Anthropology of Life & Death: Conceptions of life and death amongst Hawaiians

As part of our third year Anthropology of Life & Death module, students explore the question of life, in its broadest sense, from a variety of anthropological perspectives. This week, we are featuring a student essay from the module by Bobine Notenboom.
Bobine’s bio: I am a third-year anthropology student from the Netherlands. Throughout my undergraduate degree I have enjoyed interacting with many different anthropological topics but developed a special interest in animistic beliefs of native populations, and the anthropology of outer space.

‘We are part of a family that includes the stars, the ocean, the sun, and everything else in the world’: The Moʻolelo Moʻokūʻauhau of Kānaka Maoli


A person’s relationship to their environment is informed by the surroundings in which they grow up, leading the variety of peoples that live on our earth to have unique ways of shaping their relation to nature (Lee et al., 2020). The cultural beliefs of the Kānaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) teach them they are only one part of an interconnected genealogical web that includes everything in their native world (Wilson-Hokowhitu, 2019). This moʻolelo moʻokūʻauhau (genealogical history) includes the sun, the sea, the land, all the stars, and their akua (deities) (Wilson-Hokowhitu, 2019). In this essay, I aim to examine how this system of fictive kinship manifests itself, how one can be part of it, and what happens when it gets disturbed.

‘Ōiwi cosmogenesis

To establish how Kānaka Maoli consider themselves to be related to the Earth, we must first look at how they conceptualise the earth itself; this starts with the ‘Ōiwi (native Hawaiian) cosmogenesis. The Hawaiian people have always lived in a world shared with their akua, as they believe there was an era before humans, where only spirits roamed the earth (Chauvin, 2000). There are countless numbers of gods, one for every occupation, wind direction and meteorological phenomenon, as well as aumakua (family gods) of deified relatives (Chauvin, 2000). One account of the universe’s creation is the story of Papa and Wākea as described in the Kumulipo. Existing before written language was introduced to Hawaii in the 19th century, the Kumulipo is a poetic chant about the “earth mother” (Papa) and the “sky father” (Wākea) creating the universe (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). The story starts at a time of only (darkness) until the sky was created by Wākea throwing the cover off a bowl, the land and the sea were made from the bowl, and the sun, moon, and stars from the meat and seeds contained within it (Chauvin, 2000).

The universe was not the only thing created in the Kumulipo; Papa and Wākea have a daughter called Ho’ohõkukalani who gave birth to two sons (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). Hāloanakalaukapalili was stillborn, and from his burial site grew taro, an edible plant which is a staple for the Hawaiian diet (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017) Her second son Hāloa is the first Kānaka – he becomes the leader of the Lāhui (the nation and the people). This story of the creation of the universe as well humanity demonstrates a blend of natural and human history (Chauvin, 2000). It draws a direct line from the gods to the first rulers, legitimising the ali’i (ruling class) as fulfilling a predetermined place in the system.  An important role within determining status is genealogical ranking, not based on age but on which genealogical branch is older (Handy & Pakui, 1951). Through the personification of these akua and portraying them as direct relatives to the Kānaka, a kinship system is established in which the native people are family members of the stars, ocean, and sun, as they all come from the same parents.

Named by the gods

The familial connections to the land and the akua play an important role within practices surrounding birth as well. One of the ways this manifests itself is through native naming practices. For a society that places such an emphasis on the concept of ohana (family), it might be surprising to discover that pre-western intervention it was not customary for Kānaka Maoli to have family names. Green & Beckwith (1924) explain the traditional naming practices as follows. Newborns could be named in myriad ways: after a parent, or a significant event that took place around its birth. In a less fortunate scenario, a child could be given an ugly name, like ‘stench’ or ‘worthless’, to protect the newborn. This is done if newborns have previously passed away in a family; the offensive name will make the child undesirable to a uhane kuewa (wandering spirit) so they leave it alone. The most sacred way of naming a child is by letting the gods choose it. This type of name is called inoa nahea o ka po (name announced by the gods) and will come to a family member of the child in a dream. This name establishes a deeply personal connection between an akua and the child and must be secret and kept within the family.

Another connection between the birth of new life and the earth from which it came is through the practice of piko. Piko means the navel/umbilical cord but also a spiritual centre that connects one to their kapuna (ancestors) and future offspring (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). The manner in which the piko and ‘iewe (placenta) are disposed of is crucial to the well-being of the child (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). There are stories in which the ‘iewe is discarded into the sea only to come back to the family as an animal spirit to act as a guardian (Green & Beckwith, 1924).  After birth, the piko is meant to be preserved in salt and protected from harm until a sacred spot is found to bury it; this could be years after the birth (Green & Beckwith, 1924). One such space is Mauna a Wākea (the mountain belonging to Wākea). The volcano is especially well-suited as a site for the burial of piko as it itself is considered to be a piko (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). The mountain’s origins are anthropomorphised as being the firstborn out of five peaks born to Papa (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). Just like in Kānaka, for a place to have a familial connection to one of the original ancestors emphasises its importance. The mountain acts as the cord that ties the ancestors to the living and the heavens to the earth.

Colonial disturbance to ‘āina practices

Although this in no way aims to be a comprehensive overview of the effects of settler colonialism on Kānaka Maoli culture, I feel a discussion about the traditional practices and beliefs in regards to the land could not go without a mention of the forces that tried so hard to destroy it. Little over a hundred years after James Cook first brought European occupation to the islands of Hawai’i, a US-backed coup deposed Queen Liliuokalani and the previously independent kingdom of Hawai’i became a US territory (Warschauer et al., 1997). Even before this event, ‘Ōiwi practices like hula had been repressed due to missionaries who saw their rituals and customs as savage (Warschauer et al., 1997). After Hawai’i became a US territory, the Ka ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i (the Hawaiian language) was banned from being taught in schools and removed from society – in the late 20th century it was on the brink of extinction (Warschauer et al., 1997). Throughout Hawai’i’s history, their stories explaining the Kānaka’s connection to their ‘āina (land) had been passed down orally, and this colonial suppression of their ‘Ōlelo meant they diminished in the social consciousness.

Not only the familial but also the physical connection to the land was weakened by colonialism. The Kānaka Maoli had a very different conception of land ownership from Westerners. The Hawaiians did not conceive of their ‘āina as real estate but rather as kin (Wilson-Hokowhitu, 2019). Before western intervention, they had a system in place where the ali’i ruled over the land and gave protections to the common people in exchange for their contribution to land management (Lichtenstein, 2008). Following US intervention, the system was changed into private ownership and much land was bought by US nationals for very cheap prices (Lichtenstein, 2008). Mismanagement of the land continued and when Hawai’i had statehood forced upon it in 1959, part of that title meant the US government took on a relationship of guardianship over Kānaka Maoli and their lands (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). Not only were indigenous calls for independence ignored, it also meant that the people of Hawaii are unable to sue the government for the violations of their land rights (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017).

These violations of land rights are not only part of Hawaii’s history, but persist into its present, and into the plans for the future. As demonstrated earlier, nature is both sacred as well as regarded as a kapuna of the Kānaka Maoli. This does not just carry with it symbolic meaning, but also core concepts that are to be obeyed when interacting with the land. Some of these concepts include mana’o’i’o (respect for nature) and mālama ‘āina (Minerbi, 1999). We see these values being broken at a place like the sacred Mauna a Wākea, where since the 1960s thirteen observatories have been built, desecrating the mountain (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). The kai’i mauna (protectors of the mountain) have been ignored by the government in their protests against the plans for the Earth’s biggest telescope to be built in this spot (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). Hawai’i is also the most densely militarized state in the United States (Mei-Singh & Yamada, 2007). This not only means that a large portion of the land is out of the hands of Kānaka Maoli, it also has devastating environmental consequences. A 2004 report identified over 789 military contaminated sites and the military installations are responsible for five out of the ten of Hawai’i’s biggest polluters (Mei-Singh & Yamada, 2007).


Kānaka Maoli have a distinct cosmological view where they are circularly connected to the earth and their akua. This connection is demonstrated and sustained through their rituals surrounding birth, and their creation stories. While other cultures ponder if the earth is even alive, the ‘Ōiwi embrace their ‘āina as kin, as well as a tie to their kapuna. This way of relating to their land has been significantly disturbed following centuries of settler colonialism, which placed bans on native language and traditions. This does not mean however that the ‘Ōiwi way of conceptualising one’s self as part of a Moʻolelo Moʻokūʻauhau to which belongs all of the universe has died out. Kānaka Maoli are fighting for their lands as their kai’i and have not bent to colonial rule (Casumbal-Salazar, 2017). They have an understanding not only of the racial and colonial contraints placed upon their people, but also the way they eluded those constrictions and sustained their ‘Ōiwi geographies of connection (Wilson-Hokowhitu, 2019). Hawaiian identity is founded on their familial connection to the land and the sea and continues to be actualised in this way. Everything I have tried to demonstrate on this topic is expressed beautifully in the proverb “ka mauli o ka ‘āina a he mauli kānaka, the life of the land is the life of the people” (Kana‘iaupuni  & Malone, 2006).


Casumbal-Salazar, I., 2017. A fictive kinship: Making “modernity,”“ancient Hawaiians,” and the telescopes on Mauna Kea. Native American and Indigenous Studies, 4(2), pp.1-30.

Chauvin, M.E., 2000. Useful and conceptual astronomy in ancient Hawaii. In Astronomy Across Cultures (pp. 91-125). Springer, Dordrecht.

Green, L.C. and Beckwith, M.W., 1924. Hawaiian customs and beliefs relating to birth and infancy. American Anthropologist, 26(2), pp.230-246.

Handy, E.C. and Pukui, M.K., 1951. The Polynesian family system in Ku-u, Hawai’i: IV.—The Kinship System. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 60(4), pp.187-222.

Kana‘iaupuni, S.M. and Malone, N., 2006. This land is my land: The role of place in Native Hawaiian identity. lili: Multidisciplinary research on Hawaiian well-being, 3(1), pp.281-307.

Lee, A.S., Maryboy, N., Begay, D., Buck, W., Catricheo, Y., Hamacher, D., Holbrook, J., Kimura, K., Knockwood, C., Painting, T.K. and Varguez, M., 2020. Indigenous Astronomy: Best Practices and Protocols for Including Indigenous Astronomy in the Planetarium Setting.

Lichtenstein, Maia (2008) “The Paradox of Hawaiian National Identity and Resistance to United States Annexation,” Penn History Review: Vol. 16 : Iss. 1 , Article 4.

Mei-Singh, L., & Yamada, S. (2007). The Impact of the Military Presence in Hawai‘i on the Health of Na Kanaka Maoli. Pacific Health Dialog, 14(1), pp.205–212.

Minerbi, L., 1999. Indigenous management models and protection of the ahupua ‘a. Soc Process Hawai i, 39, pp.208-225.

Warschauer M., Donaghy K. & Kuamoÿo H. (1997) Leoki: a powerful voice of Hawaiian language revitalisation, Computer Assisted Language Learning, 10(4), pp.349-36.

Wilson-Hokowhitu, N. ed., 2019. The past before us: Moʻokūʻauhau as methodology. University of Hawaii Press.



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