Laws, Governance & Social Structure

Until European contact, Hawai`i was a highly stratified society with strictly maintained castes. The ali`i (chiefs) headed the social pyramid and ruled over the land. Highly regarded and sometimes feared, the kahuna (professionals) were experts on religious ritual or specialists in canoe-building, herbal medicine, and healing. The maka`ainana (commoners) farmed and fished; built walls, houses, and fishponds; and paid taxes to the paramount chiefs and his chiefs. Kauwa, the lowest class, were outcasts or slaves. Later in Hawaiian history, a united Kingdom of Hawai'i emerged under King Kamehameha I and subsequent kings and queens.

A system of laws known as kanawai enforced the social order. Certain people, places, things, and times were sacred—they were kapu, or forbidden. Women ate apart from men and were restricted from eating pork, coconuts, bananas, or a variety of other foods. Kapu regulated fishing, planting, and the harvesting of other resources, thus ensuring their conservation. Any breaking of kapu disturbed the stability of society; the punishment often was death.

Prior to European contact Native Hawaiian rulers divided the Hawaiian Islands into distinct political regions. On each of the four larger islands—Kaua'i, O'ahu, Maui, and Hawai'i—lands were divided into wedge-shaped districts called moku.

The moku were further divided into land sections called ahupua'a. Ahupua'a were often bounded by ridgelines and typically encompassed an entire valley from mountain summit to outer reef. This type of land division allowed for each ahupua'a to contain nearly all the resources that its inhabitants required for survival.

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    Last updated: August 19, 2019