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Traditions of Oahu

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Emma M. Nakuina

(Photo, below right: The piko of O'ahu: Kukaniloko Birthing Stones.)

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Photo of KukanilokoOn the plateau lying between 'Ewa and Waialua, on the island of O'ahu, and about a mile off and mauka (mountainside) of the Kaukonahua bridge, is a place called Kukaniloko (photo right). This was the ancient birthplace of the O'ahu kings and rulers. Every woman of royal blood had to retire to this place when about to give birth to a child, on pain of forfeiting the rank, privileges, and prerogatives of her expected offspring, should the child be born in a less sacred place. The stones where the royal birthings took place are still there today.(a)

In ancient times Kukaniloko was kapu, for here the high priest of the island had his headquarters. This priest was usually a descendent of a chiefly family, and in many instances, an uncle or younger brother of the ruling king, or connected by marriage with those of the royal line. He headed a numerous, well organized, and powerful priesthood, and his influence was hardly second to that of the king. In some matters his authority was paramount.

A few miles mauka of Kukaniloko, toward the Waimea Mountains, is Helemano, where the last of the cannibal chiefs from the South Seas finally settled after being driven from the plains of Mokule'ia and Waialua by the people of those districts. The people had been exasperated by the frequent demands on them to furnish bodies for cannibal feasts.(b)

To the east of Helemano, and about the same distance from Kukaniloko, is O'ahunui ("Great O'ahu"), another historical place. This was the residence of the kings of the island. Tradition has it that before the coming of the cannibal chiefs, the place had a different name.

When the Lo 'Ai-kanaka ("The people-eaters"), as the last of the cannibal chiefs were called, were forced to take up residence in upper Helemano, a district just outside of the boundaries of those reserved for the royal and priestly residence, a young man called O'ahunui was king. An elder sister named Kilikili'ula, who had been as a mother to him, was supposed to share equally with him the royal power and prerogative. This sister was married to a chief named Lehuanui, of the priestly line, but not otherwise directly connected with royalty. She was the mother of three children, the two eldest being boys and the youngest a girl. The family all lived together in the royal enclosure, but in separate houses for males and females, according to ancient custom.

Now, the Lo 'Ai-kanaka, on establishing themselves in upper Helemano, had at first behaved very well. They had been careful and prudent in their intercourse with the royal retainers, and had visited the young King to render their homage with every appearance of humility.

O'ahunui was captivated by the suave manners of the ingratiating southern chief and his immediate retainers, and he invited them to a feast.

The southern chief returned this civility, and the King dined with the strangers. Here it was strongly suspected that the dish of honor placed before the King was human flesh, served under the guise of pork.

The King found the dish very much to his liking, and hinted to the Lo 'Ai-kanaka chief that the Southerner's 'a'ipu'upu'u (chief steward) understood the preparation and cooking of pork better than the royal cook did.

The Lo 'Ai-kanaka took the hint, and the young king became a very frequent guest on the Southerner's dining mat. Some excuse or other would be given to invite O'ahunui to upper Helemano, such as a challenge to a game of konane (a game like checkers), or a contest of skill in the different athletic and warlike sports, which O'ahunui would be asked to judge or simply view. As a matter of course, the King would be expected to remain after the game or sports to share a meal. Thus, with one excuse or another, he spent a great deal of time with his new subjects and friends.

To supply the particular dainty craved by the royal visitor, the Lo 'Ai-kanaka chief had to send warriors out to the passes leading to Wai'anae from Lihu'e and Kalena, and also to the lonely pathway leading up to Kalakini, on the Waimea side, there to lie in ambush for any lone traveler, or belated person gathering la'i (ti leaves), 'a'aho (timber for houses), or ferns. Such a one would fall an easy prey to the Lo 'Ai-kanaka warriors, who were skillful in lua (the art of breaking bones).

This went on for some time, until the unaccountable disappearance of so many people began to be connected with the frequent entertainments by the southern chief. O'ahunui's subjects began to hint that their young King had acquired the taste for human flesh at these feasts, and that it was to gratify his unnatural appetite for the horrid dish that, contrary to all royal precedent, he paid his frequent visits to those who were his inferiors.

The people disapproved more and more openly of the intimacy of O'ahunui with his new friends, and murmurs of discontent grew loud and deep. His chiefs and high priest became alarmed and begged him to discontinue his visits, or they would not be answerable for the consequences. The King was thereby forced to heed their warnings; he promised to keep away from the Lo 'Ai-kanaka, and did so for quite a while.

Now, all the male members of the royal family ate their meals with the King when he was at home. This included, among others, Lehuanui, his sister's husband, and their two sons­healthy, chubby little lads of about eight and six years of age. One day after breakfast, as the roar of the surf at Waialua could be distinctly heard, the king remarked that the fish of 'Uko'a pond at Waialua must be pressing against the makaha (pond gates), and he would like some aholehole (a delicious small silvery fish).


This observation was really meant as a command to his brother-in-law to go and get the fish, as Lehuanui was the highest chief present except for the two royal nephews, too small to assume such duties.

So Lehuanui went to Waialua with a few of his family retainers and a number of those belonging to the King. They found the fish packed thick at the makaha, and were soon busily engaged in scooping out, cleaning, and salting them. It was quite late at night when Lehuanui, weary with the labors of the day, lay down to rest. He had been asleep but a short time when he seemed to see his two sons standing by his head. The eldest spoke to him: "Why do you sleep, my father? While you were at 'Uko'a, we were being consumed by your brother-in-law, the King. We were cooked and eaten up, and our skulls are now hanging in a net from a branch of the lehua tree you are named after, and the rest of our bones are tied in a bundle and buried under the tree by the big root running toward the setting sun."

Then they seemed to fade away, and Lehuanui started up, shivering with fear. He hardly knew whether he had been dreaming or had actually seen the ghosts of his little sons. He strongly suspected they were dead, and as he remembered all the talk and innuendoes about the King's supposed reasons for visiting the strangers, and the urgent prohibition of those visits by the high priest and chiefs, he concluded that the King had expressed a desire for fish in his presence only to send him out of the way; no doubt the King had noticed the chubby forms and rounded limbs of the little lads. Since he had been prevented from partaking of human flesh with the strangers, he had compelled his servants to kill, cook, and serve up his own nephews. In satisfying his depraved appetite, he had also gotten rid of two who might become formidable rivals to him; for it was quite possible that should he be suspected of a desire to further indulge in cannibalism, the priests and chiefs might have deposed him and proclaimed one of the two young nephews his successor.

Lehuanui was so troubled that he aroused his closest servant, and the two left Waialua for home shortly after midnight. They arrived at the royal enclosure at dawn, and went first to the lehua tree spoken of by his eldest son's ghost. On looking up amid the branches, he saw dangling there two little skulls in a large-meshed fishing net. Lehuanui then stooped down and scraped away the leaves and loose dirt from the root toward the setting sun, and out came a bundle of kapa. Inside he found the bones of two children. The father reached up for the net containing the skulls, and putting the bundle of kapa in it, tied the net around his neck. The servant stood by, a silent and grieving spectator.

The father procured a stone adze and went to the King's sleeping-house, his servant following. Here every one was asleep except for an old woman tending the kukui-nut candle. O'ahunui was stretched out on a pile of soft mats covered with his pa'i'ula, the royal red kapa of old. The cruel wretch was in a heavy, drunken sleep, satiated on an excess of human flesh and copious cups of 'awa.

Lehuanui stood over him, adze in hand, and called, "O King, where are my children?" The stupefied King only stirred uneasily, and would not, or could not, awake. Lehuanui called him three times; the sight of the drunken brute, gorged with the flesh and blood of his children, so enraged Lehuanui that he struck at O'ahunui's neck with his stone adze and severed the head from the body with a single blow.

Lehuanui then strode to his own sleeping-house, where his wife lay asleep with their youngest child in her arms. He aroused her and asked for his boys. The mother could only weep without answering. He upbraided her bitterly for having tamely surrendered her children to satisfy the appetite of her brother. He reminded her that she had equal power with her brother, and that the King was very unpopular; had she chosen to resist his demands and called on the retainers to defend her children, the King would have been killed and her children saved.

Lehuanui then told her that he had killed her brother in retaliation, adding, "Since you have preferred your brother to me and mine, you will see no more of us." He tore the sleeping child from her arms and turned to leave the house.

The poor wife and mother followed, and, flinging herself on her husband, attempted to detain him by clinging to his knees. But Lehuanui was crazed by his loss and the thought of her greater affection for a cruel, inhuman brother than for her own children. He struck at her with all his might, exclaiming, "Well, then, follow your brother," and rushed away, accompanied by all his retainers. Kilikiliula fell on the side of the stream opposite to where the lehua tree stood and is said to have turned to stone. The stone is pointed out to this day, balanced on the hillside of the ravine formed by the stream.

The headless body of O'ahunui lay where he was killed, abandoned by everyone. In time, it also turned to stone, as a witness to the anger of the gods and their detestation of his horrible crime. All the servants who had in any way participated in the killing and cooking of the young princes were, at the death of Kilikili'ula, likewise turned to stone, just as they were, in various positions of crouching, kneeling, or sitting. All the rest of the royal retainers, with the lesser chiefs and guards, fled in fear and disgust from the place, and thus the once sacred royal home of the O'ahu chiefs was abandoned and deserted.

The great god Kane's curse, it is believed, still hangs over the desolate spot. Although these events happened hundreds of years ago, no one has lived there since.

"O'ahunui," by Emma M. Nakuina, first appeared in Thrum's Hawaiian Annual in 1897 (90-95); it was reprinted in Thrum's Hawaiian Folk Tales (139-146). Another version of the story of the cannibal king of central O'ahu is told in Westervelt's Hawaiian Legends of Old Honolulu (189-203). In Westervelt's version, the events take place at "Halemanu" in the Wai'anae mountains; the cannibal king, Ke ali'i 'ai Kanaka, is called Kokoa or Kalo. He is slain by a warrior named Hoahanau, who is the brother of one of the cannibal king's victims. For more traditions of the cannibal king, McAllister's Archaeology of Oahu (137-140).

(a) The birthing stones at Kukaniloko have been given permanent protection, and may still be visited today. The birthing stones are said to have been established by Nanakaoko and his wife Kahihiokalani for the birth of their child Kapawa around the twelfth century. For a discussion of the traditions related to these stones, see McAllister's Archaeology of Oahu (134-137).

(b) "There is no evidence that cannibalism was ever practised in Hawaii, nor says Fornander, in the Society Islands. Among the Tongans the practice is said to be exceptional. But in the Fiji and the Marquesas [Islands], in New Zealand, [and] to some extent in Samoa, the custom prevailed" (Beckwith. "Hawaiian Shark Aumakua" 510). As the story of O'ahunui makes clear, cannibalism was abhorrent to Hawaiians; the practice is attributed to intruders from the South Pacific; but even in the South Pacific, the practice was a part of ritualized warfare rather than for daily nourishment or feasting. See " The Cannibal King: His Death" for a discussion of the significance of the traditions of the Cannibal King of Central O'ahu.

Two place names in the district of Waialua connect it with the Society Islands in the South Pacific--Laniakea (Ra'iatea), a famous surfing spot in Waialua, is the name of an island about 150 miles west of Tahiti; Kapukapuakea (Taputapuatea) is the name of places of worship found in Waialua and on Ra'iatea. Taputapuatea on Ra'iatea was known for human sacrifice to the war god 'Oro. Thus, in Tahiti, it was the war god who was a cannibal ('ai kanaka); and since the chiefs were considered gods, the story of O'ahunui may be allegorically about the practice of human sacrifice brought from Tahiti by chiefs to Hawai'i and the rejection of this practice by O'ahu chiefs.


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