The great abundance in ancient Hawai‘i did not come easy: it was the hard-won product of a society that very consciously sought to create it. Nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian David Malo likened the whole of ancient Hawaiian society to the human body. The head was the mō‘ī or supreme chief; the chest was nā ali‘i, the lower chiefs, and the konohiki; the right arm was the kāhuna nui, the religious leaders; the left arm, the kālaimoku, or administrators. The fingers were the people; the right leg, the farmers and fishermen; the left leg, the warriors. It’s a metaphor that geographer Dr. Kamana Beamer finds very moving.
“You get a sense of society like that that it’s an embodied person, and the head can’t live independent of the rest of its body so you need the fingers, the arms, the legs in order for that entire society to thrive.”
Beamer believes that Hawaiian society succeeded in creating a perfect balance of top down and bottom up. It was top down because of the kapu, or restrictions, that were put in place; and it was bottom up because land divisions were designed to provide everyone with access to resources.
“If you have this unique balance and the community is empowered and they’re the ones that are out on the ‘āina every day, if you can empower that and bridge it with enough regulation and order, you have incredible success and at a high level that’s what this system did.”