An Anthropological View of Hawaiian Culture: An Essay

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In their anthropological review of Hawaii, Anahulu, Marshall Sahlins and Patrick V. Kirch combine the anthropological subdisciplines of social anthropology and archaeology in a project with an intent to understand how the cultural constructs and processes of Hawaiian history have been couched into the land of the Anahulu Valley in northwestern Oahu. The project was accomplished through the synthetization of data from archival ethnography to archaeological surveys and excavations. The authors inform that while their archaeological investigations were centered in and around the Anahulu Valley, their ethnohistorical analyses encompass a significantly broader territory, so in the bigger picture the work must be considered one of ethnographic information. It is not clear how much time Drs. Sahlins and Kirch remained on the island of Oahu in the process of collecting data, but it is stated the project dates to 1970, with ongoing archaeological investigations in 1974 and 1976, and further data collection occurring in 1982.

The authors explain how reasoning from the perspectives of multiple anthropological subdisciplines worked to their advantage in compiling an accurate ethnohistorical accounting of Hawaii by presenting this example (in a slightly condensed recounting). The archaeological excavation of irrigated terrace complexes in the upper valley, that were suspected to be of prehistory origin, resulted in unexpected findings. They were actually more recently developed than originally thought, so Dr. Sahlins reexamined the historic record of known facts about Oahu occupants in 1795 and 1804, which revealed overlooked facts about King Kamehameha’s time on Oahu in the late 18th century. He discovered Kamehameha, facing provisioning challenges, had his warriors take possession of the conquered estates in 1804. This was intended as provisioning prior to an invasion of Kauai, but that invasion never was executed, and instead resulted in permanent settlement of a significant population across the Oahu valleys. Therefore, during the Mahele (redistribution of land to protect Hawaiian land from foreign ownership by Kamehameha III) between 1846-1855, most landowners on Oahu traced family ownership back to Kamehameha I. Dr. Sahlins argues this accounts for the late intensification of production as defined by the transition from slash-and-burn to irrigation in the island valleys as interpretation by carbon-14 dates confirms it was during this occupation of the first Kamehameha’s warriors that the irrigation system was established. This is how Drs. Sahlins and Kirch explain how archaeological features combined with consultation of published texts, and archival ethnography contributed to the larger ethnohistory of Hawaii (Kirch and Sahlins 1992, 1-2).

The basic elements of the kinship and social organization of the Hawaiian culture were in place by the time Captain James Cook arrived on Hawaii Island in 1778, and remained secure throughout Kamehameha’s conquest and unification of all the islands between 1795 and 1810, and beyond. After 1854, Hawaiian control of the kingdom declined when American colonialists took control, and turned the Hawaiian government into a constitutional monarchy. The imposing interests of American capitalists spurred the government to initiate an action of land reform, the Mahele, intended to give private and alienable land rights to all native Hawaiians. The process failed miserably, while concurrent legislation was allowing foreigners to acquire titles in fee simple, granting exclusive ownership. This transpiration essentially ended native Hawaiian land ownership, and challenged the integrity of native Hawaiian society. This is effectively where Drs. Sahlins and Kirch end their study.

Hawaiian culture was a highly stratified society, first as chiefdoms, and later as unified chiefdoms under king Kamehameha and his heirs. As such, labor was organized by hierarchical and gender divisions. Each island was divided into a small number of divisions, called ‘moku’, in which chiefs delegated through tiers of petty chiefs and landlords down to the commoners who supported the chiefs both materially and with ritual tributes. Commoners were afforded small land segments, and were the primary laborers with agriculture, fishing, woodworking, and tool making reserved for men, while women were responsible for gathering inshore marine wildlife and foods, procuring or creating the chiefly tributes, and bark gathering for making bark cloth for clothing and mats used in domestic furnishings. As the small parcel of afforded land was worked from generation to generation, the graves of the ancestors on the land marked the family’s proprietary claim and prosperity. Land and family were closely bound, one was measured by the other. In this way, land became the ancestral legacy, not names. Yet, tenure was always precarious as the relative verticals of hierarchy were always present to remind that land was granted by someone who could reclaim it. Chiefs often competed for laborers, and made practice of ‘borrowing’ laborers from neighboring chiefdoms in what amounted to forced labor, or even slavery, separating commoners from their land, and sometimes claiming it for themselves (Linnekin and Beierle 2003).

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The island valley wetlands and the seaward (south and west) sides of the islands provided some of the richest resources largely in marine bounty, taro root (pounded into a paste called ‘poi’) cultivation, and large walled fish ponds constructed in off-shore areas. The leeward (north and east) sides of the islands sustained dry-land taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, breadfruit, and sugarcane. Additionally, there was an abundance of chickens, dogs, a female ritual food also available to men, and pigs, a male ritual food taboo to women. These animals had arrived with the earliest Polynesian arrivals around 600AD, were maintained through husbandry, and over time established a feral presence.

Household units were the basic groupings on the land, and the commoner’s thatched houses were often constructed so close in proximity that they appeared to be one great longhouse. Both chiefs and commoners resided in large, extended family groups that modeled fluid composition, and were marked by considerable economic cooperation which could constitute a single domestic economy. There were taboos that mandated separate eating and sleeping quarters for women and men, the gathering and preparation of food, and that women be separated from the community during menses. Interestingly, houses were not always built on the family land (unlike burials which were done on family land), as the house was considered merely an appendage of convenience. Land, however, was the heart of the family unit, and was usually passed down to the eldest son, but this was without ownership as land was considered a respected member of the family. Daughters were not excluded from inheritance of land if there was no son, but they were the primary beneficiaries of the family’s spiritual property and knowledge (Linnekin and Beierle 2003).

Native Hawaiians had generous concepts of kinship. The kinship core was represented by the cognatic kindred, all descendants of the same grandparents (people who had different grandparents were not related) (Kirch and Sahlins 1992, 33). Descent was bilateral, and all collateral relatives were ‘fathers’, ‘mothers’, ‘brothers’, or ‘daughters’, or distantly, ‘grandparents’ and ‘grandchildren’. All kin of a given generation were included in the same category, and all were considered consanguineal kin. Many types of adoption were practiced, and adoption of a distant relative, or even an unrelated person, into the kindred circle was common, as were grandparents and parent’s siblings taking newborns as their own. Interestingly, every household heir was also considered the chief’s son through adoption making the ruling chief pater familias (Kirch and Sahlins 1992, 26). Local endogamy was practiced, though chiefs were known to use marriage as a strategic maneuver to gain prestige or territorial rights. Polygyny was allowed, but rarely practiced by commoners. Chiefs and landlords were more likely to engage in in polygynous marriages. Marriages were not arranged, but it was considered desirable to marry someone in a higher social rank for both men and women. In most respects, women were sexually autonomous. Premarital sexual liaisons were acceptable, and quite common, and men and women were free to marry whom they chose. Marriage was considered a natural progression, and occurred without ceremony. Only a chief’s or king’s wedding was heralded with great celebration in light that chiefs and kings were believed to be descendants of gods, and possess sacred powers known as mana. For the commoner, celebratory rights were reserved for the birth of the first child from a union. Post marital residence was as flexible as the fluid family composition. Whatever was the most convenient arrangement was pursued.

The indigenous Hawaiian religion acknowledged four major gods. Ku, Kamehameha’s patron deity, was the god of war, fishing, and other male divisions. Lono, Kane, and Kanaloa, represented, respectively, peace and reproduction, ancestor of chiefs and commoners, and the underworld. There was also one major goddess, Haumea, the fertility goddess. Men and women of higher ranking both had patron gods and goddesses whom they worshiped and arranged offerings. Commoners were more likely to make offerings to the ancestral guardian spirits believed to inhabit their domestic shrines. Lesser deities were believed to be associated with assigned crafts and activities. Given the ancestral relationship chiefs and kings were believed to have with the gods, the life events of a chief or king were celebrated with great exaggeration. Upon the death of a chief, his subjects reacted with great drama for the month-long mourning period. Acting as if possessed, people would leave their homes, and wander the community, wailing, screaming, and acting out. It was not uncommon for men and women to strip naked, and flog or self-mutilate themselves as an attempt to experience the death of their chief. During this time, the ascending chief was kept out of the public’s eye. At the end of the mourning period, the chief’s bones (which were believed to hold the sacred mana) were brought out, and prepared for his eternal place as a god. The public pandemonium ceased as if nothing had happened, and the new chief was presented to the subjects followed by a glorious celebration for the new chief (Linnekin and Beierle 2003).

The anthropological review, Anahulu, has illustrated the Hawaiian culture as one of manifold complexities, and sometimes contradictions, supporting a strong expression of family autonomy, and a deeply bonded relationship with the land to a very industrious people.

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An Anthropological View of Hawaiian Culture: An Essay. (2022, October 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
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