The Despotic Chiefs of Kaʻū

There were once three despotic chiefs who lived in Kaʻū, on the southern portion of the Island of Hawaiʻi. These are the tales that are told about them.


Halaʻea was a greedy chief. When the fishing canoes would come in with their catch, he would insist, “The fish are mine. Give me the fish!” Every day he would take the entire catch and he and his cohort would feast and then waste the rest of the food. The fisherman were obligated to catch the fish but never had any to take to their families. This was upsetting to the people and so they sought means to rid themselves of this oppression.

The ahi season arrived and the fishermen held a council where they agreed to deposit all their fish in the canoe of Halaʻea and return to shore without even looking back. On the day that they planned to fill the canoe of Halaʻea with fish, some of the fishermen planned to go early so they would have an extra-large catch. When they saw Halaʻea approaching their canoes, the fishermen separated their canoes to surround both sides of the chief’s canoe. Halaʻea then yelled out “He ʻiʻa no?” (do you have fish?). All the fishermen replied “Ae” (yes). Then Halaʻea yelled “Hō mai ka ʻiʻa!” (throw the fish here!). The fishermen were ready to respond to the greedy demands of Halaʻea and began throwing their large catch from their canoes into the chiefʻs canoe.

The first canoe-load was deposited in the chief’s canoe, then the second, the third, the fourth. They threw aku in the boat from both sides. Halaʻea was in such joy as he watched the fish get tossed into his canoe that he failed to realize his canoe could not take the weight and was beginning to sink. With the fifth canoe-load, the canoe of Halaʻea was in danger of being swamped with the weight of the fish. He called out, “The chief has enough fish!” The men replied, “Not so! Here is all the fish the chief could ever desire!’ They piled in the last load and the canoe began rapidly to sink. Halaʻea looked around for help, but all the canoes had gone back to land and Halaʻea perished in the ocean, surrounded by the objects of his greed.

He was swept away in the swift current that is now named Halaʻea. This current is said to sweep past South Point into the moana (an area at sea where land cannot be seen).


Koihala was an indecisive chief, dithering and unable to make up his mind. Needless to say, this always made extra work for his servants. The chief liked to travel. He would set out ahead and would leave instructions with his food bearers for instructing them to prepare the food, cook it in the imu (underground oven) and then carry it to a specified place where he would meet them. He was returning from a visit to Kona and dispatched a messenger to Kaʻū with orders for food to be prepared and delivered to him at Waiʻahukini. The servants did as they were asked and sat awaiting his arrival, but they saw the chief’s canoe headed for Kaʻilikiʻi, instead of putting into shore. Burdens were generally carried on a pole balanced on the shoulders. They were evenly divided into 2 packets and hung on the ends of the pole. Calabashes were filled and slung in a net at the end of each pole. The men shouldered the food and headed for Kaʻilikiʻi. When they got there they saw he was headed to Kapuʻa. Again they shouldered the food and went on to Kapuʻa. The servants had specific instructions on how to keep the food hot and ready for the chief. At each of these spots, they labored to dig an imu and keep the food hot waiting for the chief to arrive. This time they saw him pass them by headed to Kaʻaluʻalu and they immediately proceeded there.

Now the servants were tired and hungry. They agreed if the chief did not arrive shortly, they would eat the food themselves. Koihala delayed landing and simply sat idly in the canoe. The servants decided to eat the food. One of the men asked, “what shall we present to our chief?” Another responded “we will give him what he deserves”. They all agreed and began wrapping the stones in laʻī (ti leaf) and filled up the food baskets. They set out again to meet the chief. They met the chief at a kipuka between Kaʻaluʻalu and Waiʻohinu.
When the chief came ashore, he was hungry and called out “Hō mai ka ʻia!! (give me the food). “Yes, indeed, “replied the men. “Here is your food…” Whereupon they killed the chief with the stones wrapped like food.

Today in that kipuka there is a small hill that is named Puʻuokoihala. It is said that it was named after the chief that who died there.


Kohaikalani was an evil chief in Kaʻū who laid heavy burdens on his people whenever he could. He was informed that to increase his mana he would need to build a large temple for nā Akua (gods). He wanted a temple built on the puʻu Kaʻulakalani and ordered his men to bring large, heavy stones from Kāwā, miles away. Women and children were also put to work in gathering materials. They built a human chain that was said to go from the shore to the hill. The chief, under the guidance of his advisors, put strict rules for building the structure. No words could be uttered and if any rock was dropped, it was not to be picked up and used. This work took several weeks and because everyone was ordered to work on the structure, there was no one to tend to the crops or go fishing. Food became scarce and the people had little to eat. When many stones had been collected, two kahuna (priests) arrived to supervise the temple construction. They told the men that there was plenty of stone there, with no need to carry any more from Kāwā. The kahuna went on, “It is clear that Kohaikalani intends to offer your bodies as sacrifice for his temple. When he asks you to bring an ʻōhiʻa tree for the temple, tell him he must select it himself and then you will help him pull it up the mountain.” (Temple dedication required human sacrifice, usually from prisoners captured during battle or someone who had made the chief angry.)

Kohaikalani agreed to this plan and proposed to pull the tree up the mountain while the men pushed. While they were on the steepest part of the hill, they stalled and said that the log is not moving. The priest called to the chief and informed the chief that the log will not move because the gods were not happy that the chief positioned himself before the log that would be carved for the gods. Therefore, he should position himself behind and call for great mana to flow into the log making it easy for the people to pull up.

The chief stood behind the log on the bottom end and put his hands on it, the priest gave the signal to the people up top and they cut the ropes. The log slid down the steep hill over the chief and he was instantly killed.

Since the rule (and deaths) of these tyrannical chiefs, the people of Kaʻū have become known as people who look out for themselves and their ʻohana.

Having been shared by many Hawaiians over long periods of time, different versions of moʻolelo may vary, in some cases significantly.
Read more about moʻolelo relating to Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Last updated: October 28, 2020