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He Inoa no Kūali‘i

Kīhei de Silva

This paper was first presented on the steps of ‘Iolani Palace, Sept. 13, 2001, for the Hawaiian Historical Society’s program "Nā Mele ‘Aimoku, In Praise of the Chief." The paper was subsequently revised and redelivered at an encore performance of that program on Nov. 16, 2003.


Aloha nā paemoku o ke one hānau, mai Hawai‘i nui kua uli ‘āina o Keawe a hiki loa i kēlā piko ‘o Lehua ka pīkai. Aloha o‘u ‘ōiwi o ka pupu‘u ho‘okahi, aloha nā kini o ka ‘ewe, ka i‘o, ka iwi, a me ke koko o ka iwikuamo‘o ho‘okahi. Aloha welina pumehana kākou pākahi āpau.


"He Inoa no Kūali‘i," literally "A Name Chant in Honor of Kūali‘i," celebrates the genealogy, accomplishments, and attributes of this 17th century O‘ahu chief and is the ninth selection in the Hawaiian Historical Society’s newly republished Nā Mele ‘Aimoku: Dynastic Chants, Ancestral Chants, and Personal Chants of King Kalākaua I. Although the mele predates Kalākaua by several hundred years, it is given a prominent place in Kalākaua’s birthday book because it confers on Kalākaua the legitimacy of an unbroken line of succession that reaches back to the beginnings of time itself, and because it celebrates the qualities of chiefly skill, excellence, resilience, and self-determination by which Kalākaua defined his own rise to power and right to rule.

"He Inoa no Kūali‘i" begins on page 76 of the current volume and runs for 674 lines. I am not equipped, with either time or understanding, to walk anyone through each of these deep and beautiful lines. What I will do, instead, is provide a biography of Kūali‘i, review the legendary context of his chant’s composition, offer an outline of the chant’s structure, and identify the differences between Nā Mele ‘Aimoku and the better-known Fornander versions of the chant.

The Biography of Kūali‘i

Kūali‘i was born at Kalapawai, Kailua, Ko‘olaupoko, O‘ahu. His piko-cutting ceremony, announced by the sacred drums ‘Ōpuku and Hāwea, was conducted at ‘Alāla Heiau above Pu‘u o Ehu—what is now commonly and incorrectly called "Lanikai Point." He was raised in Kailua and Kualoa and established his court at Kalanihale on Kailua’s ‘Alele plain, now commonly and incorrectly called "Dune Circle." He was the great-great-grandson of Kākuhihewa on the Nanaulu line through Kalonaiki, and he came to power in the 17th century. He did not initially rule the Kona, ‘Ewa, Wai‘anae, and Wailua districts of the island, and much of what we know about him involves the history of the battles by which he subjugated the chiefs of these districts and extended his sway to Hilo, Moloka‘i and Lāna‘i.

There is a definite mythic quality to much of Kūali‘i’s biography. He is credited with prodigious strength, extraordinary skill at running and leaping, and the power of drying up the ocean beneath his feet when speeding along the inner reefs of O‘ahu. He is said to have participated incognito in many of his major battles: he would slip into the fray, single-out the opposing chiefs, defeat them, and slip away with their feather cloaks. Kūali‘i is described, finally, as something of a Hawaiian Methuselah. He is said to have been born in 1555 and to have lived for 175 years. In his final years, he was carried about in a koko, a network of cords, but he is described as having been blessed to the very last with unusual strength and vigor. Martha Beckwith, in Hawaiian Mythology, hypothesizes that his long life and the Lono names of his many opponents indicate "that we have here a legend, not of a single chief, but of a political movement led in the name of a god, perhaps Kū, and directed against the Lono worshippers." ‘O ia paha.

The Legendary Context of the Mele

Abraham Fornander, in his Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities, v. IV, offers a detailed account of the context in which the Kūali‘i chant was composed and first delivered. Fornander identifies it as the work of two brothers, Kapaʻahulani and Kamaka‘aulani, who were noted priests engaged in the process of ‘imi haku—of seeking to better their station by attaching themselves to new ali‘i. They compose a highly flattering chant in Kūali‘i’s honor, attach themselves to Kūali‘i and his rival chief at Ko‘olauloa, one brother to each, and then instigate a battle between these ali‘i. Just before the two armies come to blows, Kapa‘ahulani intervenes by chanting "He Inoa no Kūali‘i." The Ko‘olauloa chief is so intimidated by this account of Kūali‘i’s superiority that he withdraws from battle and cedes his district to Kūali‘i. Kūali‘i, for his part, is so pleased with the mele that he accepts Ko‘olauloa’s surrender. The ‘imi haku brothers, for their part, share the rewards given to Kapa‘ahulani for saving Ko‘olauloa from certain slaughter. Neither ali‘i, we are told, ever learns of the brothers’ duplicity. The legend concludes with the following note: "When the king of Kaua‘i heard how Kūali‘i excelled over all the others in war, and how he had gained the victory, he came to meet Kūali‘i and gave him Kaua‘i, and by this act Kūali‘i became possessed of all the islands from Kaua‘i to Ni‘ihau." The legend, then, credits Kūali‘i with Kamehameha’s accomplishment—bringing the pae moku under one rule—a century or more before Kamehameha’s time.

The Structure of the Mele

Whether "He Inoa no Kūali‘i" was composed by Kapa‘ahulani and Kamaka‘aulani, or by another set of now-forgotten haku mele—or by a series of haku mele who added to it and reshaped it over the generations—it is a work of extraordinary skill. I think I can best give you a sense of this skill by offering an outline of the mele’s structure. It is, in my analysis at least, a three-parter: the first and last sections are of about equal length—170 or so lines each—while the middle section is a little more than twice that length. The first section is genealogical and provides us with a sense of Kūali‘i’s place in a universe of successive, unbroken relationships. The genealogy given here originates with the cliffs and gods of the cosmogonic past, leads down to Papa and Wākea, touches on Hāloa, Ki‘i, and Nanaulu, and comes to rest at Maui-a-Kalana, the immediate ancestor of the ‘Aikanaka line from which Kūali‘i ultimately descends. The focus, though, is on Maui, on Maui asserting his claims to supremacy, on Maui’s relationship with Kāne and Kanaloa, and especially on Maui pulling up the islands with his hook Mānaiakalani. When we recognize, in the next section of the chant, that Kūali‘i’s war club is also named Mānaiakalani, we get an inkling of how the composers of Kūali‘i’s name chant meant to identify Kūali‘i as the Maui of his age. Kūali‘i asserts his supremacy over his rival chiefs, he exhibits god-like qualities, he displays unrivaled skill and intelligence, and he joins the islands under one rule with his war club Mānaiakalani.

The long, second part of the mele focuses on Kūali‘i in two capacities: first as a voyager and master of the elements, then as a warrior and master of men. Kūali‘i-the-voyager is portrayed most often in language suggestive of a shark—he moves at will between the islands and along their coastlines, he overwhelms everything he meets and brings all of it under his sway. The following passage, for example, describes the people he encounters as stunned, squinty-faced ‘o‘opu who go belly-up in his presence, and it describes the red lei hala as emblematic of his power

Ke holo nei Kū i Kaua‘i
E ‘ike i ka ‘o‘opu o Hanakapī‘ai
Ke ho‘i nei Kū i Oʻahu
I ‘ike i ka ‘o‘opu kū‘ia
Iʻa hilahila o Kawainui
E lana nei i loko o ka wai
A pala ka hala, ‘ula ka ‘ā‘ī—e

Kū is traveling to Kaua‘i
To see the small-eyed ‘o‘opu of Hanakapī‘ai
He is returning to O‘ahu to see the stunned ‘o‘opu
The shy-faced fish of Kawainui
Who float at the water’s surface
When the hala is ripe, the neck becomes red

The voyager portion of the mele’s second section draws to a close with a sequence of questions and answers that, like the genealogy of the first section, places Kūali‘i at the center of a network of natural relationships that he has secured through his own daring, skill, and effort. "‘O ka makani, iā wai ka makani? Iā Kū nō." "The wind," the mele asks, "for whom is the wind?" "For Kūali‘i," it answers, "for Kū indeed." "The stars, for whom are the stars? For Kū, indeed. The rain, for whom is the rain? For Kū, indeed. The sun, for whom is the sun? For Kū, indeed. The sea, for whom is the sea? For Kū, indeed."

As the chant moves to address the next question, "the land, for whom is the land?," it develops a series of metaphors extolling Kūali‘i’s power as a warrior-chief. For example:

He is the great war axe from below Kona
The handle, the axe, the cord, the cover,
Take it, bind it, wind it round,
And cut down the foundations of Kahiki

Kūali‘i, in addition, is referred to as a fishhook, a cliff-climber, a birdcatcher, a canoe-breaker, a plucker of flowers, and a desolator of villages. Then, after more than a hundred lines of poetry devoted to this litany of powers, we find ourselves immersed in specific accounts of four of Kūali‘i’s battles: first in Nu‘uanu against the Kona chiefs of O‘ahu; second in Kalena and Malamanui against the chiefs of ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae; third in Hilo against the chief Ha‘alilo; and fourth in Kalena and Malamanui—again—against the rebellious ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae chiefs. In each of these battles, the enemy is routed, and after each rout we are reminded: "‘O Kū nō ke ali‘i – Kū, indeed, is the ali‘i." When the mele has established, beyond a doubt, the impossibility of defeating Kūali‘i, part two of the chant concludes with a direct appeal to Kūali‘i to refrain from engaging in battle against Ko‘olauloa: "Stand forth at the call, the pleading; turn not a deaf ear; do not show anger to your house or to its walls, mats, bedcoverings, robes, and pillows. These are not your enemy, and we are not your enemy."

In Fornander’s recounting of the legend and chant, these words belong to the priest Kapa‘ahulani; they are delivered at the moment when Kūali‘i is lifted in his netting for all to see, and they are aimed at persuading Kūali‘i to view Ko‘olauloa as a loyal part of his Ko‘olau house. He should no more direct his anger against Ko‘olauloa than he should direct it against the inanimate objects of his own residence.

The third and final section of "He Inoa no Kūali‘i" is almost entirely devoted to a beautiful series of non-comparisons. The poet struggles to find similes worthy of Kūali‘i, but he comes up short, time and time again. Instead, he advances a catalog of natural objects and phenomena—all of them admirable, beautiful, and worthy—to which Kū, in his splendor, cannot be compared. For example:

Perhaps he is like the ‘ōhi‘a
The lehua in the very ninth recess of the forest
The tree standing alone in the wild.
‘A‘ole. ‘A‘ole i like Kū. No, not like these is Kū...
Not like the porpoise
With his snout that spouts up the sea
His body in the water where dwells the shark,
‘A‘ole i like Kū. Not like these is Kū...
Not like the Wa‘ahila wind
The cold wind of Kahaloa
Scattering blossoms of kou
Stringing them into garlands and carrying them
To wreath the sea of Kapua.
‘A‘ole i like Kū. Not like these is Kū.
Not like the red kamani
The bright catcher of birds
Nor like bundles of lei hala
Or blossoms of the kaʻa vine
Whose leaves make music for Kū.
‘A‘ole i like Kū. Not like these is Kū.

After 130 of these "‘A‘ole i like" lines, lines that I think are without precedent in Hawaiian poetry, the mele finally arrives at a worthy comparison

Ua like; aia kā kou hoa e like ai,
‘O Keawe‘īkekahiali‘iokamoku,
‘O Keawe haku o Hawai‘i,
He ‘awaʻawa ho‘i ko ke kai,
He mānalonalo ho‘i ko ka wai,
He welawela ho‘i ko ka lā,
He mahana ho‘i ko ku‘u ‘ili

Yet there is an equal. There is one to whom Kū can be compared,
It is Keawe‘īkekahiali‘iokamoku,
Keawe lord of Hawai‘i,
Bitter is the salt water,
Sweet is the freshwater,
Hot is the sun,
Warm is my skin

The water and sun references that follow after Keawe’s name probably allude to the godlike powers attributed to the two chiefs: Keawe was credited with the ability to turn salt water into fresh; Kūali‘i with the sun-like power of drying up the sea beneath his feet. The two ali‘i, our chant continues, are more like gods than men. Kūali‘i is an emissary from heaven and an equal of Kū, Kāne, Lono, and Kanaloa. Kūali‘i, like his ancestor Mauiakalana, controls the sun. The sun is Kūali‘i’s gift to us. With it comes warmth and well being. With it, the chant concludes, the rebellion of Kona’s chiefs is brought to an end

E aʻe, e puka aʻe ka lā
Ka mana o Kūleonui
Hā‘awi ‘ia mai ai ka lā
Māhana ai nā ali‘i ‘au‘a o Kona.

Behold, the sun issues forth
It is through the mana of Kū
That the sun is given to us
And that the stingy chiefs of Kona are warmed

The Mele’s Sources

Many of us are familiar with the Abraham Fornander text of "He Mele no Kuali‘i." It has been easily accessible for a long time, since it appears in both his An Account of the Polynesian Race and his Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities. In the first of these publications, Fornander explains that his text is based on a study of four early versions of the mele: one from Hawaiʻi island, one from Oʻahu, and two provided by Samuel Kamakau. Fornander then assures us that "the text I have followed is as nearly correct as such things can be when handed down by oral tradition only."

Now, one of the worst mistakes you can make in Hawaiian scholarship is to take a statement of this sort at face value: there is almost never a definitive text and there is certainly never an end to the work of ‘imi nowelo—the persistent seeking of knowledge. I admit, however, to ignoring my own advice here and to complacently treating Fornander as definitive. Fornander’s version begins with the lines "He ‘elele ki‘i na Maui / Kiʻi aku iā Kāne mā – A messenger sent by Maui to fetch Kāne and his companions." You can imagine my reaction, then, when I opened my complimentary copy of Nā Mele ‘Aimoku and found something entirely different. It takes 113 lines for Nā Mele ‘Aimoku to finally arrive at Fornander’s "He ‘elele ki‘i na Maui." These "new" lines provide us with a genealogy that begins at the sacred cliffs of Palikū and Paliha‘i, takes us to the parents of Papa, wife of Wākea, and from them to the opening star of Fornander’s show: Mauiakalana.

The transition, in Nā Mele ‘Aimoku, from genealogy to Maui is seamless; there is no sense of it being a tacked-on, later addition. It obviously belongs. When we compare the whole of the Fornander version with the whole of the Nā Mele ‘Aimoku version, we can make three observations:

1. Nā Mele ‘Aimoku provides us with an additional 113 lines of text.

2. Nā Mele ‘Aimoku’s remaining 561 lines of text constitute—with frequent orthographic variations, occasional line omissions, and one  significant exception—the complete Fornander text.

3. This significant exception is a 19-line passage in the voyager section of the chant in which Kūali‘i journeys to distant Kahiki, encounters white men, compares them to gods, and alone survives to tell the tale. This passage is not included in Nā Mele ‘Aimoku and follows after line 233 of the Nā Mele ‘Aimoku text.

The Nā Mele ‘Aimoku text—with its huge, "new," opening section—roused in me enough energy to inspire a Bishop Museum Archive Mele Manuscript search. It turns out that there are at least 17 Kūali‘i mele or mele fragments housed in the BMA. Six of these mele comprise a complete Kūali‘i chant published serially in Nupepa Kuokoa between April 11 and 23, 1868. This version opens not with Fornander’s "He ‘elele ki‘i na Maui," but with Nā Mele ‘Aimoku’s "‘O Kalua-nu‘u, ‘o Kū-hāli‘i i ka hālau." Of the seven remaining, complete texts, six begin with these same Nā Mele ‘Aimoku lines; only one—that cited by Fornander as Kamakau’s gift to Andrews and Lyons—begins with Fornander’s "He ‘elele ki‘i na Maui."

My next-to-last thought for tonight, then, is that the republication of Nā Mele ‘Aimoku points up a need for careful reading, review, and comparison of the texts that did and did not contribute to Fornander’s "He Inoa no Kūali‘i." Nā Mele ‘Aimoku also points up the need to revise our opinion of the Fornander version of the chant. It’s my guess that Fornander’s will eventually be viewed as a valuable but supplementary text to the more complete version that appears here in Nā Mele ‘Aimoku.

Concluding Thoughts

My final thoughts in this talk have to do with identifying a link between "He Inoa no Kūali‘i" and the context of today’s gathering and the week immediately ahead of us. That link, in fact, is fairly obvious. The Kūali‘i chant is more than four centuries old and celebrates an unbroken connection of our people, our ‘ōiwi, from the most distant reaches of time. That connection is no less important, or definitive, or real to us in the 21st century than it was to Kalākaua in the 19th or to Kūali‘i in the 17th. We do not belong, in this respect, to the world of Goemans, Rice, Arakaki, Burgess, Mohica Cummings, and "unnamed plaintiffs." We do not view our legacy as quaint folklore, as irrelevant to the law of nations. We cannot allow our succession, our unbroken connection of relationships, rights, and responsibilities to be violated by wolves of self-interest cloaked in the sheepskins of equality. Our legacy is our own and should not be shaped by hands other than our own

‘A‘ole. ‘A‘ole i like Hawai‘i.
‘A‘ole i like nā kini o ka ‘ewe, ka iʻo, ka iwi, a me ke koko o ka pupuʻu hoʻokahi o ka iwikuamoʻo hoʻokahi.

Not like them is Hawaiʻi. Not like them are we who are connected by afterbirth, flesh, bone, and blood to the one womb of a single family.

© Kihei de Silva, 2003.

Nameleaimoku216  large

photo courtesy of: Hawaiian Historical Society

Nā Mele ʻAimoku, republished in 2001 by the Hawaiian Historical Society. "Created as a gift to honor King David Kalākaua, this is the only book of Hawaiian poetic compositions published during the Hawaiian Monarchy period. It represents, in modern form, the ancient practice of composing and performing chants specifically to honor the ruling chief . . . The privately published collection reprinted here was a commemorative gift to the king and special associates at the elaborate, two-week celebration held to mark King Kalākaua’s fiftieth birthday in 1886. Only seven copies of the original are known to exist today." (From Puakea Nogelmeier’s introduction to the HHS reprint, xi.)

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