clothing. Adorned with a variety of dyed patterns and figures of great intricacy and symmetry, these pieces represent "a major Hawaiian artistic achievement." [224]

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Last Updated: 15-Nov-2001