(c) Copyright 2003, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

The Hawaiian concept of "mana" is important and complex. In this short essay it can only be described superficially. Mana is spiritual power. Individuals possess mana based on the closeness of their genealogical relationship with the gods. The shadow, or personal possessions, of a person with high mana also share that mana. The kapu system was intended to preserve pono -- the proper balance among the gods, the land, and the people. Disrupting or interfering with the mana of a high chief could throw both society and nature into chaos. Such disruption of pono might be reflected in natural disasters such as famine, tsunami, or volcanic eruption; or social disasters such as infertility in the chiefly lines, or wars or revolutions. That's why the kapu system imposed the death penalty on anyone who stepped on the shadow of a high chief, or handled his clothing or personal possessions without permission. It should also be noted that different genealogical lines are sometimes associated with different religious kuleana (areas of rights and responsibilities, both geographical and conceptual). For example, multiple generations of a family might be commonly acknowledged to have exclusive rights to manage and control access to a heiau -- partly because that family has always been associated with that heiau and thus has acquired customary political control of it, and partly because the family's genealogy ties it to the particular god(s) to whom the heiau is dedicated. Some ethnic Hawaiians even today refuse to step foot onto any luakini heiau (human sacrifice) because their family tradition forbids it due to some event from centuries ago. Likewise, certain families are expected to designate a first-born son or daughter or a hanai child to become a priest, or a healer, or kumu hula for sacred ceremonies, or whatever their family kuleana has traditionally been either because of ancient political power or because of ancient genealogy connecting them with certain gods.

In 1819 the new young King Liholiho Kamehameha II and his regent stepmother Ka'ahumanu (favorite wife of Kamehameha the Great) deliberately destroyed the kapu system and overturned the old religion. They did this by sitting down together to eat, at a huge lu'au. The 'aikapu was a prohibition on men and women eating together, and the penalty was death. The flagrant public breaking of this part of the kapu system by two such high-ranking chiefs, and the failure to immediately kill them for a human sacrifice, ended the entire kapu system because the system was so comprehensive and tightly woven. Accordingly, Liholiho and Kamehameha II promptly spoke to the people and ordered the destruction of the heiau and burning of the wooden idols throughout Hawai'i. Interestingly, the decision to break the kapu had been carefully discussed and agreed upon before the public lu'au. Liholiho's biological mother, Ke'opu'olani, who was the sacred wife of Kamehameha the Great agreed, even though she was possessor of the kapumoe (prostrating kapu requiring all in her presence to lie face down). Even the high priest Hewahewa agreed. Most people complied, but with fear in their hearts. Some people, loyal to the old gods, did not comply. Kekuaokalani, to whom Kamehameha the Great had bequeathed the war god Ku, started a civil war to preserve the old religion. He, and his wife, and all their followers were killed at the Battle of Kuamo'o by a combination of spears and guns. Thereafter, some Hawaiians buried idols and other religious artifacts in caves for safekeeping. The current controversy over the Forbes Cave (Kawaihae) artifacts is partly a dispute over whether a set of artifacts found in a cave in 1905 were placed there by Hawaiians wanting to preserve them against the King's orders to destroy them, or whether they were placed there as funerary objects associated with the bones of ancestors who were also buried there. See:

The discussion of the breaking of the 'aikapu in 1819 illustrates some of the interaction that took place between Hawaiian religion and Hawaiian politics in ancient times. People whose genealogies were especially strong were closely related to the gods and therefore had great political power as a way of maintaining pono. Ke'opu'olani had such high mana that even Kamehameha the Great was obligated to prostrate himself in her presence. She was his sacred wife and their children were genealogically destined to become the political rulers Kamehameha II and III. (One wonders how exactly did Ke'opu'olani manage to become pregnant without Kamehameha breaking the kapumoe! Kapu required him always to be lower than her, and also to prostrate himself face-down) Kamehameha the Great did not have the highest genealogy, but he acquired great mana as a result of his unprecedented military and political victories; and that mana was passed to his children because the mana had entered his genealogy as a result of his victories. Or perhaps the mana was there all along and it was that mana which enabled him to be victorious. Which came first, the mana or the military and political victories (the chicken or the egg)?

Some Hawaiian cultural practitioners or historians cite the breaking of kapu and rejection of the old religion as the beginning of the downfall of the Lahui (Hawaiian people, race, or nation). Kamehameha the Great rose to power by always observing the traditional religion, and by building the huge heiau at Pu'ukohola. Although he died before the missionaries arrived, he never showed interest in the Christian faith of some of the haoles with whom he was acquainted. Near the end of his life he ordered that there should be no more human sacrifices, and that when he died there should be none of the self-mutilation and knocking out of teeth traditionally done by mourners. But soon after he died the kapu was deliberately and publicly broken by his son, the new King. And that's when things started to go wrong. Neither that king nor any other monarch ever produced a child to inherit the monarchy in a clear line of succession. There was a catastrophic decline of ethnic Hawaiian population due to disease and famine. Eventually the monarchy was overthrown. Five years later Hawai'i was swallowed up by America. Such political catastrophes can be regarded as the natural consequences of loss of spiritual pono.

Genealogy was always a factor in the politics of the Hawaiian Kingdom. When Lot Kamehameha V died without naming a successor, there was an election won, without any real contest, by William Charles Lunalilo. Whem he died about a year later without naming a successor, there was a bitter election battle between dowager Queen Emma (wife of Alexander Liholiho Kamehameha IV) vs. David Kalakaua. Part of the struggle was over whether England or the United States should get a stronger hand in Hawaiian politics. Part of the struggle was over the fact that Kalakaua had no substantial connection with the Kamehameha line. And a big part of the struggle was over genealogy going back for centuries. Kalakaua hired a genealogist who did a lot of research and might also have invented some relationships; and Kalakaua published his own version of Kumulipo for the purpose of bolstering his candidacy to be king. He won the election partly because of the genealogy, and also partly because he bribed the members of the legislature and plied them with liquor (the election was by the legislature, not by the public). Immediately after the election there was a riot in which supporters of Queen Emma beat the legislators who had supported Kalakaua, and actually ripped apart a carriage to use the wood for clubs. U.S. troops came ashore to help quell the riot.

Mana could be used to get political power. But political power could also be used to prove, or to acquire, mana. Up until a few decades ago the American political system relied on a sort of mystique associated with the Presidency. The fact that tens of millions of people vote for someone confers upon him not only the legal right to rule, but also a moral or metaphysical power and authority that transcends daily activities. Another example is the election of a Pope. When a Pope dies, the College of Cardinals assembles to elect a new Pope. The political struggles can be intense and may continue in secret for days or weeks. But when the puff of white smoke comes out of the chimney and the new Pope comes out to speak to the people, he is believed to speak with the authority of God from that moment forward. It is claimed that the hand of God reached into the hearts of the Cardinals to guide the political process.

Another illustration of the two-way relationship between mana and political power is the use of ceremony to deify someone who has died. The Catholic church does this when it creates (or should we say "recognizes") a saint. Jesus gave Peter the keys to heaven and the authority to run the Church on behalf of God; and Catholic theology teaches that that power and authority has been passed down through an unbroken chain of succession to all subsequent Popes. Popes create Cardinals, who create Bishops, who create Priests, who thereby have the power to forgive sins and help people go to heaven. A dead person being considered for sainthood is promoted halfway there after a single miracle has been confirmed by a church committee and approved by the Pope; and a second miracle is then required for promotion to saint. Saints can be prayed to, and they can intercede (actually get things done) on behalf of people needing divine help for personal or medical problems. Hawaiians in ancient times had ceremonies whereby the bones and possessions of someone recently dead could be invested with mana, and his spirit could be called upon for future assistance. Thus ancestors might become aumakua (family guardian spirits), or might even rise higher in the pantheon of the 40,000 gods.

Natural phenomena are also associated with mana or divine status. Christians tell about the special star that led the three wise men to the infant Jesus, the miracles that Jesus performed, and also the trembling earth and thunderstorm that accompanied Jesus' death. Hawaiians have similar myths about some of the high chiefs and monarchs. For example the name of Kamehameha III is Kauikeaouli, which means "placed in the dark cloud." The story is that he was born apparently dead, but the kahuna said special prayers that brought him to life. There is a sacred site near Whitmore Village, near Wahiawa on O'ahu, known as Kukaniloko. There, in the middle of a modern-day pineapple field, is a collection of rocks with indentations and markings. It is a place of great mana, where high chiefesses were brought to give birth to babies that would become kings. Huge temple drums were brought there to be pounded to announce a royal birth, and the sound could be heard for many miles (thus the name).

Both Kapi'olani, and Ruth Ke'elikolani, are credited with changing the path of lava flowing from an angry volcano, although Kapi'olani did it by praying to the Christian God and Ruth did it by praying to Pele. Special weather phenomena were connected with the deaths and (re)burials of Emma, Kalakaua, and Lili'uokalani, and also there were rare runs of schools of red fish called aweoweo. Everyone in Hawai'i is familiar with the concept that a rainbow, or a passing rainshower, is considered to be a divine blessing upon an event.

Following the overthrow and annexation, the ethnic Hawaiian community has steadily given less and less authority to genealogy as a way of determining political power, even within their minority group. There are still a few people who claim a genealogical right to the throne of Hawai'i. Two who are fairly well known are "Princess" Owana Salazar, and "Princess" Abigail Kawananakoa. But neither of them engages in many royal functions.

Ms. Salazar sometimes sings and plays the guitar for money, and sometimes sells Hawaiian crafts she makes. To read a newspaper description of Owana Salazar, including photos of her and a brief description of why she feels entitled to the throne, see:

The very elderly and wealthy Ms. Kawananakoa concentrates on presiding over her family and serving on various boards. An interesting struggle occurred in 1998 when Ms. Kawananakoa was chair of the Friends of 'Iolani Palace, the organization which oversees the preservation of the Palace as a museum and cultural treasure. An ethnic Hawaiian of far lower genealogy, Jim Bartels, was the long-time curator of the museum and greatly respected among ethnic Hawaiians and in the wider community. Life Magazine was taking photographs in the Palace. Ms. Kawananakoa sat for a photograph -- she sat in the chair that is the throne last sat in by Lili'uokalani! That was incredibly bad behavior from someone who is not a Queen, although she publicly stated that she is in fact entitled by genealogy to be the Queen. It also damaged some of the threads of the fabric of the historically valuable century-old seat. Mr. Bartels was furious and demanded that she get out. The issue became public. Mr. Bartels was fired (he said he resigned). But the ethnic Hawaiian community and the wider community almost universally sided with Mr. Bartels. He soon got a new job next door as curator at Washington Place (Lili'uokalani's personal home and also the modern-day Governor's Mansion), while Ms. Kawananakoa resigned from the board in disgrace and took home historical treasures that were her personal possessions; and she was only rarely heard from thereafter. Thus Mr. Bartels, of far lower genealogical rank than Ms. Kawananakoa, ended up winning a political struggle with her. To read a newspaper description of Abigail Kawananakoa, including a photo of her and a brief description of why she feels entitled to the throne, see:


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