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Activities Of Ancient Hawaiian Culture Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2554 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The ancient Hawaiians had many games and physical activities that were important to their religious beliefs and everyday life. Although many of the activities were culturally important, two activities exceedingly survived to be recognized on a global scale: surfing and hula. The uniqueness of these two activities has made them iconic of Hawaiian culture and has created a strong sense of pride and renewed sense of culture. The goal of my research is to give a history of the popular Hawaiian physical activities of surfing and hula and their significance to Hawaiian culture. The significance of such activities in relation to culture is an important subject in anthropology and the use of primary and secondary sources will be my field of study in this paper. The research will begin with the history of the Makahiki or Hawaiian New Year and its importance to games and physical activities as a religious and cultural event. The study will incorporate the two popular ancient Hawaiian activities, including a brief history of their relationship to the ancient Hawaiian culture and the importance of these activities to Hawaiians today. It is important to note the effect that globalization has had on these activities and how their values and meanings have shifted. Hula and surfing are important today in relation to tourism, which is the leading industry in Hawaii. Due to globalization and the power of the capitalist market economy the importance of surfing as a practice of Hawaiian culture has shifted to become a vehicle of tourism and recreation. Furthermore; Hula had been of the most important ancient Hawaiian cultural institutions and has subsequently shifted to become a vehicle of tourism and recreation. Although the effects of globalization have shifted the cultural importance of these activities, the communal existence of Polynesian people will be the force that sustains surfing and hula's cultural importance.

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The Hawaiian New Year festival is called Makahiki and was a very important time of the year in ancient Hawaiian civilization. The word Makahiki translates as "year" in Hawaiian. The celebration marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new agricultural growing season. The celebration was in honor of the god Lono, and encompassed about four months from November to March. The celebration was separated into three phases: the first being ho'okupu, a time of taxes to the king and redistribution to the people. The second phase was welehu and was devoted to sports and gambling (Jones 1967). The creation of the second phase and the mythology behind it shows how sports and games were not only important to people as means of leisure activities but also how they were important in their relation to culture and religious beliefs.

Lo-no was the fourth of the four great gods that were worshiped throughout Polynesia. He had a separate order of priests and temples of a lower grade. Traditions connected with the ancient kings Lonokawai and Lono-i-ka-makahiki, seem to have been mixed with those belonging to the primeval god Lo-no. Lono-i-ka-makahiki is reputed to have instituted the games which were celebrated during the Ma-hahi-Ri festival. He is said on some account to have become offended with his wife and murdered her; but afterward lamented the act so much as to induce a state of mental derangement. In this state he traveled through all the islands, boxing and wrestling with everyone he met. He subsequently set sail, in a singularly shaped canoe, for Tahiti, or a foreign country. After his departure he was deified by his countrymen, and annual contests of boxing and wrestling were instituted in his honor. (Cullin 1899: 203)

The third phase of the ceremony was wa'a'auhau and was a time to pay taxes to the gods. A canoe was sent adrift with a tribute to Lono and after this tribute was paid the king would also go adrift. The final act of the ceremony, according to Cullen, took place when "the king with a numerous company went fishing, taking the long idol with him. On his return, he was accompanied by a warrior, expert in the spear exercise. As the king leaped ashore a man rushed forward with two spears bound with white kapa, and hurled one at him, which was parried, after which he simply touched the king with the other spear, and the ceremony was over" (1899: 204). The final act was the "sham battle," in which the king overcame the islanders' defense of the landing which symbolized his worth and permitted him to continue to rule. Seaton assumes that, "the intensity of the defense was proportional to the general dissatisfaction, for failure to land was regarded by the Hawaiians as a demonstration that the ruling chief had lost his mana and therefore, the right to rule" (1974: 201). Overall, the Makahiki is described as "a period of renewal, an interval during which the divine order of the king was upturned and the regimens of socia1 rank and work were suspended. It was carnival, warfare was suspended, sociability and play were the principal activities." (Davenport 1987: 177). The ancient Hawaiians would anticipate this celebration and the entire year was in preparation for it. Therefore, it is reasonable to speculate that practice of games and physical activities were common throughout the year and common in the daily life of ancient Hawaiians with particular importance being placed on the practice of surfing and hula because of their relation to the economy and religion of ancient Hawaii.


He'e Nalu (surfing) originated in ancient Hawaii and was important in ancient culture because of its relationship to economy and religion. Surfing was a very popular sport, so popular in fact that it is the only sport of Hawaiian origin to flourish at an international level today. The history of the sport is very hard to discern because of diffusion and the fact that all ancient Polynesians had a mastery of oceanic skills, although most scholars agree that it was in Hawaii that this activity flourished. The Surfers Almanac discusses the evolution of surfing by means of diffusion by settlers of Hawaii from other parts of Polynesia:

The Marquesans brought to their new Hawaiian home their ancient sport of paipo-riding a wave on a small, rounded board while lying prone, the sport today called belly boarding or knee boarding. The Tahitians also brought their favorite aquatic pastime to Hawaii. They rode the incoming waves while standing in a wa'a ("canoe"), an activity they called paka. When did it happen that a young Marquesan using a paipo board to surf prone, watched a newcomer from Tahiti surfing erect in his canoe and decided to stand upon his paipo, discovering that if he had enough speed he could do so? That moment was the birthdate of surfboarding. (Filosa 1977: 2).

Like many aspects of ancient Polynesian culture, surfing was stratified based on social rank. Filosa explains, "the Hawaiian nobility, the alii, used the great olo ("heavy") board. The makaainana, the commoners, used the alaia ("thin") board. The nobles liked slow, undulating waves such as those found at the mother beach of surfing, Waikiki; the commoners preferred fast-breaking steep waves such as those at Waimea Bay" (Filosa 1977: 3). Surfing reached its pinnacle in ancient life with King Kamehameaha II who abolished the tabus on surfing. All people from that point on could surf however they pleased. Surfing became a national sport and very important to the society. Like many Hawaiian activities the ancients would create competitions based on skill and mastery of the craft. The relation of surfing to ancient Hawaiian culture was based on these competitions which in turn had an effect on the economy. In terms of the gambling side of the sport, Malo and states that: "Surf riding was a national sport of the Hawaiians, on which they were very fond of betting, each man staking his property on the one he thought to most skillful" (1951: 223). It was because of gambling and the arrival of Congregationalist missionaries from Boston that the activity nearly became extinct. The religious taboos on gambling and the confiscation of land by the missionaries caused a dramatic drop in the population and in effect so did the sport of surfing, Filosa describes the decline and reason for its revival:

With the death of so many Hawaiians, the sport of surfing slowly declined, until in 1898 when the islands were annexed to the United States, less than fifty Hawaiians still surfed, and these used the great olo boards. By 1900, there were fewer than ten surfers, but among them was a boy born in 1890 of royal blood. He was destined to salvage the national sport of his people and become the father of modern surfing. His name was Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, son of Duke Halapu Kahanamoku and Julia Paakonia Lonokahikini Paoa. He is still revered by surfers worldwide simply as 'the Duke.'" (Filosa1977: 4)

Surfing as a physical activity had its foundation in Hawaiian religion and culture. It was Kamehameha the Great who made surfing the national sport of Hawaii. Kamehameha II, his son, who abolished the tabu system so that all Hawaiians could participate in the sport. Last but not least, Duke Kahanamoku kept the sport alive and transported it around the world. The diffusion of ancient surfing and modern surfing has undoubtedly created opportunity and pride due to the ever growing popularity of this cultural pastime which has become a powerful global industry.


Whereas surfing gained its popularity today because of its function as a sport, hula is much more than just a physical activity done for enjoyment. "The hula can be viewed as a distinctive and integral facet of the Hawaiian culture" (Williams 1973: 177). Hula is translated as "to dance and make sport to the accompaniment of music and song." Unlike surfing and other sports and activities hula was something that was taken very seriously and practiced in everyday life. Mitchell (1975) states that "the strict and rigorous training for the professional male and female dancers extended over a period of years." (pg 85). Although the hula may have been practiced in everyday life, the ancient Hawaiians did not use it for their own amusement as it is done today. The hula had great religious importance and dances were performed for kings, chiefs, or the public during important ceremonies like the makahiki. The dancers were specially chosen and were held in high regard throughout Polynesia. These dancers required special education and arduous training in traditions, songs, and dance. Those persons who were chosen to become dancers were specifically chosen because of hula's relationship to religion. Emerson explains that "it (hula) was a religious affair and the participants therefore had to guard against profanation by a conservative system of tapus and priestly rites"(1965: 13). The dancers were initiated into a school which was more of a cultural institution called a halau. The halau functioned according to a very strict set of regulations and rules. In ancient Hawaii the strict tapus and importance of the hula required the halau to be a built by the entire surrounding population and the united effort regularly made it possible for a halau to be built in one day. Williams (1977) demonstrates the importance of the hula to ancient Hawaiians when she states:

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The hula not only was an embodiment of the beliefs and values of the people but also served as the keeper of tradition and as a vehicle of communication for passing on religion, history, and legends. The hula functioned as a cultural transmitter because it embodied, within the dance movements and the dance songs and chants, knowledge and productive skills, social sanctions, genealogies, personal and community experiences and the imagery arising from man's relation to nature. (pg 177)

Like ancient forms of surfing, the dances and the games were largely discontinued after the introduction of foreign ways into Hawaii. Fortunately during the mid 19th century, King Kalakaua sponsored a revival of the hula while there were experts still living in the kingdom. Due to tourism and to a greater extent globalization hula as a symbol of Hawaiian culture but is not nearly as important as it once was. It is a uniquely Hawaiian activity but it is seen primarily as a physical activity and not as an important cultural institution. In Hawaiian Hula: an Institution, Williams (1973) writes:

The hula, once a proud, vital institution of religious origin, has 'wandered so far' that now the memory of it is either totally forgotten or is associated 'with the riotous and passionate ebullitions of Polynesian kings and the amorous posturing of their voluptuaries.' A distinction must be made between the traditional forms and the gestures, bodily contortions, and words uttered by men and women actors of the hula today. Many actors in the hula no longer understand the meanings of the words, or 'suit the action to the word'. The hula songs of old were performed in large measure in a way 'untainted with grossness'(1973: 182).

Although some may view hula in this context, elucidating the differences between modern and ancient hula, the fact that it has such deep rooted uniqueness and cultural symbolism is important to Hawaiians and Polynesians in general.


Of the many physical activities and games that ancient Hawaiians had, very few survived to be important to Hawaiians today. Surfing and hula are two Hawaiian pastimes that have survived and their history is testament to their importance in Hawaiian culture. Surfing, initially a leisure activity that was practiced daily and used in religious ceremonies such as makahiki has become a very large international industry. Due to globalization this industry has proven to be very important to Hawaiian culture because of its relation to tourism. Surfing and surfing events such as the "triple crown" attract millions of persons each year to the islands. Tourism is the leading industry in Hawaii and like many other island communities tourism and surfing are creating new frontiers and opportunies. Hula, although not as popular globally as surfing, has remained a vital part of Hawaiian culture. This institution was of the utmost importance to the ancient Hawaiians daily existence and "functioned as a tool to aid their religious beliefs" (Williams 1973:177). In fact, hula was so important that it is said that every activity of the ancient Hawaiians had its own hula, from waking in the morning to carving a canoe. Due to globalization the importance of the Hawaiian hula has shifted from a religious and cultural activity to an activity that has its roots in Hawaiian culture but is used primarily for tourist spectacles and physical exercise.

Although globalization has shifted the importance of these activities, the Hawaiian culture in its ancient and present forms and "the close communal and co-operative type of existence of the people" (Jones 1967:204) have shown to be the reason for the creation of these activities and that alone sustains their cultural importance.


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